PARIS — “Museum and mausoleum are connected by more than phonetic association,” the theorist and critic Theodor Adorno wrote in 1953. At the Palais de Tokyo, the sepulchral New Ghost Stories (Nouvelles Histoires de Fantômes) revisits this relationship by addressing “the exhibition in the age of its mechanical reproduction.” This austere congress of images, which includes a great deal of moving film, is cacaphonous and intense, ordered but not orderly, fully achieving what co-organizer Georges Didi-Huberman calls “a great kaleidoscope of the motions of the soul.”
Created by the art historian-cum-theorist Didi-Huberman and the photographer Arno Gisinger, the installation restages, or presents what is called an “evolution” of, a 2012 show by the duo at Le Fresnoy in Paris. Both installations center around the lamentation-themed Plate 42 of pioneering art historian Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas (1929) and include a “visual essay” by Gisinger comprising 40 pictures he took of an earlier Warburgian exhibition, Atlas: How to Carry the World on One’s Back (2010–11).
These degrees of recurrence — an exhibition based on an exhibition based on Warburg’s Plate 42 and including work based on yet another exhibition (whose sequel also happens to have been presented earlier this year in Beirut) — create some confusion, but it’s a disciplined kind that returns to the core question of the survival/afterlife of images, a notion Warburg referred to as Nachleben.
The historical and aesthetic pathos of images, a key preoccupation of Warburg’s thought, is reanimated at the Palais de Tokyo, both in structure and content. Seventeen pictures of works concerning lamentation and the symbol of the Pietà are affixed to the 42nd plate of the Mnemosyne Atlas, works by Donatello, Raphael, and others, and their symbolic quality is echoed and critiqued by 23 floor projections (selected by Didi-Huberman) as well as printed photographs (by Gisinger) installed in a seamless spot-lit frieze along the gallery’s walls. In taking up the subject presented by Warburg in the selected plate, the curators suggest a thematic return to Nachleben — lamentation is what comes after the passing of bodies, a gesture after life. Similarly, the passing of an exhibition — the final Hamburg presentation of the 2010–11 Atlas show is where Gisinger shot his photographs — posits a different kind of lament, in this case about the way pictures come into and out of relief as they take on and then are stripped of the aura of exhibition.
Whereas Adorno contended that the museum entombs culture, thereby neutralizing it, Didi-Huberman and Gisinger find within its walls a dialectical kind of afterlife, played out in lamentation. Projected like a luminescent monolith on the entrance wall, Warburg’s plate presides over the other pictures laid forth in the show: the floor projections, which consist of images of artworks, ethnographic footage, and films depicting various types of lamentation or mourning by practitioners ranging from Goya to Godard, and, higher up along the walls, the elevated and continuous frieze comprised of the Atlas exhibition photographs shot by Gisinger.
Finally, at the far end of the exhibition’s long, hangar-like space, a table-mounted digital display shows Gisinger’s photographic Suite Burckhardt (2012–14), which documents the leafing-through of a kind of proto-Warburgian dossier organized by Jacob Burckhardt between 1833 and 1836 containing various documents, including drawings, sketches, and maps. Beginning in darkness and ending in light, the exhibition plays out the drama of Warburg’s plate, with Gisinger’s contributions providing chronological bookends. (The exhibition’s formal dimension — the carpet/mosaic and the frieze — also points to the transference across time and space of some of the earliest modes of decorative display.)
But the very idea of a linear frieze composed of “compromised” images (one of Gisinger’s photos shows a work of art covered in pink bubble-wrap, for example), pushes back against the pure Warburgian notion of unfettered image-circulation, pulling it instead in the direction of the mural, one of the most narrative and political forms of picture-making. Such an approach doesn’t foreclose the after-life of images, it merely adds a secondary axis of recurrence/regression — an ‘atlas of atlases.’ The potent claims the underlying work can have on reality are hardly neutered in the process. Among the first projected images one encounters at foot are plates from Francisco de Goya’s Los Desastres de la Guerra (The Disasters of War) (1810–20), which depict the horrors of the Napoleonic Wars; at the far end, in Gisinger’s elevated frieze, looms Walid Raad’s picture of a contemporary bomb, its wires looped in a pseudo-medieval motif.
For Warburg, the Atlas was more than an organizing logic or a mechanism of research; it was also a general proposition about the subconscious condition of images, which for him transcended cultural and historiographic boundaries. How does one reconcile this with the contemporary conditions of exhibition-making and circulation? Today the museum’s walls, which for André Malraux famously fell away thanks to the ease of photographic reproduction, nonetheless seem thicker than they ever have been, images more contingent, which in tandem with advances in technologies of circulation and reproduction provoked the dematerialized turn in exhibitions that arrived at the end of the 20th century. One notable early example is curator and critic Joshua Decter’s 1994 Don’t Look Now at Thread Waxing Space, a “meta-frieze” of 68 slide-projected artworks organized in a similarly darkened hall and “anticipating,” Decter wrote, “the transition from analogue to digital culture.” As echoed in New Ghost Stories, this strategy of presentation at once reacts to the age of post-mechanical reproduction, calls into question pedagogic connotations of exhibition display (returning images to archaeology and historicity), and formalizes in particles of light Didi-Huberman’s notion of the subconscious, dream-like circulation of images.
As an art historian, Aby Warburg was foundational to the discipline by dedicating himself to documenting and theorizing the historical transference of images and motifs, connecting the modern and the ancient in his Atlas, a project he undertook from 1924 until his death. Of the process, he wrote: “This history is magical — to be dissembled. A ghost story for adults,” which is where the exhibition gets its title. Though Warburg’s project followed from the art discourse of the 19th century — Baudelaire’s writing on “mnemotechny” and so on — at the Palais de Tokyo the exhibition text directly twins Warburg’s achievement in theorizing the subconscious life of images with the psychoanalytic contributions of Sigmund Freud. Freud, whose idea of a “dreamwork” Didi-Huberman has elswhere applied to the circulation of images, was himself an avid collector of Greek, Roman, and Egyptian antiquities, and in correspondence with the novelist Stefan Zweig late in his life avowed to have “read more archaeology than psychology.”
Though that line may have been what Freud scholar Peter Gay has called “genial hyperbole” between friends, there is a larger truth at play. Just as archaeology was for Freud a “master metaphor for the psychoanalytic process,” as Gay writes, archaeology is the master metaphor for the exhibition-maker, whose task is to excavate and (re)assemble images. But such an archaeology of course does not proceed from a position of neutrality; it arises from systems of power and abuts contemporary conditions of media and representation. The reintroduction of this political or contingent dimension into the Warburgian landscape is here the challenge that Didi-Huberman and Gisinger undertake, and it’s where Plate 42 becomes both totem and pillory.
New Ghost Stories (Nouvelles Histoires de Fantômes) continues at the Palais de Tokyo (13 Avenue du Président Wilson) through September 7.