It is to burn with a passion. It is never to rest, interminably, from searching for the archive right where it slips away. It is to run after the archive, even if there’s too much of it, right where something in it unarchives itself. It is to have a compulsive, repetitive, and nostalgic desire for the archive, an irrepressible desire to return to the origin, a homesickness, a nostalgia for the return to the most archaic place of absolute commencement.
—Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever
I was rendered speechless walking out of Douglas Crimp’s exhibition Before Pictures New York City 1967-1977 at Galerie Buchholz. The effect of the ephemera collected in the show — the rooms of glass cases, images and photographs, interviews and video footage — became, at once, too much. I had anticipated something similar to what I encountered, something akin to Julie Ault’s exhibition afterlife, which was also a type of archive, also at Galerie Buchholz (November 2015–January 2016). That show featured the works of various artists from the Downtown New York scene without providing direct instructions on how to read them, instead encouraging visitors to parse the presentation and artworks themselves. Crimp’s exhibition follows a similar format, but the main difference between them is in volume — the sheer excess of Before Pictures.
An art historian who studied under Rosalind Krauss, Crimp was active in New York during the 1970s and ’80s. He was a member of ACT UP and has written numerous texts on AIDS, trauma, and melancholia, specifically his 2002 book Melancholia and Moralism: Essays on AIDS and Queer Politics. In this text Crimp argues that the losses resulting from AIDS, as well as the decline of AIDS activism, have resulted in a melancholia as Freud defines it. In Mourning and Melancholia (1917), Freud compares grief with melancholia, stating that the two share many characteristics. Yet grief is a process —once the griever has completed it, she can move on — whereas with melancholia, this possibility does not exist. Something else occurs entirely, as Freud writes:
Now the melancholic displays something else which is lacking in grief—an extraordinary fall in his self-esteem, an impoverishment of his ego on a grand scale. In grief the world becomes poor and empty; in melancholia, it is the ego itself.
This gap within, the result of an enormous loss, continues and does not cease. It can result in paralysis and speechlessness, a silencing of the one suffering. And this experience is made manifold when one is suffering alone, as from AIDS. In an interview with Cathy Caruth titled “The AIDS Crisis Is Not Over: A Conversation with Gregg Bordowitz, Douglas Crimp, and Laura Pinsky,” in Caruth’s anthology Trauma: Explorations in Memory, Crimp says:
One of the unstated premises of my essay “Mourning and Militancy” (1989) was the incommensurability of experiences. What in this context would be something like trauma producing, I think, is that certain people are experiencing the AIDS crisis while the society as a whole doesn’t appear to be experiencing it at all. Richard Goldstein (1987) said that it’s as if we were living through the Blitz, except that nobody knows its happening.
Crimp’s current exhibition features the works of numerous artists — including Agnes Martin, Robert Smithson, Yvonne Rainer, David Wojnarowicz, and Moyra Davey — that were made during the period from 1967 to ’77, before the AIDS crisis. These works include photographs, sculptures, postcards, prints, newspaper clippings, catalogues from art exhibits, books, posters, drawings, films, magazines, and audio recordings, among others. In addition, alongside many of them are lengthy texts providing historical and anecdotal context for the works, drawn from Crimp’s new book, a memoir titled Before Pictures.
To enter the space is to enter a state of overwhelm; my own experience of being made speechless because of so much material coincided with Derrida’s description of “archive fever,” the frenzy of chasing the origin. There is a limit to what one’s mind can take in and process. Confronting the excess of this exhibition leaves one — or at least this viewer — in a state of paralysis. I left the gallery with my notepad filled with dates, names, places, and their relation to one another, my arms filled with handouts and texts. My mind could not properly digest all of the information in a clear manner.
This is precisely what I believe I was meant to experience. Trauma, and indeed, melancholia, renders one speechless, in a state of paralysis, unable to digest what one has experienced. As a result, the experience is stored elsewhere — in this case, in the exhibition, an archive or holding place for the remnants and the origins. As Cathy Caruth states at the beginning of her interview with Crimp: “Trauma can be experienced in at least two ways: as a memory that one cannot integrate into one’s experience, and as a catastrophic knowledge that one cannot communicate to others.” The magnificence of this exhibition is that it performs its contents: it renders the viewer unable to comprehend or reduce the complexity of human experience.
Douglas Crimp – Before Pictures New York City 1967-1977 continues at Galerie Buchholz (17 E 82nd Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through October 22.