Tuesday, 1 September 2009

An Island of Heterotopia

At one time the cemetery of St George's Field in Leeds was on the edge of the university campus, but it now appears as an enclave within the campus itself. An aerial photo of the university, taken in 1953, shows it only bordered on one side by the university. Now, in 2009, it is bordered on all sides by university property. Over the years, the university has managed to appropriate the cemetery into its own space (this has been done in a spectacular way on one border of the cemetery: the wall of the cemetery that borders Clarendon Road has become the base of the Henry Price Building, a halls of residence). But, interestingly, the university also manages to somehow hide the cemetery, although it is not clear why this is the case. It is only signposted at the main point of entry, the main gate-house entrance, and no path for pedestrians exists near this entrance, only a road. The cemetery appears as a kind of island in the campus.

In his essay 'Of Other Spaces' Foucault classifies cemeteries as heterotopias. A heterotopia is an physical space that has the ability to incorporate a number of incompatible concepts of space within its single framework (Foucault 2001: 241). For the cemetery, these somewhat contradictory themes involve many aspects. For example, once the body is brought onto the ground of the cemetery it exists in a number of states, up to and including burial, and is regarded differently depending on those states. Foucault explains that it was not until the beginning of the 19th century that every person was given a right to their own box and space of land that accorded it; however, this coincided with the moving of cemeteries to the edge of towns and villages (ibid.). This is what the plaque outside St George's Field says:
Alarmed by the insanitary and overcrowded state of the Parish Church graveyard and body snatching, the Leeds elite bought £25 shares in the Leeds General Cemetery Company. It acquired St George’s Field and created this fine private cemetery, where many Leeds worthies lie.
Architect: John Clarke
Opened 1835

Because dead and decaying bodies brought with them the idea of illness and disease, this disturbed the Victorians, and cemeteries were “no longer the sacred and immortal heart of the city” (ibid.). Because of the acquisition of the cemetery of St George's Field by the Leeds elite, it became a private cemetery for the bourgeoisie. The utopian idea that graveyards enabled a space for everyone in their death, for St George's Fields at least, became changed to that of providing a space for those who could afford it.

Foucault explains that heterotopias are not like utopias, which are “sites with no real space.” (2001: 239). Utopias are unreal in that they are ideas about how society should be (ibid.). However, this notion of utopia is not opposed to heterotopia. Heterotopias are spaces that contain utopian notions but are different from all the other sites that they are connected to: “I believe that between utopias and these quite other sites, these heterotopias, there might be a sort of mixed, joint experience, which could be the mirror.” (ibid.). They are places where one sees oneself in a shadow-like form (ibid.).

Previously cemeteries (and churches) were the locus of the village, town or city, because they were tied in with the family, their history and lineage (2001: 241). The identity of the individual was heavily indebted to the family, and this was tied to geographical space at a time when people could not move about like they can today. The church, the centre of worship and congregation (and the moral compass), was attached to the cemetery which housed the bodies of dead relatives, providing a history for the family, and a security in a past, and hence a future. In their minds people could see themselves there in the graveyard: in the graves of their forefathers and in their own future place after death; like the mirror-effect of which Foucault speaks. The decline of the city-state, which came with the moving of the cemeteries to the outside of the centre of cultural space, heralds the beginning of a shift in cultural identity. This foreshadowed the decline of the concept of nation-state a century later.

What makes St George's Field particularly interesting as a heterotopia, is that in addition to the layers of meaning of space already associated with it because it is a cemetery, are those that have come about in recent history. Since the University of Leeds (and the accompanying Trust) became responsible for its upkeep, the space has changed again. The whole area has been landscaped, which has involved, among other things: making the original gravestones into paving stones that have become the actual paths of the cemetery; and relocating some gravestones into little oases, for the purposes of the aesthetics of the space, for example, by grouping them together under trees. Therefore, the bodies interned there cannot be located by their gravestones. This still causes distress for relatives today: Christine Bairstow wrote to the Yorkshire Evening Post in 2008, to protest about the fact she cannot locate her twin sister who died in 1946 (McTaggart 2008: 1). This makes the mirror motif of Foucault's even more complex. Christine Bairstow's twin (genetically as close a person to oneself that one can ever know) exists somewhere under the earth of the cemetery and cannot be located by her sister: she is simultaneously there and not there. This notion, while highlighting one of the qualities of a heterotopia, does not provide the counterpoint of the 'true' mirror: Christine knows her sister's body exists somewhere under the surface of the cemetery, but she cannot locate the actual point in space. On one of the dérives, a memorial to Christine's twin sister was discovered. She was 6 months old when she died.

In its redevelopment, another space has been juxtaposed on the cemetery: it is now a place of historic value in that it forms an archive for the university and for historians in general; it is also a space of aesthetic beauty, somewhere to be visited and admired for its landscaping and interesting architecture. It, too, provides a place of controversy: people cannot locate their relatives in space, since the gravestones have been relocated. In addition, the chapel (figure 9) now houses part of the university library archive. It is not used as a place of worship, but a place of storage. The God of religion has been replaced by technology's output, the God of bureaucracy. The space of the cemetery at St George's Field hangs on to a tenuous relationship with its past. Through its re-appropriation by the university - spatially and functionally - it has moved from sacred place and consecrated ground, to a symbol that reflects the function of the corporate university: the acquisition of property, the disregard of working-class space; and the firm emplacement of bureaucracy in its 'rightful' place at the centre.

Foucault, Michel. 2001. 'Of Other Spaces', The Visual Culture Reader, ed. by Nicholas Mirzooeff (London and New York: Routledge). pp. 237-244.

1 comment:

  1. great post - that space really is an oddity! I'm amazed by both the amount of past and present students un aware of it's existence, and the vast amount of area it takes up when looking at a map or areal photo.

    By not being a park, and not being a proper cemetery, the space is in Limbo, unclassified almost. The little memorials found on the derives seemed to me to be placed surreptitiously, hidden around the back of trees, out of sight.