4. Displaying Research
Published: 11.10.2013
in the series Modernist Revisitations
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Last week I promised a discussion of Goshka Macuga, whose new show at Andrew Kreps Gallery is yet another example of the retrospectivity trend I’ve been tracking in these blog posts. Macuga’s work synthesizes a number of points that addressed in previous weeks: the obsession with modernism, the archival character of contemporary installation art, and the display of information and research. Polish-born, London-based Macuga has made a career out of installations in a distinctly curatorial vein, with display systems harking back to the historic avant-garde, as well as to German Expressionist film sets like The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. In previous works, she’s also incorporated a tapestry of Picasso’s Guernica; Paul Nash’s archive at the Tate; a walk-in model of Oscar Niemeyer’s biennial pavilion in São Paulo; and references to Kala Bhavan, the art school established in 1940 by the Indian poet and artist Rabindranath Tagore. In fact, the latter work is currently on display in London’s Iniva and is titled, appropriately enough, When was Modernism? (2008). In short, she’s a pre-eminent example of contemporary citationality.

Goshka Macuga, from: Sexuality of Atoms (installation view) © Andrew Kreps
In New York right now, Macuga brings us Sexuality of Atoms, an exhibition that features a vitrine of five or six pieces by Czech photographer Miroslav Tichý. Using home-made cameras, Tichý took thousands of clandestine images of women in his home town of Kyjov from the 1960s until the end of the 1980s. Macuga has curated a vitrine of Tichý’s photographs of women, placed alongside some of his kinky underwear designs. Eleven scrappy bits of paper and crude fantasy are laid out for our perusal. On the walls, Macuga has framed fresh prints from battered old Tichý negatives found strewn across the floor after he died in 2011; the negatives are clearly Tichý’s rejects, and so damaged that the resulting images almost disintegrate before your eyes.
Goshka Macuga, Frame for Tichy 16, 2013; from: Sexuality of Atoms (Giclée print with ink on mount board, 22.75 x 18.25; installation view) © Andrew Kreps
Pride of place, however, is the latest in Macuga’s ongoing series of huge black-and-white photo-realist tapestries. This one runs down the wall to extend several feet across the floor. It depicts Karl Marx’s tomb as the leafy setting for a celebratory picnic for a group of women (both clothed and naked), all taken from photos by Tichý. Multiple temporalities coincide in the image—especially during the opening, when a performer sat on the tapestry ‘grass’ wearing a flesh-coloured bodysuit onto which one of Tichý’s maverick underwear designs had been printed. Immediately, the most difficult aspects of Tichý’s practice (its objectification of women and his eroticized relationship to communist state surveillance) were put right out there as central issues.
Goshka Macuga, photo-realist tapestry from Sexuality of Atoms, 2013 (installation view) © Andrew Kreps
All of which leads me to think that the difference between an interesting and a humdrum archival installation depends not on the historical significance of the work being presented, but on the extent to which the artist manages to transform this material into something new and equally idiosyncratic. By making a massive digital photo-collage as the basis of a tapestry, Macuga turns the Tichý archive into a digested new format that is recognizably her own—albeit one where the source material is still visibly the product of others.


The arrangement of archival objects in vitrines, meanwhile, remains a topic that requires analysis in its own right. Nearly a decade ago, Hal Foster laid out the key terms of this ‘archival impulse’ in an article that drew attention to the almost paranoid manner in which artists seek to forge connections between objects, ideas and histories (his best example was Tacita Dean). What he didn’t mention were the two central models for this curatorial tendency to bring disparate, pre-existing objects and artefacts together: Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas (1927-29) and Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project (1927-40).

A handful of essays have connected Goshka Macuga’s work to that of Aby Warburg, especially after she raided the Warburg archives in London to find photographs of his 1896 expedition to visit the Hopi Indians. These photographs were presented alongside installation shots of Robert Morris’s exhibition at the Tate Gallery in 1971 and private photographs from a Vietnam War veteran’s collection—all placed within a display system taken from Herbert Bayer’s design for the Edward Steichen show Road to Victory at MoMA in 1942. This list only scratches the surface of the resulting exhibition, I am Become Death, held at Kunsthalle Basel in 2009, which contained many more objects and references.

From Aby Warburg's Mnemosyne Atlas (1927-29)
Warburg has become a seductive point of reference for contemporary artists because he is seen as the ‘artistic’ art historian. 1 Earlier this year there was even an exhibition called Dear Aby Warburg, What Can Be Done With Images? (Museum für Gegenwartskunst Siegen). In the last decade of his life, he began arranging photographic reproductions of works of art (alongside a handful of contemporary images) onto large black fabric screens as a way to think visually through his arguments. The result, some have claimed, is an ‘art history without words’—a poetic phrase that glosses over how difficult it is to extrapolate anything like the clarity of an argument from his seventy nine Mnemosyne panels. It is especially hard when one doesn’t have prior knowledge of Warburg’s interests: the symbols and archetypes of human expression; the passion of Greek epics subsumed into courtly love narratives; the sublimation of pagan imagery into the Christian tradition.
Walter Benjamin, notes from Arcades Project (1927-40)
Benjamin, by contrast, is both a better known and more misunderstood precedent than Warburg—probably because his epic, unfinished Arcades Project is more verbal than visual. And yet it also anticipates a cut-and-paste culture: assembled entirely out of quotations, the Arcades Project juxtaposes texts, cartoons, prints, photographs, works of art, artifacts, and architecture in thematic constellations called ‘convolutes’. 2 The poet Kenny Goldsmith has been at work on a long-term project to rewrite the Arcades Project for twentieth-century New York. A description of the project, Capital, can be found here. Benjamin’s constellations, like the Mnemosyne Atlas, are quintessentially curatorial: they bring objects and events together in new ways, disrupting established taxonomies, disciplines, mediums, and proprieties. Of course, it’s important to note that Benjamin had a Marxist agenda that is barely detectable in the work of contemporary artists who select and arrange pre-existing images in constellations—from Luis Jacob to Cyprien Gaillard to Peter Piller to Jonathas de Andrade to Nate Lowman to to Wolfgang Tillmans to Henrik Olesen.
Luis Jacob (Album II,) Peter Piller (Shooting Girls,) Wolfgang Tillmans (Truth Study Center) - (installation views)
Not all of these artists are retrospective; some, like Tillmans, do maintain a legible politics of the present day. My point is that the selection and arrangement of images today—be they archival originals or digitally pulled from the web—is so frequent a trope in contemporary art as to be inseparable from the information age and its accompanying ‘knowledge economy’. I would defend a place for visual research, but it’s a fine line between presenting research for a work (in all its disconneted, inchoate fragmentation) and a researched work (where the juxtapositions evidence more than simply effort). Works of art need to do more than be three-dimensional iterations of Pinterest and Tumblr.

We seem to be a long way from Goshka Macuga here, but perhaps we can bring this full circle by noting the centrality of display today: not just in works of art, and the emergence of a curatorial discourse and professionalization, but of those commercial ‘exhibitions’ we find in shops big and small, and in every reach of the globe. The language of presenting objects is one honed by modernism (Frederick Kiesler, for example, designed both department store displays and avant-garde exhibitions) and it is a language we have all gained great fluency in, to the point where we can instantly register the aspirations and price tags of any given establishment on the basis of its display decisions. This hyperconsumerism coupled with the image-world of the Internet converges in a surfeit of contemporary art that adopts a curatorial/display methodology, placing pre-existing wares for perusal and sale alongside each other—from the auratic and archival, to the latest in laser-printing.

5 comment(s)
Kristofer Paetau
Posted 14.10.2013 at 17:54

"Displaying Research" is an appropriate way to characterize a lot of "Research-based art" in my opinion. Contemporary "citationality", mixed with some modernist or/and political or/and gender or/and anthropological related "research" combined with a nice display makes a nice work of contemporary art. How comes that the art-world accepts this receipt-based art production so eagerly, without any resistance? Because it is "interesting", isn't it? It MUST be very interesting because it is dealing with established (or re-discovered) historical, intellectual references that none of us would possibly want or dare to ignore: we just HAVE to be interested in it even though it might be presented in a boring, dry way. Actually a boring dry presentation functions as a guarantee that the content is so much more important than the form in this work - so please pay attention to the content! Finally we have some content again in contemporary art... Or do we - really? Isn't this content a mere display of references, citations and a clever exercise in CRITICALITY that we must learn to decipher - that is testing our (lack of) knowledge and abusing our cultural curiosity originating from our feelings of guilt? The word "criticality" is another favorite of mine: not to be confounded with critique, that ugly old fashioned Kantian judgmental obsession! But not necessarily all research art is superficial: we have many artists doing PHDs ABOUT their research! To make a PHD about your research is not the same as to make a PHD AS research, but anyway, a PHD is something we have to take seriously, after all it's academic. But I'm getting distracted. I was supposed to contribute to the discussion initiated by Claire Bishop here. I smiled while reading the first post where Claire Bishop wrote about all the contemporary art references to Le Corbusier and that she knew Le Corbusier mainly through these references. I thought that this says a lot about the lack of knowledge that we, contemporary art specialists (or amateurs), have about art history. And maybe it partly explains why the citationism and modernism-related-research-art is so successful: through these practices we (the public) acknowledge our lack of knowledge and get a good feeling because we studied something (displayed research) and got something out of it quicker than by reading a book - if at least we read the press release of the exhibition to get a glimpse of all the COMPLEXITIES that the artist is mixing us up with. The more complex the references, the more interesting it becomes for us to track these references on display in the exhibition! And if the original reference material is ugly or boring or too work-intensive to deal with in 30 minutes, then we get a quick introduction by our favorite research-artist which makes it much more fun for us. It's like a game and a game is fun, isn't it? For the artist this game can be very useful when lacking ideas for producing new works, because the artists can use other artists' works in their own displays! But we wouldn't dare opposing to that of course: appropriation is legitimate in contemporary art, and when it is made in a "legitimate" (= interesting) way then it is all the better. Who cares about intellectual and artistic property (not to mention the ugly word "copyright") anymore: only the lawyers and big bad corporations? Not the art world anyway, we are far too "advanced" and "progressive" for that, at least we like to think so. But again I'm digressing. I'm afraid my entire contribution to this discussion was a digression. But I enjoyed it and hope somebody else will as well :-)

Joe Scanlan
Posted 16.10.2013 at 02:57

I quite like that you bring the whole thing round to the idea of display, and the compressed, paradoxical double entrendre the term has become in contemporary art discourse. In terms of museum and commercial exhibition strategies, display means both to present objects, ideas, and relationships for consideration (put them into play, so to speak); and to present things that have been rescued, preserved (taken out of circulation, or out of play). The former sense is propositional and the latter archival.
The first thing that strikes me about the overwhelming attraction of archival artists to photography (and it's sculptural sidekick, the vitrine) is that the photographic object achieves both senses of display simultaneously. In the same instant, photographs present things for consideration and record them for posterity. But what distinguishes the photograph from the vitrine, as Benjamin noted, is that the photograph becomes the surrogate for the things it represents and, with much melancholy, transposes it mnemonically into the concrete fact of the thing itself lying there in front of us.
The visceral experience of looking at the work of Macuga, then—and I would add an oddball favorite of mine, Francis Upritchard—is that often when I look at her work I don't know whether I'm coming or going. I like this affect.
The second (and final, for now) thing I would notice about archival artists is their slightly more damning (and welcome) relationship to time, my own body, and its eminent demise. Working at Princeton over the past five years (a place that has a pathological preference for live theatre) has made me keenly aware of the subconcsious appeal of time-based art forms. At Princeton, where clocks and appointment calendars rule, any theatrical work—no matter how tedious or absurd—can be scheduled and dealt with. Thus, what is often described in the art world as a heroic commitment to the indeterminacy of the object at Princeton seems more a practical budgeting of the time that art will take—no more, no less. The key aspects of the art budgeting being: that one can know how much it will cost, one can know how long it will last, and one can know (most of the time) how and where to pay attention.
Looked at through this admittedly cynical lens, theatre (and performance art) grants us a trivial kind of mastery in that it lets us know that we will outlive it. The archive, however coy or musty, and the photograph, however prurient or mundane, cuts us no such slack.

Peter Burleigh
Posted 17.10.2013 at 18:01

Reflecting on Claire’s latest response to shows in New York, and on Joe’s comment too, there seems to be two kind of photographic impulses which might be related to archive—different though in sense from the archival she and Hal Foster specify. One is to record, preserve, break the elasticity of time and thus at the very least intrude into if not completely disrupt how objects, states of affairs, events are subject to dispersal through time. On the other, and of course related, is the drive to categorize and catalogue. Once the object in motion through time and space is brought to rest in “the fleeting shadow fixed for ever”— it becomes subject to an orderly systematicity that requires it to fit, to be governed by a matrix of ordinances: the etymology of the word archive ultimately traceable back to the Greek for government, ἀρχή. Things become visual artefacts, become instantaneously, immediately archived by photography.

Some earlier photographic practices not only reflect on this cleft in the archival impulse, but might even contribute to its hegemonic character, such that we don’t recognise how photography is an automatic “archivaling”. Not withstanding that the photographic emerges exactly at the rise of the industrialization of an already empirically governed world, it cannot be unnoticed that it was primarily functions of photography that are outlined by Henry Talbot, in his 1839 announcement of Photogenic Drawing: for example, copying flowers and leaves, making of silhouettes, delineating objects in the solar microscope, architecture, landscape and external nature, delineations of engravings, copies of sculptures. Transformations of different visual experiences of the world onto the levelling platform of the image. Photography both accelerated the notion of the world as a collection of image objects, while releasing a mechanism to achieve this signalisation (almost) automatically.

No fluke then that the first photographically illustrated book is Anna Atkins’ 1844 Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, a catalogue of botanical specimens. Exactly the rendition of an archive: a systematic cataloguing of the world following scientific paradigms of form, difference and similitude.

In Talbot’s Pencil of Nature that rapidly followed Atkins’ publication, the applications of photography as listed early in 1839 are nicely illustrated. Despite the optimistic completeness of The Pencil of Nature, there is a pharmakon* that ruptures its hermeticism: Talbots’ inclusion of two images each of Queen’s College and The Bust of Patroclus. The accompanying text orients our exposure to the photogenic in quite different ways, thus underlining how the photographic apparently a mere recording or trace is actually a mapping of the world into a new virtual domain.

With the first Queen’s College image, plate I, Talbot emphasizes the wear and tear of the fabric of the building, drawing attention to the ravages of time and weather, obliquely suggesting how time is compressed in the decay of the building which presents itself to us in the image. In Plate XIII, the second Queen’s College photograph, Talbot suggests how the image itself can reflexively record its own time of coming into being, its own photographic event: “sometimes inscriptions and dates are found upon the buildings, or printed placards most irrelevant, are discovered upon their walls: sometimes a distant dial-plate is seen, and upon it—unconsciously recorded—the hour of the day at which the view was taken.” Two aspects of time, as a weighty heavy record that pushes up to the present moment, are emphatically segregated in the two images.

The two Patroclus plates, V and XVII, demonstrate how a single image is not sufficient to catalogue in the archive, and at the verleast suggest that a whole network of images must be actualized if the catalogue is to “completely” display its objects. Prototypical, typical, archetypal: the thing to image relationship is already under scrutiny right from the start of photographic practice.

So to come back to Claire’s questioning of the archive: The inherent characteristic of photography to reproduce the conditions of perception means that it falls foul of mimesis. Though mimetic realism was a key aspect of the regime of the archive of visual artefacts up to the cusp of the appearance of photography, once that very event exploded mimesis, the walls of the Musée des Beaux-Arts were no longer impermeable to forms of art which were not mimetic in their essence, even if sometimes so in their appearance. Consequently, objects and their relations to image became ever more complex beyond the associations of similitude.

Yet photography’s early cataloguing of the world continued a pace. In Agassiz’s ethnographic study of African slaves photographed by J T Zealy (a forerunner of the Bertillon system), Thomas Annan’s documenting of Glasgow slums, on to August Sander’s project to catalogue the German society, or even up to the present in the fictional world of Wayne Wang’s Smoke, where Augustus records the everyday from the same location at the same time each day—The affect of such an inventory is highlighted through the widower Paul’s encounter with the photograph of his wife on the day of her death. In photography Contingency meets Fate.

In these various respects, photography is not only archival, but is also a critique of archivalism, of the compression of the substance of the world into a world-image, thus making the vernacular, the everyday into an extraordinary rhizomatic archive. Contemporary practices in video and photography disruptingly continue in both strands of the photogenically archival.

It is with an ironic nod, for example, that Camille Henrot undoes the mechanisms of the classic archive, the museum that is the earth, through questioning how the proper space of the museum filters out the world in her video work Grosse Fatigue. In counterpoint, for example, the easyJet series made by Sophie Jung exactly undoes the homogenized branding of travel, generating a seriality that interrogates the commodifying brush of the lifestyling of time with a simultaneous gesture of singularity. The work insinuates itself into the very aesthetic which it stands to critique. Photography in its most exciting rendition and in the most general terms interweaves canonical spatialization—the museum—with a tactical positioning of the viewing subject when the time and space they inhabit become compressed into the photographic event plane to then radiate out in multiple meanings.

*Derrida’s notion of that which imbedded in a cultural artefact both immunizes against and poisons.

Peter Burleigh
Posted 21.10.2013 at 00:59

A different aspect of archive crosses the trajectory of the second part of Joe’s comment: namely a fascination with time, and the mechanics of time in its extensive form—clocks. Of course it is the two technologies of the clock and the photograph which impose a discrete digital categorizing onto an otherwise continuous experience of time. Foucault identified the bell as the instrument of bringing to order: church bell, military bugle, school bell, factory whistle, university gongs. And the territory is well known how John Tagg, Alan Sekula and Jonathan Crary extended this dispositif to the disciplinary accent of photography. In these terms photography both cuts (violent) and threatens (coercive) with its slicing of time.
Now the question is whether in the archive we can resist these dociling mechanisms or not. One particular visualization of time cannot be pictured without spatialization: the weight of the past pushing up to the membrane of the present propelling the present towards the future. Even if the past is composed of slices or planes of experience, intersecting in a reservoir of memory of pure time, it always abuts to the present, indeed inhabits a present. The metaphor of Deleuze’s Alice in Wonderland, whose shrinking and growing, indicates that present time has a thickness which we inhabit as more than just a membrane, for Alice was always already either bigger or smaller than she was before or was going to be. Time is thus at least bidirectional and can be experienced as an elasticity of various densities.
In the archival gesture of research, representation, reformulation, we must crucially ask whether the archive differs or repeats. Differentiation is a prior self-organising assemblage that centres around zones of intensity to form identity. While repetition without difference becomes a mere reiteration, a redundant copy. A reflection on the past as past that is distant or closed off and not abutting up to now is just such a copy. And such a mimetic rendition of the past can be seen in the Prada Institute’s When Attitudes Become Form Bern 1969/Venice 2013 restaging in the Ca’ Corner della Regina, Venice. The 1969 Bern Kunsthalle show transferred as faithfully as possible to the palazzo. Installed in down-to-the-skirting board-radiator-door-handle-copy of the Kunsthalle rooms, the colour of Beuys’s margarine in hot dispute, original works now faded, damaged or completely absent, the show unwittingly perhaps, raises interesting questions precisely of difference and repetition. But this is accident not intent. It is a photogenic portrait of then yet made now. So the trajectories of time have dispersed too widely to be drawn back to the zone of intensity of Szeemann’s original show. Thus the Prada exhibit is a kind of tourism rather than a catharsis.
Mark Lecky’s assemblage of a much less defined past in The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things just finished at the De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill on Sea is one that does not separate itself from the present but generates a rhizomatic complexifying of planes of composition—forms that are historical or ahistorical, objects specific to historic moments, randomly dumb things. In the constellation of objects, there is a compacting of things into flows of time that are non-directional—sponge-like rather than arrow-like. Thus past, present and future are meaningless notions. All time(s) is/are immanent. Lecky’s suggestion of the universal approach to things helps us to undo the Princeton (well generally all mercantile systems’) imperative to orderly keep time.

Terence Gower
Posted 22.10.2013 at 23:53

Just a few quick comments based on my own experience and practice. I think in many artists' practices one tendency unites both areas you cover in the blog—retrospective analysis of modernism and the archival impulse—and that's the cool factor. When you state "the driving motivation is above all formal, in the sense of questioning the meaning of forms once their ideological connotations have been removed and set aside," I think you are neatly describing those practices that are primarily interested in Modern forms because they are beautiful, cool, and hopefully outside the mainstream, and prefer to receive or present them drained of their original or acquired meanings. This is Pardo in a nutshell. In archival presentation the cool factor is present in the show-offy tendency toward, "look at this obscure and excellent thing I know about and am now presenting to the world."

An opposing tendency is an interest in Modern forms as signifiers… because of their meanings (hopefully weighty ideological ones.) I think Malkovic is flirting with this, which I guess is why I liked his show so much. With regard to the archival impulse, the driving force for me is a need to show the viewer the research alongside (or as part of) the work, leaving it up to the viewer to take it or leave it. It has an explanatory function for sure, but it might also be a display of the artist's investment in the work, because that is what we're ultimately selling: the investment of our time, money, and most importantly, belief in the work. I'm wondering if it might just be as simple as that for many artists (aside from the cool factor!) But I agree with you that the artist needs to process and present this material with some care so it doesn't end up as non-virtual Tumblr.

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