Hanne Darboven, “Cultural History 1880–1983” (1980–1983), 1590 sheets, 19 sculptures of different sizes, Dia Art Foundation; partial donation, Lannan Foundation, 2013 Installation view House of Art, detail (Photo by Maximilian Geuter, © Hanne Darboven Foundation, Hamburg/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2015) (click to enlarge)

…we must remember that repetition itself, the logic of repetition, indeed, the repetition compulsion, remains, according to Freud, indissociable from the death drive.

—Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever

Hanne Darboven, though considered a visual artist, considered herself, first and foremost, a writer. In an interview with Miriam Schoofs in Flash Art, Darboven said, “I see myself as a writer, which I am, regardless of what other visual materials I may use. I am a writer first and a visual artist second.” This is apparent in her work which features, over and over, her own handwriting in which she transcribes the writing of others, including Homer’s Odysse, as well as work by Sartre and Heine. This project is reminiscent of the scribing of God’s words by monks. Performed in a dimly lit scriptorium in a monastery, this work was done for the sole purpose of creating an imprint of God’s words upon the soul of the writer. In his book Cassiodorus (1979), James J. O’Donnell writes:

[E]ach Psalm would have to be recited at least once a week all through the period of study. In turn, each Psalm studied separately would have to be read slowly and prayerfully, then gone through with the text in one hand (or preferably committed to memory) and the commentary in the other; the process of study would have to continue until virtually everything in the commentary has been absorbed by the student and mnemonically keyed to the individual verses of scripture, so that when the verses are recited again the whole phalanx of Cassiodorian erudition springs up in support of the content of the sacred text.

Hanne Darboven at her studio in Hamburg (April, 1987) (Photo by Hermann Dornhege, © Hanne Darboven Foundation, Hamburg / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2015) (click to enlarge)

The very act of scribing, of copying down the words written by someone else, is devoid of interpretation. When writing by hand the words imagined and created by someone else, the monk must trust implicitly the  work he is transcribing. The act can be likened to prayer; each word, when transcribed from the Bible, becomes, as he writes it, inscribed inside his own psyche: his own psyche becoming, in fact, another empty book upon which the words are being transcribed. Darboven’s practice was to scribe every day for hours — just as a monk would, as if in silent prayer. This act of scribing might also be likened to a Book of Hours, of making one’s own private Book of Hours. According to Phaidon Press’s Book of Hours (London: 1996):

The name “Book of Hours” derives from practice of reading certain prayers and devotions at the different hours of the day. An “hour” in the Middle Ages was defined as an inexact space of time to be allotted either to religious or business duties. The monastic orders specified certain prayers and rituals which were observed eight times a day and the purpose of a Book of Hours was to enable ordinary people to follow a similar program of daily devotion.

By transcribing the exact words of other writers, Darboven is enacting the monk’s transcribing of the word of God and, in this way, Darboven, too, is making her own Book of Hours. It is important to note that the word “Hours” in the Book of Hours signifies a strict adherence to the rule of the liturgical hour. There is also a Liturgy of the Hours, which is structured on the Canonical Hours, by which the day is broken up according to the hour of prayer: Matins (during the night); Lauds (at dawn);  Prime (First Hour, approximately 6am): Terce (Third Hour, approximately 9am); Sext (Sixth Hour, approximately 12 noon); None (Ninth Hour, approximately 3pm); Vespers (“at the lighting of the lamps,” generally around 6pm.); and Compline (before retiring, generally around 9pm).

The vast majority, if not all, of her work is rooted in the calendar; it is inserted inside the structure of time. And works not directly referencing either the calendar or time are often integrated into this system by the handwritten addition of a date. In her Introduction to the exhibition Hanne Darboven,  installed at DIA Beacon from May 3, 2003 through March 26, 2005, Lynne Cooke writes:

The calendar, which subsequently formed the foundation of Darboven’s art practice, again offered a universal orientation, embodying a given, prefabricated, ready-made temporal system. Calibrated in her work in many ways over almost three decades, it has provided the basis of an arbitrary artistic system that has the appearance of objectivity. Conjoining a rigorous numerical process with free-associative roots, and tight rational thought with intellectual freedom, Darboven’s capricious sense of time has resulted in diverse monumental works that may span a month, a year, even a century, all recorded day by day.

The Gregorian Calendar, also called the “Christian Calendar,” was named after Pope Gregory XIII who introduced it in 1582. It is also, of course, called the Western calendar and is the calendar we use today.

As a writer, though, Darboven created and used a different  system, one of her own making. She used numbers alongside the repetition of certain words and phrases. Some have mistakenly read these writings literally as if she were actually performing mathematics but this is not the case. In her interview with Miriam Schoofs, Darboven said,“I only use numbers because it is a way of writing without describing. […] It has nothing to do with mathematics, nothing! I choose numbers because they are so constant, confined and artificial.” In other words, she uses numbers because numbers hold less meaning than words and in this way, she is able to avoid, to a certain extent, the myriad of meanings which exists inside a word. In the same way that her installations are not to be read literally, in the same way that they are meant to be seen and not interpreted, her writing is also more about the process and the subsequent visual appearance as a whole, and not as a means to relay information or narrative. As Mel Bochner writes in “The Serial Attitude”  (Artforum, January 1970), “Types of order are forms of thought.” In much the same way as the musicality of a good poem will do the work of relaying the mood and tone regardless of what  it seems to say, Darboven’s writing and installation work can and ought to be read for its patterns and repetitions. It is in this way that one can deduce its true meaning.

Hanne Darboven, “A century – ABC” (1970–71), offset, felt pen on paper, 19 sheets (42 sheets per panel), framed, each 149 x 179 cm, installation view House of Art, detail (Photo by Maximilian Geuter, © Hanne Darboven Foundation, Hamburg/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2015) (click to enlarge)

Hanne Darboven was born in Munich in 1941, though she grew up in the suburb Hamburg-Hamburg, outside of Hamburg, which was heavily bombed during World War II. Darboven first studied music,  and music is something she wrote throughout her life. She studied at the Hamburg College of Art and traveled to New York City in the mid-1960s, where she lived for two years. Her stay in New York was instrumental: she met and became close friends with such artists as Sol Le Witt, Carl Andre, Joseph Kosuth, Mel Bochner, the critic Lucy Lippard, and the curator Seth Siegeluab, and gallerists Leo Castelli and Konrad Fischer.  About this time, Darboven said, again in her interview with Miriam Schoofs, “In New York, I tried to find something that I could work on for my whole life. New York was where I built my work.”

And then she left. Had she stayed, she would most probably have become as well-known (to American art audiences) as the artists she befriended. Instead, she returned to Germany, to her hometown, and moved into her childhood home with her mother. It is here, in her family’s home, that Darboven lived and worked for the rest of her life. This act of leaving New York City and with it the opportunities for American and  international fame (though she was famous in Germany), can be seen as an act of refusal: refusing to participate actively in the art world and, instead, retreating to her family and her family home.

In her family’s home Darboven made her work in her studio and, in addition, accumulated items. These items, culled from both high and low, became part of her work. Kulturgeschichte, arguably her best-known work, is described by Lynne Cooke:

Comprised of 1,590 sheets, each measuring fifty by seventy centimeters, and nineteen sculpture-objects, Kulturgeschichte 1880-1983 (Cultural History 1880–1983), 1980–83, is one of Darboven’s grandest, most epic works to date. Weaving together cultural, social, and historical references with autobiographical documents, it synthesizes the private with the social, and personal history with collective memory. Braided among the vast numbers of postcards, caches of pinups of film and rock stars, documentary references to the first and second world wars, geometric diagrams for textile weaving, a heterogeneous sampling of New York doorways and portals, illustrated covers from major newsmagazines, plus the contents of an exhibition catalogue devoted to postwar European and American art, and a kitsch literary calendar, are extracts from certain of her earlier works, exhibition catalogues from solo shows, and other mementos of previous exhibitions.

Hanne Darboven ‘s studio in Hamburg-Harburg (Photo by Felix Krebs, Hanne Darboven Foundation, Hamburg) (click to enlarge)

It is, like all of her work, a veritable Wunderkammer, a mass collection of Dingen, or things. And yet, the objects escape curation; she does not force meaning upon them or on the work overall. As Jans Verwoert writes in “Chain-Smoking Clotho” published in Freize d/e (June-August 2014), “They aren’t wrapped in a cocoon by the sticky spider yarn of pervasive ego.” In other words, though she does have a hand in the work by choosing what to include and what not to include, she does not imbue meaning in any way. In fact, when Kulturgeschichte was exhibited at DIA, Darboven gave no instruction on how to set up the work and did not arrive in New York until a few hours before the show opened. Darboven leaves herself out of it, as Dan Adler writes in his monograph, Hanne Darboven: Cultural History 1880–1983 (2009):

[…] Cultural History is relentlessly resistant to being read in terms of an overriding system. Idiosyncratic linkages, a few vials patterns and perhaps even narrative cohesiveness are apparent here and there, but the images do not ‘admit’any interpretive insights into what sort of cultural history Darboven is providing.

Kulturgeschichte, or Cultural History, is akin to Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas (1927), forty wooden panels covered in black cloth upon which 1,000 pictures from books, magazines, newspaper and other daily life sources were pinned. The images were arranged according to themes only Warburg was cognizant of. There were no captions and few texts. Like Darboven’s project, his was an attempt at making new language, one resulting from the relationships between things. What we are talking about here is, of course, something similar to Derrida’s concept of the trace: the difference between two things or, as he writes in Of Grammatology (1967), the “mark of the absence of presence, an always-already absent present.” Here, language is what happens between things, between objects and texts. Of Darboven’s Kulturgeschichte, Dan Adler writes “Darboven’s panels are often sequenced and grouped, then the groups juxtaposed, physically placed alongside each other; they do not often exhibit any obvious visual or thematic correspondences.” Again, the meaning occurs in relation: emerging from the comparison of one thing to another, not  from the subject matter. In the process of “reading” Darboven’s work in this way, the reader engages automatically in an additive and canceling-out process.

Canceling out is something Darboven’s work does often. By repeating endless, framed documents or images, no one work is important and everything and everyone is equal. This “leveling out” of culture and of history, a term described by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, is a means by which culture and history are decimated down to one uniform level. One sees this in works that provide an endless proliferation and repetition. Examples  include Gerhard Richter’s Atlas project,  which he has been working on since the mid 1960s.

There is an important difference, though, between Richter’s Atlas and the works of Warburg and Darboven. Amidst Richter’s endless panels (which are presented in exactly the same manner as Darboven’s, as endless panels in endless rooms), there exists a punctum, an image or, in this case, a set of images  that stands apart from the rest, creating a cleave or caesurae.

Benjamin Buchloh writes in “Gerhard Richter’s Atlas: The Anomic Archive” (October, no. 88, Spring 1999):

[…] already in the eleventh panel of the Atlas, presumably dating from around 1964-65, a first set of images suddenly emerges from within the overall banality of the found photographs, rupturing the entire field. This puncturing suddenly positions the Atlas project within the dialectics of amnesia and memory that we have attempted to explore in this essay. Functioning in the manner of a punctum within the heretofore continuous field of banal images and their peculiar variation on the condition of the stadium, the first set of photographs of victims from a concentration camp now functions as a sudden revelation.

When the reader is confronted with endless streams of images, everything is reduced to one shared hierarchy of meaning. In other words, hierarchies are destroyed as a result. But the reader sees this endless repetition and is forced to read the repetition instead of each particular piece.

Also, when one object or framed image is placed next to another, that second one erases the first (which is the “first” and which is the “second” is anyone’s guess). Dan Adler writes in Hanne Darboven: Cultural History 1880–1983 that, in addition to using repetition as a device in her installations, in her writing Darboven repeats words and phrases such as “Heute (today),” “keine Wort mehr (no more words),” and “schreib (write).”Again, by repeating these words, Darboven is playing with erasing and negation. When the word or phrase appears once, it “shines” — one sees it. When it appears twice, it is negated: in essence, it vanishes. And when the word appears once again, it is reaffirmed, reflected back, while, at the same time, losing its initial strength.

Another recurring item in Darboven’s endless oeuvre are images from magazines and newspapers of celebrities who have, by the time Darboven has included their image in her collection, already been photographed endlessly, including Osama bin Laden and Adolph Hitler Darboven would often copy these images, creating one more round of repetition. In the end, endless repetition becomes a form of aggression, an attempt at canceling out.

Furthermore, each installation is mounted differently from one  venue to the next (the result of Darboven’s hands-off approach, allowing curators and museum directors to decide how to present her works). The result is that each time a visitor views her work, it itself will be different, another rotation, another point of view. It is important to add that each person will necessarily read the works differently, focusing on words and items that others would skip over and miss.

In photographs, self portraits, taken inside her family home, Darboven appears as a modern monk, with shorn hair, a double of her father, wearing his tailored shirts and suits. Who she was is erased behind the double of this new character,  standing  in for her just as Darboven is erased in her endless repetitions. Gilles Deleuze’s central idea in Difference & Repetition (1968) is that when, for example, Marcel Duchamp makes a copy of  “Fountain” (1917), his repurposed urinal, the new copy is the event ; it is no longer about the so-called original. In the case of Darboven and her work, she is the trace; she is the meaning between repetitions and yet she remains unseen, invisible. The concept of trace  implies a sense of movement, the movement from so-called copy to copy, and it is in this movement of copying that Darboven’s artwork exists. Essentially, Darboven makes a movement vis a vis repetition, a sort of whir not unlike the relentless whir of time, the sound of speed at the back of one’s neck.

Hanne Darboven, “Cultural History 1880–1983” (1980–1983), installation view Haus der Kunst (Photo by Maximilian Geuter, © Hanne Darboven Foundation, Hamburg/VG Bild-Kunst , Bonn 2015) (click to enlarge)

Over and over Darboven vanishes: from the New York art scene, from the page as she scribes, from the creator’s position of power by not dictating how her installations ought to be set up, behind the persona of the self-portraited Hanne Darboven, another copy, this time of her father. To vanish in this way, to remain only as trace, is reminiscent of monks who, as an act of humility, become one of many when they leave the world behind and enter the cloistered walls of the monastery. There, inside the world of the monk, all are equal, all are one man and no man. This is not such a stretch: Darboven was known to be a hermit, living within the vast walls of her parent’s large home. She rarely gave interviews, and she did not attend art events.

Time is a recurring theme in Darboven’s work. Her decision to leave New York City to live in a suburb outside Hamburg can be seen as a means  of escape from the superficial nature of the American art world — to spend time, instead, living simply, meagerly perhaps, rather than to waste it in a race for money and fame. But time races by regardless of where one lives. Her calendars, her compulsive accumulations, and her daily practice of spending hours every day scribing the words other authors have written can be seen as way of marking time the same way a prisoner marks time on her walls. In fact, all of Darboven’s work, her creation of a new language, can be read as a form of marking time. And time is trace — it is the invisible, the silent count that is happening all the time.

But what prison did Darboven feel herself locked in? The beginning of an answer can be gleaned by reading her work as a kind of leveling machine. Darboven fled the world, cloistering herself,  and yet the world’s culture and history are the stuff of her work. The leveling Darboven performs though endless repetition and by grouping disparate items, images and words together, forces everything included to be equal. In the alternate world that Darboven’s words make, there is no hierarchy. This leveling out can also be compared to the leveling out of cities in Germany during World War II. In other words, Darboven’s act of leveling out in her work is akin to the carpet bombing of cities in Germany, most notably Dresden but also Hamburg. So, perhaps Darboven was heeding words from the Book of John (1:2:15): “Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him,” and chose not to love the world or the things in it.

This is not a stretch: much of her work seems rooted and referenced to God and the Bible,  including, among other things, a copy of a deluxe edition of The Book of Proverbs that she used in her installation, Homage a Picasso (1995–2006). The book, set on a white plank, is open and available for visitors to peruse. Interestingly, The Book of Proverbs is considered a collection of collections. In other words, a project similar in structure to Darboven’s. Also, each chapter can be read and experienced on its own, again, much like Darboven’s projects.

To return home, to turn away from the world, a world interested in things and not interested in the lives of those who suffer, a world where some perform destructive acts and the vast majority turn away — Darboven refuses to join the parade and its cacophony. She turns away from the world  and decides, instead, to live inside her own world, a new language made of erasure, negation; a world marking time; a kingdom of endless silence.

Cynthia Cruz’s poems have been published in the New Yorker, Paris Review, Boston Review, American Poetry Review, Kenyon Review, and others. Her first collection of poems, RUIN, was published by Alice...

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