The current Hanne Darboven installation at Dia:Chelsea, “Kulturegeschichte 1880–1983″ (“Cultural History 1880–1983,” 1980–83), is the artist’s most powerful work. Each time I have seen it, the work has been presented in a new iteration. This is by design — the project is epic and cannot be contained in any coherent fashion. Regardless of how the curators present the work, “Kulturegeschichte 1880–1983” will always push up against the desire for comprehensibility. This resistance to reduction, to a linear, literal reading, is at the core of Darboven’s project.
“Kulturegeschichte 1880–1983” is described by Dia, in the accompanying pamphlet for the exhibit:
Composed of 1,590 sheets, each measuring fifty by seventy centimeters, and nineteen sculptural objects, Cultural History 1880–1983 is one of the most epic works in Darboven’s oeuvre. Weaving together cultural, social, and historical references with autobiographical documents, it synthesizes personal history with collective memory. Deposited among the vast numbers of postcards, pinups of film and rock stars, references to the first and second world wars, geometric diagrams for textile weaving, images of New York doorways and portals, covers of newsmagazines, the contents of an exhibition catalogue of postwar European and American art, and a kitsch literary calendar are extracts from Darboven’s earlier works and mementos of her previous exhibitions.
It would take pages upon pages to describe the full extent of the project and, in this case, the exhibit at Dia. This is part of Darboven’s genius: the construction of a seemingly endless archive that renders the viewer mute. It is not possible to describe each piece within the work nor to detail each aspect of the current iteration. Darboven mirrors reality in the form of countless permutations, which then fragment into a seemingly infinite series of refractions. She does not describe the world around her but rather reflects it, remaining inside and refusing to participate in the distancing and violence of objectification that are inherent in description.
There is a softness, a kind of empathetic touch, to Darboven’s project and its mirroring effect, akin to the writing of fellow German Walter Benjamin. Benjamin’s practice of embedding texts and quotes into his work often resulted in montages — in constellations or scraps of texts — that, like Darboven’s “Kulturegeschichte 1880–1983,” allows for a space between. These spaces are where the artist allows the viewer to piece together the context for understanding the work on her own. By presenting a multitude of images and texts next to one another, including those that reference German culture and history, Darboven is asking the viewer to confront the spaces between and grapple with such questions as “how does a Holocaust occur?” and “how does a culture grieve or not after such an enormous shattering?” There are no easy answers.
In her introduction to Benjamin’s Illuminations, Hannah Arendt writes:
Like a pearl diver who descends to the bottom of the sea, not to excavate the bottom and bring it to light but to pry loose the rich and the strange, the pearls and the coral in the depths, and to carry them to the surface, this thinking delves into the depth of the past—but not in order to resuscitate it the way it was and to contribute to the renewal of extinct ages. What guides this thinking is the conviction that although the living is subject to the ruin of the time, the process of decay is at the same time a process of crystallization, that in the depth of the sea, into which sinks and is dissolved what once was alive, some things “suffer a sea-change” and survive in new crystallized forms and shapes that remain immune to the elements, as though they waited only for the pearl diver who one day will come down to them and bring them up into the world of the living.
If Benjamin was a pearl diver who brought history to the surface, so too was Darboven.
The current exhibit at Dia:Chelsea consists of three rooms which are broken into smaller galleries. The walls are covered with Darboven’s panels containing framed images and objects, including postcards, photographs, letters, and articles. There are also a number of sculptures in the installation: a giant cross, a bell, mannequins, a horse, and a doll with a stuffed bear. As mentioned previously, it’s not possible to describe all of the works included; there are so many. For example, each wall panel consists of a number of framed images, and each wall of the exhibit is covered, as if by wallpaper, in back-to-back panels. The result is that the viewer is made dumb. The mind cannot fathom what is happening as it is happening. As Dan Adler writes in his book Hanne Darboven: Cultural History 1880-1983:
Cultural History is relentlessly resistant to being read in terms of an overriding system. Idiosyncratic linkages, a few visual 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.
The experience of walking through Darboven’s installation is one of overwhelm and speechlessness, both symptoms of trauma and shock. It relates to Darboven’s hometown, Hamburg, which was carpet-bombed during her formative years. In July 1943, British and US military forces destroyed Hamburg in an attack that was named Operation Gomorrah and killed 42,600 civilians. The Darbovens fled their house in the suburbs of Hamburg before the event took place, yet the obliteration of her hometown — the absolute flattening that occurs as a result of carpet-bombing — is, in a sense, what we witness in Darboven’s work: a flattening of meaning and history in the endless panels and images. Darboven’s project is a means of relaying the trauma of war via a secondary experience that is fractured, fragmented, and devoid of any true meaning.
The speechlessness one encounters is produced by her overwhelming repetitions. This practice of presenting a seemingly infinite stream of images without any context, without explanation of any kind, allows for a collecting, rather than a cohering, of history’s memories. As Benjamin writes in “On the Concept of History“:
The true picture of the past whizzes by. Only as a picture, which flashes its final farewell in the moment of its recognizability, is the past to be held fast. “The truth will not run away from us” – this remark by Gottfried Keller denotes the exact place where historical materialism breaks through historicism’s picture of history. For it is an irretrievable picture of the past, which threatens to disappear with every present, which does not recognize itself as meant in it.
History is relayed to us by historians who choose what and whose stories to recall. This is not an objective account — historians are, after all, human. What Darboven’s “Cultural History” attempts is to carry the past without providing context. In this way we are able, perhaps, to see history as it truly is — complicated and without a single narrator and never easily reduced.
Hanne Darboven: Kulturegeschichte 1880–1983 (Cultural History 1880–1983) continues at Dia:Chelsea (545 West 22nd Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through July 29.