“Archive Fever: Uses of Document in Contemporary Art” was an exhibition organized by the International Center of Photography (New York) in early 2008 and curated by Okwui Enwezor, which presented works by prominent contemporary artists who use archival documents to rethink the meaning of identity, history, memory and loss, adopting various means of expression, including: taxonomies of physical archives, imagined biographies of fictitious characters, collections of found photographs, cinematographic montage around photographic albums and photomontages composed of ancient photographs. These are some of the authors present at the exhibition, along with a brief commentary taken from Enwezor’s extensive essay published in the exhibition catalogue:
Christian Boltanski, Tacita Dean, Stan Douglas, Harun Farocki and Andrei Ujica, Hans-Peter Feldmann, Jef Geys, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Craigie Horsfield, Lamia Joreige, Zoe Leonard, Sherrie Levine, Ilán Lieberman, Glenn Ligon, Robert Morris, Walid Raad, Thomas Ruff, Anri Sala, Fazal Sheikh, Lorna Simpson, Eyal Sivan, Vivan Sundaram, Nomeda y Gediminas Urbona, Andy Warhol.
Craigie Horsfield: Well Street, East London. August 1987 (1995)
Horsfield’s work is engaged with a conscious temporal delay of the archive, illustrating both a slice of time and its slow immensity. Even if not quite a longue durée, the time lag between photographing and printing is often protracted—sometimes years elapse before an image is conjured, a fact made clear in the captioning. Horsfield insists on the viewer’s ability to decipher the denotative aspect of the image as a literal archive of time, as if the exposure is drawn out over many years.
Stan Douglas: Overture
Stan Douglas’s Overture (1986) is similarly concerned with the relationship of archive and time, of time passing as a moving image, as a narration. Overture is a looped, 16mm film that stitches together two separate footages shot by the film division of the Edison Company in the Canadian Rockies: one shows Kicking Horse Canyon, shot in 1899, the other White Pass in British Columbia, shot in 1901.
Jef Gey: Day and Night and Day and…
Geys’s work provokes an interaction with the archive as a chronotope—that is, a coordination of space and time. It is both a personal and cultural meditation on time and the archive. Constituted out of more than forty years of photographic output comprising tens of thousands of images taken by the artist from the late 1950s to 2002, the thirty-six-hour film is not only structurally about the flow of images from a time past into the present; by virtue of its languorous movement, unfolding one panel at a time, the form of its delivery is also intended to confound the ability to distill the film into an index of a life’s work.
Andy Warhol: Race Riot
Warhol’s Race Riot is emblematic of the connection between archive and trauma, what Wagner calls the “registration of the glamour and redundancy and immanent violence of American life under late capitalism.
Felix González-Torres: Untitled (Death by Gun) (1990)
..an index of grainy black-and-white photographs of 464 people who died from gunshots during a one week period, from May 1 to May 7, 1989, across the cities of America.60 Like all of the artist’s stacked offset pieces, Untitled consists of several hundred sheets of printed paper endlessly available for viewers to take away and endlessly replenished to maintain an ideal height. The work’s somber content—images of the dead stare back at the viewer, with numbing silence—transforms its structure from archival printed sheet to sculptural monument.
Ilán Lieberman: Niño Perdido
Ilán Lieberman also enlists the archive as a form of commemoration in Niño Perdido (2006–7), a series of drawings based on photographs of missing children whose disappearances were reported in local Mexican newspapers. Alternating between document and monument, information and photography, Niño Perdido functions as a kind of pre-obituary for the lost who may never be found. Lieberman’s use of newspaper photographs of the missing children alerts us to the wide-ranging deployment of the photographic portrait as an index of memory, as an image of identification and sometimes disidentification
Hans-Peter Feldmann: 9/12 Front Page
“An installation documenting the media response to September 11 through a collection (an archive) of some 100 front pages of European and other international newspapers published on September 12, 2001, a day after the horrors unfolded.”
Christian Boltanski: Archive Dead Swiss
[..] meditation on mourning and loss, the powers of the archive as a fundamental site through which we remember remain undiminished, even if the images he deploys and the narratives that he constitutes are more allusive and evocative of an archive than that they represent an actual existing archive. [..] Boltanski often treats photographic documents in contradictory ways: sometimes they are collected in a linear structure forming a seemingly coherent narrative, or they may be transformed into fetishized, individuated units on which a dim spotlight is fixed, lending them an almost devotional character, in a panoply of sentimental configurations that, remarkably, are designed to evoke shrines.
Robert Morris: Untitled
Untitled is part of a body of work in which he reconsiders images associated with World War II, such as the Holocaust or the firebombing of German cities like Dresden, a subject recorded by photographers and writers. Morris made some alterations to the original Bergen-Belsen image: it has been cropped, so as to fill the frame in a looming, projective fashion; treated with encaustic; and splashed—with almost expressionistic verve—with a blue-purple selenium tint that gives it the jarring, discordant appearance of an Old Master print. Further interventions include an elaborately carved frame, fabricated from a material called Hydrocal used by Morris in the 1980s in a “‘baroque’ phase of firestorm
and holocaust paintings.” Close inspection of the carved frame reveals fragments of human body parts and objects, suggesting a reliquary.
Eyal Sivan: The Specialist: Eichmann in Jerusalem
Nazi atrocity is also the subject of Eyal Sivan’s film The Specialist: Eichmann in Jerusalem (1999), comprised entirely of footage shot during the 1961 trial in Jerusalem of the notorious Nazi officer Adolf Eichmann, who coordinated the efficient deportation of Jews on a mass scale to various death camps during the war. Sivan’s film establishes a distance from the traumatic emotional responses that images of the Holocaust usually elicit, particularly among survivors. It focuses instead on the ordinariness of perpetrators like Eichmann, whose very innocuousness would lead the philosopher Hannah Arendt to coin the memorable phrase “the banality of evil.”
Wielding the sharp knife of deconstruction, Sivan restructures the chronology of the trial, presenting it out of sequence and thus denying the logic of archival linearity and narrative continuity.
Fazal Sheikh: The Victor Weeps: Afghanistan
Fazal Sheikh’s photographs from the series The Victor Weeps: Afghanistan (1998) push the archive toward an incommensurable zone of unbearable loss. Yet it remains a site of vigilance, and of defiance of the events that threaten to swallow up the individual’s memories of loved ones, who seem to have been irretrievably lost but must be constantly remembered as emblems of injustice, nobility, and martyrdom. Against the edicts of forgetting, Sheikh’s photographs of hands holding tiny passport images of lost or dead family members hover in the gray zone between remembrance and commemoration.
Walid Raad and The Atlas Group: We can make rain, but no one came to ask
[..] whose ongoing inquiry into Lebanon’s civil war of the 1970s to 1990s is a work of deep perplexity, wounding humor, and fantasmic invention. While the Lebanese civil war may have been real, its history is a minefield of interpretation, subjected to constant manipulation by ideological and sectarian forces. [..] Borrowing the conventions of the historical novel, the Atlas Group Archive deploys fictional characters—historians, interpreters, witnesses, and archivists— whose investigations and commentary illuminate the disputed terrain of the war’s recollections. The Fadl Fakhouri File, for instance, consists of 225 notebooks and other “evidence” compiled by the wholly imaginary Lebanese historian Dr. Fakhouri of the thousands of car bombs detonated in Beirut during the war; Fakhouri’s notebooks were “donated” to the Atlas Group Archive upon his death in 1993.
Lamia Joreige: Objects of War
Lamia Joreige explores the impact of the same war on Lebanese memories in her video Objects of War (1999–2006). Rather than focus on images from photo albums, Joreige instead asked each of her subjects to select an object that represents for him or her a memory of the war and to speak about its importance
Anri Sala: Intervista
Anri Sala’s video Intervista (1998) begins like a detective story. Several years after the end of communism, Sala, a young Albanian art student studying in Paris, returns to Tirana to visit his parents. In their home, he finds an unprocessed 16mm film in plastic wrapping. The film dates to the communist era but neither of his parents can recall its contents or the circumstances of its making. With no access to a film projector, Sala examines the negative by hand and discovers images of his mother at about the age of thirty. His curiosity piqued, he takes the film back to Paris and proceeds to restore it. To his surprise, he discovers footage of his mother meeting Enver Hoxa, Albania’s communist leader whose distrust of the West led him to literally seal the country off from the rest of the world. Even more startling is a scene of his mother delivering a speech to a Communist Party congress held in Albania in the 1970s. The speech, and the audience applause, are inaudible, as the film’s sound reel is missing.
Nomeda and Gediminas Urbonas: Transaction
Transaction (2002), the film archive frames an interrogation of the very conditions inherent in the reception of Soviet ideology and the subordination of what was deemed “Lithuanianess.” The project began with an examination of more than fifty Lithuanian films made between 1947 and 1997, during the period of Soviet control of the cinematic apparatus.
Moving back and forth between the old film archives and their translation into the present, the artists point to a conundrum of the Soviet legacy and contemporary Lithuanian ambivalence that must remain a vital aspect of the assessment of the films, both as a means of excavating the communist past and of building a post-Soviet, postcommunist national allegory. This dialectic directs our attention to the fact that, although communism has disappeared from the political culture of Lithuania, its social and cultural repercussions remain.
Harun Farocki and Andrei Ujica, Videograms of a Revolution
Videograms is a montage drawn from 125 hours of amateur and professional archival video footage shot during the ten days of the Romanian Revolution. At a pivotal moment in the uprising, captured on camera and included in Videograms, the gathered revolutionaries declared: “We are victorious! The TV is with us.” And so it was. As the film oscillates between television anchors reporting the shifting and indeterminate events, and sweeping views of crowds marching through the streets and battling security forces, it appears that the revolution is literally broadcast live, with every Romanian a participant in the spectacle.
Tacita Dean: Floh
Tacita Dean’s Floh (2000) lends ethnographic insight into the production of domestic photography. Accumulated over a period of seven years from secondhand bins in flea markets across Europe and the United States, the 163 images that comprise Floh can be generally categorized as amateur rather than professional photography. They are consistent with types of images common to most domestic photographic production: portraits of individuals and groups (some quasi-institutional), pictures of objects, vacation shots, snapshots of pets or family.
Thomas Ruff: Machines
Ruff’s Machines are “found” images, obtained by acquiring the photographic archives of Rohde und Dörrenberg, a defunct machine and tool company that operated in Düsseldorf-Oberkassel.93 While Dean leaves her images largely in the state in which they are found, Ruff intervenes in the archive, making clear its status as an object of ethnographic and anthropological interest, as well as endowing it with epistemological and aesthetic functions. By scanning, cropping, coloring, enlarging, and generating significantly larger prints than were initially produced for the brochure of the company’s product line, Ruff invests the machines with a totemic presence.
Lorna Simpson: Untitled and Study
Simpson adopts the photographic studio as the place to construct what will turn out to be an archival realignment, one describing the gulf between the portrayed black subjects—a woman in Untitled and a man in Study, each photographed in a profile style reminiscent of nineteenth-century portraits—and the scenes of representation found in American films and art.
Glenn Ligon: Notes on the Margin of the Black Book
Glenn Ligon’s biting critique of Robert Mapplethorpe’s homoerotic photographs of black men in The Black Book resides in this gap between authorship and authority, original and copy. In Notes on the Margin of the Black Book (1991–93), Ligon engages in a concerted deconstruction of Mapplethorpe’s objectification of the black male body as a signal source of sexual stereotyping by using a series of textual commentaries drawn from theorists and commentators such as James Baldwin, Isaac Julien, Kobena Mercer, Richard Dyer, Essex Hemphill, and Frantz Fanon. Positioned in double rows beneath the images, the text panels describe the contested ground of this complex issue.
Sherrie Levine: After Walker Evans
The issues surrounding postmodernist appropriation, and critiques of authorship and aura, are central to Sherrie Levine’s daring, seminal deconstructions of the modernist myths of originality in many of her refabrications of well-known works by a gallery of male artistic eminences. Levine’s After Walker Evans (1981) is a controversial work because its principal conceptual strategy goes beyond simple appropriation, bluntly challenging the authenticity of a work of art, the nature of authorship itself, and the sanctity of copyrighted material.
Zoe Leonard: The Fae Richards Photo Archive
The Fae Richards Photo Archive imagines the existence of such an archive of lost stories moldering in trunk boxes in damp basements. Leonard, in collaboration with filmmaker Cheryl Dunye, stages an archival ruse through scripting, casting, staging, and performing the life of an imaginary black Hollywood actress Fae Richards (née Richardson), whose accomplishments have disappeared into the pit of American cultural amnesia, no doubt because of her blackness. In the seventy-eight images that comprise this work, we follow Richards’s carefully annotated story from the earliest images of her as a teenager in Philadelphia in the early 1920s, to her heyday as a screen ingenue in the 1930s and ’40s, to the Civil Rights era of the 1960s, to the final image of her as an older woman in 1973.
Vivan Sundaram: The Sher-Gil Archive
The Sher-Gil Archive details the story of Sundaram’s family in turn-of-the-twentieth- century India and Europe, tracing an arc from colonialism to postcolonialism. It is both a public commemoration and an inquiry into identity and the meaning of bonds that tie family to race and nationality. The images are drawn from the rich photographic archive of the family patriarch, Umrao Singh Sher-Gil, the artist’s grandfather, a Sanskrit scholar who over many years took turns at the camera photographing himself and his family.