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28  |   P S A L T E R  I
Wall piece, 1997/98
Stained and painted wood
114.5 x 45 x 2 cm.



To this day, the once-significant prosperity of the Baltic Hansestadt of Stralsund is reflected in its three large, brick-Gothic churches, whose roofs and towers, like the masts and sails of so many stately ships, dominate the city’s splendid harbor skyline. The construction of all three—Sankt-Nikolai (St. Nicholas’s), the oldest; the Marienkirche (St. Mary’s), the largest; and Sankt-Jakobi (St. James’s), the smallest and youngest of the triad—had commenced within decades of the town’s receiving its charter, in 1234, making them as ancient as they are impressive. Indeed, from 1625 to 1647, when her steeple was struck by lightning and destroyed, St. Mary’s was the tallest structure in the world, measuring 151 meters, top to toe.

Matthäus Merian der Ältere (1593–1650), Cityscape of Stralsund, engraving, Stralsunder Stadtarchiv.

In June 1997, three a half centuries after that record had to be relinquished to Strasbourg Cathedral, as I wandered within the vast expanses of Sankt-Marien’s long-denuded nave and aisles—from the Reformation to the present, the churches’ interiors have been repeatedly robbed and ravaged by calamity, neglect, and willful violation—the sight of a wooden hymn board, still displaying the numbers of the psalm and songs of the last service (or announcing those of the next?) stopped me in my tracks. Throughout the years—of which, in the case of this particular hymn board, there had probably been as few as fifty—many of its interchangeable number tiles had clearly been refitted by less than gifted hands than those which had wrought the few original ones which remained, while time’s passage had been less than kind to the frame holding those numbers as well—granted that, even in its salad days, the construction and appearance of the whole can only have been of the most touching plainness.

PSALTER I, wall piece, 114.5 x 45 x 2 cm, stained and painted wood, 1997/98.

Yet, for all this homeliness and dilapidation, the simplicity of that upright wooden frame and the immediacy of the unadorned Arabic numerals it contained so piqued my interest that I took a snapshot to serve as an aide-memoire. Back in Berlin, I soon made a copy of it, one-to-one in shape and size, as the first of three work I called PSALTER I, II, and III. By reconstructing it, I hoped to express, and possibly preserve, the sheer delight I’d felt in chancing on its unassuming form, so plainspoken and undaunted in its management of Number. However, although I produced my “knock-off” Stralsunder hymn board as faithfully as I could from that photograph, I did so as I imagined the original to have been in the altogether relative glory of its salad days: the golden-brown stain of the spruced-up frame now sports a silken sheen; and all the readily legible figures on its number shingles are once more in the same hand—albeit, in the spirit of their unwitting prototypes, they’re numerals of as primitive a stamp as I could bear to put my name to.

Whereas most of these shingles can be slid back and forth, to the left and right—if one is so inclined and as far as there is room—their sequence cannot be altered without first removing one of the wooden side pieces, thus effectively defeating the function of an actual hymn board; not to mention that, rather than the accustomed information regarding hymns to be sung and psalms to be chanted, and as a nod in the direction of a different class of permanence, the numerals whose order is so dictated comprise the ever-obliging Fibonacci Series’ first sixteen terms—its single-, double-, and triple-digit numbers, that is—albeit with the crucial adjustment that they are not presented as the uniformly additive progression 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, 233, 377, 610, 987, but peppered with plus signs placed demonstratively between the one- and two-digit terms in every other row—as if publishing the verses of an imaginary liturgy’s fictitious “three-digit hymns.”




On a fine April evening two months before I stumbled upon the original hymn board, I had stood on Stralsund’s New Market Square, before the massive form of the Marienkirche, and watched the two-tailed Hale-Bopp comet—discovered, incidentally, on my father’s birthday, two years earlier—make its way across the sky. Yet as thrilling as that sighting surely was, for me it had been no more than a reunion with a familiar spirit, which had but recently kept me company, during the flight on which I returned to Germany from weeks of vigil at my sister’s bedside, in Des Moines. Seemingly just beyond my port-side window’s small, chill glass, it had raced along beside us through the night, until we met the dawn over the Continent, where the comet had continued on its way, as our aircraft began its slow descent to the early morning busyness of Frankfurt’s Rhein-Main-Airport.