Maggi Hambling, 69, is one of Britain’s most distinguished and controversial artists. In 2013 she created the installation “War Requiem” as part of the Aldeburgh festival, celebrating the centenary of Benjamin Britten. Daniel Libeskind, also 69, is the Polish-American architect behind both the Jewish Museum in Berlin and the reconstruction of the World Trade Centre site in New York
I first felt the full impact of Libeskind’s work when I entered a particular room of the Jewish Museum in 2005.
That extraordinary building, with its tilting corridors, puts you in a strange and unsettled state of mind. I hadn’t experienced anything like it before. Of course you have slanting stairs in old houses, or uneven floors in churches, but to encounter such strange physical effects in a contemporary building produced a singular sensation. At the end of one of the tilted walkways was a room which visitors entered alone. It was the most chilling place I’ve ever been – a vertical concrete space with nothing on the walls, just a very high window on the right and a high, short ladder on the left. It instilled a sense of being left alone to face the emptiness; the room was full of horror without there being any horrific imagery. The eloquence of Libeskind’s architecture was to invoke the Holocaust through that sheer sense of alienation.
That experience was a crucial part of the inspiration for my “War Requiem” – paintings of anonymous war victims and battlefields accompanied by an excerpt from Britten’s requiem mass. When I began to work on the paintings for the installation, I realised I wanted to present it in the dovecote, a freestanding building in Snape Maltings whose interior, in both its height and emptiness, is similar to Libeskind’s room in Berlin. The structure has a burnt-out quality – it’s a strange, rusty metal box rising up out of the remains of a previous building. The haunting experiences of Libeskind’s room and of Britten’s music came together in my thinking.
Back in 2001, Libeskind had to face the aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Centre: after what had happened, he had to deal with the here and now. In a similar way, my “Aftermath” sculptures – rotting pieces of wood which I had found and encouraged into life by taking bits away and adding bits on – deal with the fallout of war, the fact that life goes on after war, after 9/11. There’s a sense, in this kind of process, of putting the human spirit back together again after a disaster.
Like Libeskind, I work from the imagination, upending or deconstructing something in order to create something new. I haven’t responded to any other contemporary architect in such a profound way as I have to him.