PRINT January 1988


HANNE DARBOVEN'S CONSTUCT OF TIME is about the transience of life, the inevitable passage of time. Even the most ingenious ideas become obscure with the years unless they are saved from oblivion and repositioned in a contemporary context. The present determines whether the past is still alive, and perspectives on the past have shifted according to the needs of the times. Today our present feels as endangered as the past. We become further disoriented in our spatiotemporal relationships as countless historical fragments float randomly out of context, burying us deeper in amnesia and heightening our sense of loss.

In defiance of this loss, Darboven has set up constructs of time in writing. What she writes may include her selection of small factual details of life as well as its important events, “facts about humanity that move me”1 such as quotes from literature, or entries from the 1973 edition of the Brockhaus encyclopedia. Through the accretion of these miscellaneous artifacts she builds up a context for her own rendering of time. Often, the leftover space on the page is filled up with her “daily writing,” the rising and falling of lines—the rhythm of writing without its alphabet. But at a certain point often comes a long dash, usually accompanied by the written-out word “dash(es),” or “Gedankenstrich(e).” For Darboven, this dash means “no comment,” or “no more words.”

Proust wrote, “The time that is ours to use each day is elastic: the passions that we feel dilate it, those that we inspire contract it, and habit fills it.”2 Darboven's constructs of time stretch it, shorten it, and fill it. In triggering a memory in the viewer through one of her images, she works the past and illuminates the present. Precisely through her force of habit, her persistent daily creation of a visual fragment of writing, she attempts to obstruct human numbness and forgetfulness.

Time, however, cannot be regained. While fragments of seconds, days, months, and even centuries overlapping each other can be secured day by day through the ritual of daily writing and the reification and localization of time in the space of the page, the changing dates are a record and a reminder of time passing. Irrevocably, tomorrow will turn into today, or “heute,” which she will write on the page only to cross out when it is no longer true.

Darboven already felt the weight of the past strongly enough when she graduated from the Hochschule für Bildende Künste in Hamburg, West Germany, in 1965, that she needed to break with it completely. That year she left the “Old World” for New York, to which she has returned many times since. Her journeys back and forth between Hamburg and New York constitute a desire to shift perspectives, to juxtapose differences, to be both outsider and insider, both to free herself from and to preserve the charge of culture and history, a desire crystallized in works such as Ansichten '82 and ...'85 (Views, 1982 and 1985). During Darboven's first stay in New York, in a small apartment on East 90th Street, she developed her “Konstruktionen,” linear constructions of numbers executed in pencil on graph paper. In February 1968, back in Hamburg, she wrote, “I built up something by having disturbed something: destruction becomes construction.

Action interrupts contemplation, as the means of accepting something among many given alternatives, for accepting nothing becomes chaos. A system became necessary: how else could I in a concentrated way find something of interest which lends itself to continuation? My systems are numerical concepts, which work in terms of progressions and/or reductions akin to musical themes with variations.”3 If these numerical concepts allowed “continuation,” they were also extensible to infinity. This potentially overwhelming limitlessness the artist humanized by establishing the practice of dailiness to which she still adheres.

The date, as fixed in the Gregorian calendar, is one of our systems of recording and measuring time. And Darboven uses it to personify time, basing various constructs upon it. She may write out the date in full, or she may replace it with numbers. January 1, 1988, for instance, can be written 1.1.88. These numbers themselves can be translated into a program of linked units, each consisting of one upward and one downward stroke: for example, 1 plus 1 plus 8 plus 8 equals 18; 18 can be expressed by one row of ten units and a second of eight, with at the end of the respective rows the Arabic numerals 10 and 8. Innumerable variations on these formulations have appeared in Darboven's work over the years. And though the pages of daily writing completed over a chosen time will all be structurally alike, sometimes conforming together to a particular underlying mathematical system, it is also the case that within each page, and within each line of each page, the handwriting evokes the emotive quality of the unique moment in which it was written. These differences and samenesses are the work's life force.

In the project here, recurring rows of up-and-down strokes fill the lines of each daily page, taking them over. In replacing words with abstract handwriting syntax and literary meaning are eliminated in favor of energy and duration. The illegibility of the characteristic script becomes secondary to its vitality as it moves steadily on from line to line in an undulating motion, a melodic or atonal flow analogous to phenomena such as echoing sound waves, or receding and advancing tides. Hanne Darboven scribes graphs of time in time. A static spatial construct—provided in the project by logarithmic graph paper, which is divided into sets of ten lines incrementally increasing in height, indicating expansion as well as contraction—is overlaid with a dynamic temporal one. The result is familiar but alien. In conventional terms, it is almost antiesthetic in its repetitive plainness “I both write and draw,” the artist has said, “because ‘no more words’ is a writing process, it's not a drawing process. The writing fills the space as a drawing would, it turns out to be esthetic, but that wasn't my first aim.”

These graphs of time are both predictable and unpredictable. Pages upon pages of writing, each unique but each like the other, may seem as monotonous as everyday life can be, but the repetition resembles Gertrude Stein's use of repetition, which also works to stretch out the present, to make it endure. Stein liberated words from their usual treadmill and recast them as plastic entities: “Once started expressing this thing, expressing anything there can be no repetition because the essence of that expression is insistence, and if you insist you must each time use emphasis and if you use emphasis it is not possible while anybody is alive that they should use exactly the same emphasis. . . . It is exactly like a frog hopping he cannot ever hop exactly the same distance or the same way of hopping at every hop.”4 Similarly, Stein wrote that if you listened intensely to people saying the same thing over and over again, eventually “you could hear it rise and fall and tell all that there was inside them”;5 this could be the perfect description of Darboven's upward and downward strokes, and of her use of numbers, which rise from one to ten and then fall, only to start again. This repetitious rhythm has a musical quality, as Stein's work does, and Darboven has in fact written music. In 1971 she incorporated a German version of Stein's poetic line “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose” in one of her “Ein Jahrhundert” (One century) pieces, preceding it with the remark “blumen verblühen” (flowers wither) and adding to it the proposals “I ist I ist I,” “eins ist eins ist eins,” and so forth, and continuing, “ich beschreibe nicht—ich schreibe” (I don't describe—I write). Her work always has its basis in reality, the actual time it takes to do the writing. And that writing has grown much larger than herself; it has become a proof, one of “write, write or die,” in the words of the American poet H. D.6 For only in these continuous daily writings that constantly prolong the present with repetition as a welcome pause for breath (rose is a rose is a rose is a rose) can the losses forced on us by the inevitable passage of time be faced. Once again, today has to be crossed out.

Coosje Van Bruggen is a writer who lives in New York. She is preparing a traveling exhibition of the work of Hanne Darboven.



1. Unless otherwise noted, the quotations of Darboven are from a conversation with the author in Sept. '87.

2. André Maurois, Proust: Portrait of a Genius, 1950m, trans. Gerard Hopkins, New York: Carrol & Graf Publishers, 1978, p. 158.

3. Darboven. “Artists on Their Art,” Art International 4 vol. XII, 20 April 1968, p. 55.

4. Quoted in Carl van Vechten, ed., “A Stein Song,” Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein, New York: Vintage Books, 1972, p. xxii.

5. Quoted in Richard Kostelanetz, “Introduction,” The Yale Gertrude Stein, New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 1980, p. XVI.

6. H. D., “Hermetic Definitions,” in Hermetic Definitions, New York: New Directions, 1972. p. 7.