“FROM MYSTIC WRITING PADS TO VIDEO INSTALLATIONS, ANTHOLOGIZING THE ARCHIVE:
A REVIEW OF CHARLES MEREWETHER, ED. THE ARCHIVE (LONDON, CAMBRIDGE, AND MASSACHUSETTS: WHITECHAPEL GALLERY AND THE MIT PRESS, 2006)”
Art in the twentieth and early-twenty first centuries has increasingly concerned itself with history, memory, testimony and identity and has done so through a turn to the archive, one of art’s most potent developments since the 1960s of which Christian Boltanski, Aby Warburg and Gerhard Richter are the most obvious representatives but that also touches upon the work of Andy Warhol, Nicole Jolicoeur, Eugenio Dittborn, Ilya Kabakov, Susan Hiller and The Atlas Group. In The Archive editor Charles Merewether brings together writings on contemporary art, or relevant for its study, written by theorists, critics, curators and artists. The book appears in the series Documents of Contemporary Art, a joint project by White Chapel Gallery, London and The MIT Press, aimed to map the ways in which visual culture engages with an ever more pluralistic environment and in which each volume zooms in on a specific topic that has influenced art and art history worldwide. In this volume ‘the archival’, in art is to be understood not so much referring to the dusty and often romanticized archive of the traditional historian’s daily practice, but metaphorically, in terms of traces, inscriptions, contestations and retracings. Essentially, the volume revolves around questions of whether to keep things or throw them out, how to order them if they are kept, how to say goodbye if they are discarded, and to what extent art itself constitutes an archive.
The book is divided into four sections. The texts in ‘Traces’ shed light on residual marks left by events and experiences and thus on the indexical relationship between art and archives. The section opens with Sigmund Freud’s ‘A Note upon the Mystic Writing-Pad’ – his classic analogy between the children’s toy and the systems of the human mind that simultaneously retain and erase memories – and closes with artist, filmmaker and author Renée Green’s ‘Survival: Ruminations on Archival Lacunae’ in which she asks the fundamental question: ‘In what ways are what we remember, memorialize, organize and archive predicated on chance operations?’
‘Inscriptions’, consisting of only four texts, shows how laws of the archive have been inscribed in definitions of the body and the document. It features work by Walter Benjamin, Paul Ricoeur, Allan Sekula and Jacques Derrida. In an extract of Archive Fever Derrida returns to Freud’s ‘A Note upon the Mystic Writing-Pad’ and combines it with Beyond the Pleasure Principle to arrive at an understanding of the death drive as something that ‘destroys in advance its own archive’ (78). He goes on to suggest that ‘the death drive is above all anarchivic, one could say, or archiviolithic. It will always have been archive destroying, by silent vocation’ (78).
In the next section, the largest of the book, titled ‘Contestations’ Hal Foster sheds new light on the radical undermining of the archival desire when he looks at contemporary artists-as-archivists, a phenomenon that most often entails an assumption of fragmentation as a fundamental condition of the archival. Other texts and extracts in this section include Benjamin Buchloh’s analysis of the visual atlases constructed by Warburg and Richter, interviews with Okwui Enwezor on memorials and with Anthony Spira on Polish film archives and Merewether’s own ‘A Language to Come: Japanese Photography after the Event.’
Finally, ‘Retracings’ presents texts that speak against the dominant construction of archives as historical records and its societal, political and cultural effects. What the texts in these last two sections have in common are their reflection on how post-war artistic practices have worked to juxtapose individual and group archives with institutional and organizational archives and thus laying bare a countermemory. Or in Merewether’s words: ‘… the work of these artists is anti-monumental, standing against the monumental history of the state’ (16).
Essentially, all of the sections contain texts that are critical of the very notions that give the sections their titles; texts that reveal the vulnerability of traces, that discuss the absence of inscription, that scrutinize the nature of countermemorial contestations and that doubt the power of the archive in retracing the past.
The book’s value lies in its diversity. The Documents of Contemporary Art series calls its volumes ‘source books’ that provide access to a ‘plurality of voices and perspectives’. And indeed, The Archive brings together classic texts, hard-to-come-by flyleaves, pamphlets, artists’ statements and interviews covering nearly a century, the oldest from 1925 (Freud), the most recent from 2006 (Jayce Salloum’s ‘Sans titre/Untitled: The Video Installation as an Active Archive’). The book’s richness also comes to the fore when one tries to read across the four sections and discovers cross-references connecting texts into other categories based on art forms such as installations and photography, on metaphors like the atlas and the box or on concepts of memory and testimony.
To achieve as much diversity as is possible under 200 pages Merewether has chosen to print extracts of longer pieces alongside the characteristically short flyleaves and artist’s statements. This approach has both advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, it makes for an anthology that is clean-cut, crisp and fresh. Its texts are short, some no longer than one or two pages, with only two 18-page articles standing out. It also enables Merewether to highlight those passages relevant for the archival in art. On the other hand, presenting extracts instead of full texts implies that these texts were produced in a vacuum, independent of a larger argument and only in connection to the selected texts.
What an anthology like this needs is an introduction that works to do at least two things: contextualize the pieces and tie them together. Merewether who is an art historian and writer and currently Director at the Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore, does provide us with a concise, to-the-point introduction in which he skilfully summarizes the texts and establishes relationships between them, aligning them and juxtaposing them to such an extent that they seem to form a universe in itself. In ‘Archigraphia: On the Future of Testimony and the Archive to Come’ Dragan Kujundzic speaks to the texts of Freud, Michel Foucault, Giorgio Agamben and Derrida elsewhere in the volume. Green’s text is effectively a dialogue between Agamben and her own artistic practice. And the two-and-a-half pages from Agamben’s The Archive and Testimony are in turn a reply to Foucault’s historical a priori.
However, in terms of contextualization one wishes that Merewether’s introduction, compiled of potent one-paragraph analyses of texts, had been more extensive to include reflections on the authors’ positions and about the social, cultural or political circumstances of the creation of their art. What exactly is ‘the monumental history of the state’? What do the historical records try to accomplish? What exactly does the art – that the volume builds on but does not show, with the exception of a fragment of Richter’s Atlas, Sheet 9 on the cover – represent and remediate, doubt and deny?
Fortunately, the texts itself largely make up for this as they comment on the world at large, the world contemporary art cannot do without, especially not art that seeks to confront history, memory, testimony and identity. In this sense it are the three short texts by The Atlas Group and from The Atlas Group Archive that stand out most in that they clearly start from a political engagement in contemporary history, in this case that of Lebanon. The Atlas Group is an imaginary non-profit research foundation established in 1999 by Lebanese born artist Walid Ra’ad who currently lives and works in New York both as an artist and as Associate Professor of Art. The group aims to ‘locate, preserve, study and produce audio, visual, literary and other artifacts’ (theatlasgroup.org). The Atlas Group Archive thus exists of (constructed) notebooks, videotapes, photographs and other material that document the Lebanese Civil War and that the group then uses in video installations, collages, performances and other expressive forms. In ‘The Operator #17 file’ (from 2000) and ‘The Secret File’ (2002) The Atlas Group comments on what they call ‘found files,’ files produced by the group and attributed to anonymous individuals. Operator #17 is a Lebanese Army intelligence officer who chose to point his surveillance camera at the sun during sunset instead of at the assigned target at the Corniche, a seaside boardwalk in Beirut. The Atlas Group Archive holds a videotape that tells the operator’s story and includes the footage of the sunset he was allowed to keep after he was dismissed from service.
Interestingly, in a footnote Merewether remarks, without further explanation, that these three texts were written before ‘the events of July 2006.’ He is referring to the 2006 Israel-Lebanon conflict, followed by the Lebanon War that was the beginning of a series of conflicts in the region leading up to the government collapse in 2011. The selections of Ra’ad in The Archive deal exclusively with the 1970-1990 civil war but the nature of his work will lead him to focus on these most recent events as well. In 2011 Ra’ad was awarded the 2011 Hasselblad Foundation International Award in Photography in recognition of his continuing efforts to deconstruct the relationship between documentary photography, history and the archive.
But one cannot help wonder if perhaps some texts in the volume speak for themselves. Can they? And should they? Perhaps some do not need an extensive introduction distinguishing between contemporary Japanese photography and French nineteenth century photography, between the artistic climate in Europe and the United States, between psychoanalysis and pop art. Perhaps the texts and extracts collected by Merewether do constitute a universe in themselves in which art engages with the archive, is in dialogue with the archive or becomes the archive. Perhaps it is enough to just read Warhol’s words:
…now I just drop everything in the same-size cardboard boxes that have a colour patch on the side for the month of the year. I really hate nostalgia, though, so deep down I hope they all get lost and I never have to look at them again (31).
All in all, Merewether has done students of contemporary art, or any form of visual culture for that matter, a great favour by collecting these texts in such an attractively designed volume in which typographic compositions of authors’ quotes make up for the absence of illustrations. Ultimately, this anthology is a valuable survey and if not the end-station then, with the aid of the biographical notes and the extensive bibliography, the first step into a world of theoretical writings, artists’ philosophies, and a plethora of oeuvres all dealing with the archival condition of art and life itself.