PRINT February 2017


On the occasion of “Hanne Darboven: Kulturgeschichte 1880–1983” currently on view at Dia:Chelsea, New York, and “Hanne Darboven: Packed Time” opening February 25 at Sammlung Falckenberg, Hamburg, contributing editor Bruce Hainley speculatively explores the artist’s epic activation of personal and political history.

View of “Hanne Darboven: Kulturgeschichte 1880–1983 (Cultural History 1880–1983),” 2016–17, Dia:Chelsea, New York. Photo: Bill Jacobson. © Hanne Darboven Foundation, Hamburg/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

HANNE DARBOVEN’S FATHER, CÄSAR—trained as a chemist, heir to and head of his family’s coffee-roasting business, which expanded during World War II as the coffee supplier for the Nazi forces1—“smoked some seventy cigarettes a day.”2 His daughter equaled, or perhaps even surpassed, his daily habit: She was rarely seen or pictured without a cigarette in hand. Lawrence Weiner remembers Darboven smoking Salem menthols in the 1970s (“We constantly kidded her about it”).3 Was the preference merely funny? Perhaps it signaled other cultural echoes, other milieus, concerns, affinities, however far-flung. For instance, menthols have historically been preferred by many African American smokers. (Dave Chappelle had some fun with this in his “I Know Black People” game-show sketch. The comedian asks contestants, “Why do black people love menthols so much?” “I don’t know,” a social worker answers. “That is correct!” Chappelle replies. “Nobody knows for sure.”) At some point, Darboven switched to Reyno menthols; she bought them by the carton. When, in the last decade of her life, “smoking was banned on major airlines, she reluctantly transferred from Lufthansa to Air India for long-haul flights,” as Lynne Cooke has recalled. “After that carrier, too, was forced to conform, she preferred to stay at home.”4

WHAT ARE OFTEN DESCRIBED as Darboven’s “lines and loops,”5 her “cryptic alphanumeric notations, sometimes just the lowercase letter U,”6 even “non-signifying, dateless wavy lines,”7 could be seen as graphic exhalations of smoke. Take, for example, the miasmal haze in Ohne Titel (Endlosschriftschwünge, Studie zu 7 Tafeln, II) (Untitled [Endless Text, Study for 7 Panels, II]), 1972; or the dissipating mantle in today, a project she did for Artforum in 1988.

AM I THE ONLY ONE to stumble over “cryptic” and/or “non-signifying”? The tattoos used at Auschwitz, only for those prisoners not immediately sent to the gas chambers, were clearly alphanumeric signs.

“I GREW UP WITH THE FEELING that something was being kept from me: at home, at school, and by the German writers whose books I read hoping to glean more information about the monstrous events in the background of my own life,” W. G. Sebald writes at the start of “A Natural History of Destruction” (2002).8 He was born in 1944, three years after Darboven, one year before Rainer Werner Fassbinder. When did Darboven realize her family’s financial involvement with the Fascists, their role in helping to keep the troops awake, warmed, caffeinated, for those monstrous events?

“DARBOVEN’S WORK,” critic Isabelle Graw instructs, “with its handwriting exercises and checklists, carries us back to our own school days.” She further notes that for Lucy R. Lippard, writing in Artforum in 1973, “‘it recalls the pleasure of counting rhythmically out loud.’”9

THE CLASSROOM was never a dear or favorite place for Darboven: Postwar,

social differences between pupils . . . diverged widely. Hanne was counted among the children of “the rich.” The fact that she wore a different dress every day of the week while many children went barefoot was proof enough for them. A group of boys from her class had it in for Hanne and several times beat her up so badly in the schoolyard that [her father] called in the police.10

DARBOVEN’S ARITHMETIC, constantly calculated, concerns things not adding up, not tallying to any rationality or totalization: Life doesn’t compute. “1 + 1 = 1, 2; 2 = 1, 2” is her repeating equation for this dilemma. Havoc’s accountant, Darboven started each day on her relentless, impossible actuarial endeavor. Fassbinder could have storyboarded scenes from her life in all their unresolved pathos, dark comedy, and matter-of-fact tension between poise and anarchy. Germanicity and longing, or (after Fassbinder) Die Sehnsucht der Hanne Darboven.

THE ARTIST considered herself a writer, and all of her work a form of writing. Plenty of Sehnsucht (longing) in that consideration alone. From the early 1960s, Darboven’s writing consisted of graphic repetitions, usually in pencil and/or ink (but eventually employing many printing techniques), often incorporating appropriated text snared from literary, historical, and encyclopedic sources. She would juxtapose this ceaseless chirography with photographic elements, then frame and arrange the precise combinations into wall-hung grids, some of them entailing hundreds of framed panels. In 1978, the writer-artist (playwright-scenographer?) began to use archival objects—often drawn from the expanding personal collection prop-mastered in her home (which, from a certain vantage, took on aspects of the Winchester Mystery House)—as ready-made operators or dramatic devices, which activate the sprawling grids into quasi-cinematic scenery and convert her “installations” into strangely traumatic tableaux (the kind, almost, that Robert Wilson usually makes insufferable). By the end of her career, she had repurposed dolls, a large silver wooden robot, a pink swan, a teddy bear, colonialist African totems, maps, dollhouses, a giant crescent moon, mannequins variously attired, shopwindow statuettes, furniture, musical instruments, an advertisement kiosk, a clock/soldier, a horse, a rainmaker, a large cross, a Bible, a bespoke dinosaur, and so on.

DARBOVEN: “I remember as a child all the bombs falling on Hamburg in World War II. After the Hitler regime we had to live with the terrible consequences and these have always been with me and are present in my work. I don’t need to tell you that war is totally terrible. World War I was crazy and World War II sheer ideology and idolatry, then [came] the Cold War between East and West.”11

Hanne Darboven in her home-studio, Am Burgberg, Hamburg, ca. 1987–88.

DARBOVEN SPENT MUCH OF HER LIFE living on a property her father bought from the Hamburg industrialist Adolf Brinckmann. Sebald gives an account of the city of her childhood. On July 28, 1943, the Royal Air Force, supported by the United States Eighth Army Air Force, flew a series of raids on Hamburg. “The aim of Operation Gomorrah, as it was called, was to destroy the city,” Sebald writes, “and reduce it to ashes.”

A firestorm arose of an intensity that no one would ever before have thought possible. Reaching more than a mile into the sky, it snatched oxygen to itself so violently that the air currents reached hurricane force, resonating like mighty organs with all the stops pulled out at once.

The fire burned like this for three hours. At its height, the storm lifted gables and roofs from buildings, flung rafters and entire advertising kiosks through the air, tore trees from the ground, and drove human beings before it like living torches. . . . The smoke had risen to a height of five miles, where it spread like a vast, anvil-shaped cumulonimbus cloud. A wavering heat, which the bomber pilots said they had felt through the sides of their planes, continued to rise from the smoking, glowing mounds of stone. Residential districts whose street lengths totalled a hundred and twenty miles were utterly destroyed. Horribly disfigured corpses lay everywhere. Bluish little phosphorus flames still flickered around many of them; others had been roasted brown or purple and reduced to a third of their normal size. They lay doubled up in pools of their own melted fat, which had sometimes already congealed. The central death zone was declared a no-go area in the next few days. When labor gangs of prisoners and camp inmates could begin clearing it, in August, after the rubble had cooled down, they found people still sitting at the tables where they had been overcome by carbon monoxide.

Elsewhere, clumps of flesh and bone or whole heaps of bodies had cooked in the water gushing from bursting boilers. Other victims had been so badly charred and reduced to ashes by the heat, which had risen to a thousand degrees or more, that the remains of families consisting of several people could be carried away in a single laundry basket.12

Now consider Darboven’s use of an advertising kiosk in her massive, unruly, and yet relentlessly gridded work Kulturgeschichte 1880–1983 (Cultural History 1880–1983), 1980–83. Made up of more than fifteen hundred framed photographs, magazine covers, drawings, postcards, and bits of ephemera, the overwhelming and enthralling confabulation (stretching floor to rafters, interspersed with objects ranging from a pair of sneakerless mannequins dressed as joggers to a giant teddy bear) is as much “cultural history” as it is personal salvage mission. Or consider her 24 Gesänge, Opus 14, 15, a, b (24 Songs, Opus 14, 15, a, b), 1984, for solo organ, emblematic of her numerous musical scores and their parallel system of notation and iteration. Her younger sister, in Rasmus Gerlach’s 2016 documentary on the artist, Timeswings: The Art of Hanne Darboven, says that a bomb fell “nine feet” from the family property. I’m not sure what that means, or whether the bomb ever exploded. I do know that the utterly unknowable and the utterly visceral seem to go hand in hand in Darboven’s work. Darboven claimed that “the total abstraction of art is music.” See total abstraction in relation to the real; the sublime in relation to a laundry basket of soft ash.

DARBOVEN TALLIED UP the experience of forty years of the Cold War—what she called “the time after Hitler”: “My friends and myself took our experiences personally and severely. We felt that there was barely a space left for existence given the circumstances of the Cold War.”13

THE TITLE of Graw’s keen essay “Work Ennobles—I’m Staying Bourgeois (Hanne Darboven)” is borrowed from the artist’s archive, as the author notes immediately: “‘Arbeit adelt, ich bleibe bürgerlich.’ Inscription on a china plate illustrated in Darboven’s book Bismarckzeit and recorded as being in her own collection.”14 Yet Graw never mentions, at least explicitly, the potential haunting of that inscription by another: “Arbeit macht frei.”

DARBOVEN: “Numbers are the most neutral way of talking about things; no names, no objects, just the counting of numbers and the use of dates.”15 But six million isn’t neutral, and certain dates take on such importance that we give them names: Kristallnacht, Pearl Harbor, D-day. Far from neutrality, isn’t the symptom of the number connected to trauma? Wasn’t she always counting bodies? With her millions of pages, innumerable formulas, she wrote a tome that can stand as a kind of book of the dead as well as l’écriture du désastre. Any score she composed to accompany her art became, in addition to its other qualities, a dirge. None of which is to say that when she declared her work “was all about life,” it wasn’t. Cf. Nietzsche.


I know now that at the time, when I was lying in my bassinet on the balcony of our house and looking up at the pale-blue sky, there was a pall of smoke over all Europe, over the rearguard actions in the East and the West, over the ruins of the German cities, over the camp where untold numbers of people were burned: people from Berlin and Frankfurt, from Wuppertal and Vienna, from Würzburg and Bad Kissingen, from Hilversum and The Hague, Namur and Thionville, Lyons and Bordeaux, Kraków and Lodz, Szeged and Sarajevo, Salonika and Rhodes, Ferrara and Venice—there was scarcely a place in Europe from which no one had been deported to death in those years.16

DARBOVEN’S UNDULATING, “non-signifying” marks: a pall of smoke, rising? Gas spreading?

HER EARLY Ohne Titel (Konstruktionszeichnungen New York) (Untitled [Construction Drawings New York]), 1966–67, however clearly “rule-based” and made out of the “tension between surface and system,”17 creates a wavering field of something being obscured. No one seems willing to see the grids and systems as a way of confronting the derangement of the German culture Darboven was born into; her hand, not unlike Lee Lozano’s, a way of disrupting too smooth a systemization. Consider her “Conceptualism” and “Construction Drawings” in light of the countless new grids and girdings to rebuild postwar Germany. Sebald again:

From the outset, the now legendary—and in some respects genuinely admirable—reconstruction of the country after the devastation wrought by Germany’s wartime enemies, a reconstruction tantamount to a second liquidation, in successive phases, of the nation’s past, prohibited any look backward. It did so through the sheer amount of labor required and the creation of a new, faceless reality, pointing the population exclusively toward the future and enjoining on it silence about the past.18

Vergangenheitsbewältigung (coming to terms with history) is one kind of reckoning. Sebald dared to broach another, an inheritance of the psychically fraught confrontation with the catastrophic obliteration by the allies of German cities for Germans: how to account for national shame and, simultaneously, the consequences of wartime retribution, while nevertheless working through the devastation, which had to have been, also, devastating. Darboven’s project can be seen as a similar kind of working-through of traumatic events—of a trauma that perhaps cannot ethically be acknowledged as trauma.

Hanne Darboven, Kulturgeschichte 1880–1983 (Cultural History 1880–1983) (detail), 1980–83, 1,590 framed works on paper in various media, nineteen sculptures. Installation view, Dia Center for the Arts, New York, 1996–97. Photo: Bill Jacobson. © Hanne Darboven Foundation, Hamburg/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

AT TIMES, there’s something exhausting about Darboven’s work—thrilling and exhausting. Her homage to Gertrude Stein doesn’t surprise. Gerlach’s documentary spins around twelve minutes of color footage of the artist from the early ’90s. The scenes of her smoking, calling and talking to her beloved goats, strolling her property, bickering with her mother, raising a toast to assembled relatives—such cinematic biographemes warm the often cool reserve of her art and her silence. Of course, aspects of the stuff pulled from her hoarder’s manse into works accomplish that as well. I haven’t mentioned her For Abraham Lincoln, 1989, which uses elements from a desktop calendar of that year for featuring images of the jazz greats—Ella Fitzgerald to John Coltrane, Sarah Vaughan to Ornette Coleman—fragments from the Brockhaus Enzyklopädie entry on Abraham Lincoln, and a repeating black-and-white photograph of a fraught object from her home-studio. Gallery records describe this object as a “wooden pedestal with an elaborate, lathe-turned base which supports a vintage sculpture of a black slave. Bending as if presenting a delicacy to his master, he holds a tray on which a tiny doll stands, similar to a dressed voodoo doll. That puppet—dressed in a black suit, white shirt, black bow tie, with a beard and top hat—is easily identifiable as Abraham Lincoln.” To whom is the presidential fetish being offered? Donald Kuspit wrote in these pages in 1993, in relation to the piece, that the “myth of [Lincoln’s] emancipation of the slaves persists in US history despite the passage of time—even if it has been tarnished by the unfulfilled promise of full equality.”19 But the photosculptural complication would also seem to answer a call made long after, by Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s antagonism of the “undercommons,” in that the totem of the slave overwhelms and holds up/supports the dinky Lincoln, becoming a figure for so many unacknowledged economic fundamentals on which the union of the states was founded.20 There could be other allegories conveyed by the thing. While their involvement in the coffee business would have made certain members of the Darboven family keenly aware of Germany’s colonialist commercial expansion, of course there might have been events much closer at hand: The Lincoln piece, all appearances to the contrary, could reckon not with the difficulty of American unity but, hot on the heels of the fall of the Berlin Wall, some displaced confrontation of a new German unity. Nor have I addressed Quartett >88<, 1988, the ensemble that pays homage to Stein, as well as to Marie Curie, Rosa Luxemburg, and Virginia Woolf, through photographic portraits of the women in relation to a mannequin in what might be thought of as typical springtime German attire—white frock, little vest, proper shoes. The mannequin has a smile on her face, but no arms. However else the fräulein’s state might be construed, I keep circling back to what it means to resist unarmed, who has the right to bear arms, and how to be disarming to life’s opponents.

DARBOVEN’S STRIKETHROUGHS, e.g., heute: contrariety of now and never, a today that cannot be achieved or ever even arrive without the negotiation of a past and future.

WHATEVER CLAIMS OTHERS (Sol LeWitt, etc.) had on her erotic life, Darboven was intensely coupled: She lived with her mother in her home-studio, Am Burgberg, for decades, until her mother’s death. In Timeswings, there is footage of the two women getting out of the family Volkswagen convertible, after running errands, mother in the driver’s seat. Darboven’s vet tells stories of the artist bringing a goat to him after she had indulged him in too many treats: The lovely creature would ride in the Beetle’s backseat, which would be spotted with droppings after the ride, to the concern of no one. Darboven’s mother was Danish, which Gerlach’s documentary suggests caused some bristling among the Fascists. In the film, mother and daughter talk over each other, not always lovingly, not always not. A useful comparison between Darboven and Marianne Moore, whose own home life was motherbound, not merely via counting (syllabics), precision, or quotational drive, has yet to be written. And while Graw has wondered “what kind of work would hold up in [Darboven’s] parents’ eyes,”21 no one has wondered what her mother thought of her daughter’s endeavors. I’ve been too quick to track the paternal, patriarchal imprimatur on Darboven’s pursuits, but what of her writing can be accounted for as a maternal scroll and scrawl? Despite the alarums of the Vaterland, what of the resistance within Muttersprache?

MY FRIEND JANE mentions that Darboven’s haircut could be seen as a thorny, quasi-reparative gesture: the close cropping of a war prisoner.

WITH BISMARCKZEIT (Bismarck Time), 1978, Darboven introduced a sculptural element into her Schreibzeit, or “writingtime,” which is also her “writingwork”: a bronze sculpture of Prussian minister and then imperial chancellor Otto von Bismarck with one of his Great Danes, the Reichshunde (his favorite was Sultan, whom he called Sulti to avoid any diplomatic tensions with Turkey). While the object creates one context, Darboven pulls against it in writing within the framed components that form the background, or backdrop, or script, for the sculpture. In Bismarckzeit, Darboven “describes the funeral service for August Bebel, the great Social Democrat and political antagonist of Bismarck.” She would continue to fine-tune the discombobulation of pictures, writing, and things, putting them into productive cross-purposes. But how and why did she come to the decision to use things in the first place? Bismarckzeit has been seen to link its “historical dimension with the political present of the year 1978”22 (in no small part owing to Darboven’s quotations from a contemporaneous article by Willy Brandt, leader of the Social Democratic Party—the first elected chancellor since 1930—and 1971 Nobel Laureate for Peace). I wonder how she was struck or inspired by the events of autumn 1977: the abduction by the Red Army Faction of industrialist (and former SS officer) Hanns Martin Schleyer; the skyjacking of a Lufthansa jet to Mogadishu by Palestinian allies of the RAF; the deaths of the RAF inmates in Stammheim Prison, followed by Schleyer’s execution. Was her turn to objects similar to the impulse of the filmmakers who came together to make the seminal Deutschland im Herbst (Germany in Autumn, 1978) “in the heat of the moment”? For the creators of the film, as Félix Guattari wrote, it was “essentially a matter of getting out of the RAF–West Germany confrontation, of the repression-reprisals cycle, of the quasi-symmetrical simplification of ideologies in opposition.” Guattari saw that

for the most part, the filmmakers manage to keep their own reactions on the most immediate level: on the level of what they felt and what they saw camera in hand; they film their squabbles with their peers, they stage their own fantasies. On such a serious topic, in such a dramatic context, that takes guts. . . . Through each sequence, we are witnessing the proliferation of the escape routes, sometimes minor, laughable, or bizarre, that personally enabled the authors to become disengaged, to a certain extent, from this Manichaean drama.23

Darboven’s escape route: things.

IN HIS STUDY of Kulturgeschichte 1880–1983, scholar Dan Adler states that “Darboven displays material culture according to the Brechtian notion of putting reality on a stage as ‘hieroglyphic clues’ or as fetishistic activity in fossilized form—as in the case of weathered items from shop-window displays. The fragmentary reminiscences evoked by these items constitute part of the public’s collective memory, the sort of historical recollection that is incompatible with conventional historical scholarship.”24 Yet he never suggests how or why Darboven came to the decision to use things at all. A clue might lie in Fassbinder’s notorious sequence for Germany in Autumn, in which the director argues with his mother, Liselotte Pempeit, both playing themselves. They have heated discussions about the current crises, democracy, and free speech in light of the Nazi past. Fassbinder argues with his boyfriend, Armin Meier, who also plays himself; things get intense between them when Meier declares that he thinks the RAF members should be executed. Already on a bender, Fassbinder flushes drugs, freaking out that the police might raid his apartment. Yet whatever else is transpiring, he’s working through it all, on the phone, writing, discussing projects, working in spite of or energized by the chaos around him. I wonder: Did Darboven ever have similar scenes with her mother? Did she ever think about acting out such scenes? Both Darboven and Fassbinder were determined to find new ways, as Guattari put it, not “to echo the collective melancholy that ha[d] present-day Germany in its grip.”25 Perhaps the events of autumn 1977 pushed Darboven to constellate her writing work with hard evidence—with Fassbinder-like reality effects from the stuff she, neatnik accumulator, amassed and lived with at Am Burgberg: Things, not unlike Fassbinder’s troupe of actors, were given roles playing themselves in Darboven’s theater-in-the-round, only to be moved back to the place that housed them when the given exhibition finished, their status as either artwork or everyday object resistant, recalcitrant, and yet somehow incontrovertible.

IN TIMESWINGS, Darboven brutally dismisses Gerhard Richter’s October 18, 1977, 1988, created so long after the fact: “Was ist das?” She suggests the paintings were merely strategic, convenient things made to be sold. Meanwhile, writingtime was earning her death threats, no sales. Despite the seeming opacity or illegibility of her undulating marks, she stockpiled an entire archive of the threats. “I don’t look at them, but I didn’t throw them away. That’s what I had to go through: I was writingtime.”26

DARBOVEN ORGANIZED the stuff of désoeuvrement and put it into melodramatic action. Perhaps when Fassbinder pushed the limits of how someone could embody selfhood in all its stubborn difficulty, even intractability, placing his mother, his lover, and himself in the spotlight, he triggered something for Darboven about how she could stage things as abstracted aesthetic devices and abreactions in the guise of the real. And yet still stubborn, unnerving evidence.

View of “Hanne Darboven: Kulturgeschichte 1880–1983 (Cultural History 1880–1983),” 2016–17, Dia:Chelsea, New York. Photo: Bill Jacobson. © Hanne Darboven Foundation, Hamburg/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

ONE WAY OF THINKING ABOUT Kulturgeschichte 1880–1983: It’s Darboven’s response to Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980), specifically its daunting, outrageous, harrowing epilogue, which . . . how to nutshell the phantasmagoric ravishing Fassbinder unleashed? Imagine a delirious (drug-fueled?) dream analysis of German culture, Vergangenheitsbewältigung to the beat of Kraftwerk, a brilliant, ferocious artist facing his and his country’s past, so that the building boil of fascist subtext of what’s preceded over fifteen hours in his film based on Alfred Döblin’s 1929 novel comes to fester, and glitter.

IN HIS ASTOUNDING NOVEL Ingrid Caven (2000), Jean-Jacques Schuhl writes a life for his titular conspirator, singer, and muse—onetime wife of Fassbinder, star of his films and those of Werner Schroeter, Daniel Schmid, and Claire Denis, among others. To find a tone for the new millennium, to take the pulse of Jetztzeit, he considers Caven in the light of avatars of the resilient feminine she encounters, whether actually or not. So Jackie Kennedy walks down the enfilade of White House staterooms and Dean Rusk sees her approach slowly: on her Chanel suit, some scattered bits of the exploded brain of the young sex-maniac president. Schuhl asks, in a question that shifts prismatically from Jackie to Caven before it ends, “History, her story, which is it?” Not satisfied with contradiction, Schuhl puts the answers in terms of punning universals as well as ornamental scintillants, limitless atrocity as well as monadic, sensuous pleasure. “War, camps, torture, terrorists? Or Hotel Scribe, opium, perfume? The two telephone lines cross in the cosmos. Cosmos: ancient Greek word signifying at once universe and finery.”27

DARBOVEN CONSTELLATES her pursuits around historical figures—artists, philosophers, writers, Meistersinger—but the things that came to populate her work are the stuff of ein Volk. Material culture, from shopwindows, advertising wares, tourist artifacts. She eventually composes her own music of the spheres for her constellations, which, like that Chanel suit, are spattered with bits of exploded history.

AFTER THE EPILOGUE of Berlin Alexanderplatz, rename Darboven’s Für Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1982–83, as Mein Traum vom Traum der Rainer Werner Fassbinder (My Dream of the Dream of Rainer Werner Fassbinder). She time writes, or directs, her portrait-homage to Fassbinder while finishing Kulturgeschichte 1880–1983, and a key still from The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979)—Fassbinder on the prowl with Hanna Schygulla—appears in both. My hypothesis: On some level, Fassbinder’s work did for Darboven what Douglas Sirk’s did for him—it had something to do with a release of emotion, via objects that simultaneously instigated and resisted his/her feelings about them. Here is Fassbinder on Sirk’s A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1958):

For the first time in a work by Douglas Sirk a small love, unprepossessing people. With big, incredulous eyes they stare at what’s happening around them. It’s all unfathomable to them, the bombs, the Gestapo, the madness. Under the circumstances love is the simplest thing, something you can hang onto. And so you cling to it. But I wouldn’t like to be forced to imagine what would happen to the two of them if John survived the war. The war and its horrors are only the backdrop. You can’t make a film about war. How wars come about—that would be important, and what effect they have on people or leave behind. This isn’t a pacifist film, either, because you never for a minute say to yourself, Without this gruesome war everything would be so beautiful or whatever. Remarque’s novel, A Time to Live and a Time to Die, is pacifist. Remarque says that without war this would be an eternal love; Sirk says that without war there wouldn’t be any love here.28

Just because Darboven devoted Schreibzeit to Fassbinder doesn’t mean she agrees with him on every matter. Both resonating with Fassbinder and diverging from Sirk’s cathexes, Darboven arranges an array of errant mementos: stationery from the Gramercy Park Hotel (creating a link to her and his time in New York); pre- and postwar German postcards, depicting bucolic vacation spots, pleasure craft, zeppelins, illustrations of soldiers helping their own on the battlefield, the destroyed “Hermann Göring Haus,” an anonymous fräulein. All of these are juxtaposed with a memorial photograph of an unknown German soldier that repeats over and over within Darboven’s ubiquitous red Der Spiegel–inspired borders, syncopated by her vivid green self-designed Ubiquist postcards and the still of Fassbinder and Schygulla, as well as Fassbinder’s 1981 essay on his accomplice’s career, “Hanna Schygulla—Not a Star, Just a Vulnerable Human Being Like the Rest of Us: Disorderly Thoughts about an Interesting Woman.” Hans Dickel’s searching essay for the publication that accompanied the exhibition of Für Rainer Werner Fassbinder (it is nuanced about Darboven’s engagement with the politics of the moment—e.g., Dickel sees the green of the Ubiquist cards as referring to the Green Party) nevertheless pits the two artists against each other, as signaled in its title, “Concept Art gegen Melodram—ein Bilderstreit” (Conceptual Art Against Melodrama: An Image Contest).29 But what if those two modes aren’t in opposition? What if an artist can oscillate between both, or borrow from both? In any case, Darboven’s turn to objects, not to mention music, brings chronicle into fantasy, narration into intransigence, proffers sheer abstraction of matter as the real with which anyone must deal.

FASSBINDER DESCRIBED the complex situation of the artist in postwar Germany by way of a synopsis of the career of the eponymous actress of his film Lili Marleen (1981) (based in part on the life of Lale Andersen). He cuts to the chase: There’s “the phenomenon of someone within the Nazi regime, or any such regime, wherever it may be, who wants to survive in a way that isn’t simply a matter of collaborating. [Lili] just very consciously wants to survive. . . . You have someone who thinks she’s an artist and wants to be a success even under such a regime. Never mind whether it’s the Third Reich or not.”30

WHAT DOES IT MEAN to want—desperately, faltering between success and debacle—to be a “great artist,” even in the pseudoculture of “such a regime”? (Am I alone in sensing that something like this question is why Darboven’s work reverberates so wildly today?)

THE PART OF the Luftwaffe will be played by crescent moon.
The part of Kindertransport will be played by hobbyhorse.
The part of drowned brother will be played by empty rocking chair.
The part of colonialism and the coffee business will be played by two blackamoors.
The part of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau will be played by pink swan.
The part of ein Volk will be played by barefoot mannequins in jogging gear.
The part of the late-capitalist ideology will be played by old wooden robot.
The part of the artist will be played by waiter and cook statuettes.
The part of the Marshall Plan will be played by Bruce Springsteen, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, and Debbie Harry.
The part of now will be played by then.

“Hanne Darboven: Kulturgeschichte1880–1983 (Cultural History 1880–1983)” is on view at Dia:Chelsea through July 29. “Hanne Darboven: Packed Time,” organized by the Deichtorhallen Hamburg in cooperation with the Hanne Darboven Foundation, is on view at Sammlung Falckenberg, Hamburg, Feb. 25–Sept. 3, 2017.

Bruce Hainley is a contributing editor of Artforum. He is Associate Chair of graduate art at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, CA.

View today, a project by Hanne Darboven, with an introduction by Coosje Van Bruggen, from January 1988.


For Mr. Fox and Ms. Pichini.

1. Verena Berger, Hanne Darboven: Boundless, trans. Benjamin Carter and Amy Klement (Ostfildern, Germany: Hatje Cantz, 2015), 26.

2. Ibid., 20.

3. Ibid., 128.

4. Lynne Cooke, “Open Work: Hanne Darboven (1941–2009),” Artforum, Summer 2009, 57.

5. Isabelle Graw, “Work Ennobles––I’m Staying Bourgeois (Hanne Darboven),” trans. David Britt, in Inside the Visible: An Elliptical Traverse of 20th Century Art in, or, and from the Feminine, ed. M. Catherine de Zegher, exh. cat. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996), 248.

6. Jason Farago, “The Perils of Order, Taken to the Extreme,” New York Times, December 8, 2016.

7. Susanne Klein, “Für Rainer Werner Fassbinder,” in Hanne Darboven: Enlightenment—Time Histories: A Retrospective, ed. Okwui Enwezor and Rein Wolfs, exh. cat. (Munich: Prestel, 2015), 110.

8. W. G. Sebald, “A Natural History of Destruction,” trans. Anthea Bell, New Yorker, November 4, 2002, 66.

9. Graw, “Work Ennobles,” 249.

10. Berger, Hanne Darboven, 31.

11. “Time and Time Again: Hanne Darboven Interviewed by Mark Gisbourne,” Art Monthly, November 1994, 4.

12. Sebald, “A Natural History of Destruction,” 70.

13. “Time and Time Again,” 4.

14. Graw, “Work Ennobles,” 254.

15. “Time and Time Again,” 6.

16. Sebald, “A Natural History of Destruction,” 66.

17. Samuel Johnson, “Ohne Title (Konstruktionszeichnungen New York),” in Enwezor and Wolfs, Hanne Darboven, 62.

18. Sebald, “A Natural History of Destruction,” 68.

19. Donald Kuspit, “Hanne Darboven,” Artforum, October 1993, 87.

20. Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study (New York: Minor Compositions, 2013).

21. Graw, “Work Ennobles,” 253.

22. Johanna Adam, “Bismarckzeit,” in Enwezor and Wolfs, Hanne Darboven, 92.

23. Félix Guattari, Soft Subversions: Texts and Interviews 1977–1985, ed. Sylvère Lotringer, trans. Chet Wiener and Emily Wittman (Los Angeles: Semiotext[e], 2009), 106–107.

24. Dan Adler, Hanne Darboven: Cultural History 1880–1983 (London: Afterall, 2009), 15.

25. Guattari, Soft Subversions, 110.

26. Hanne Darboven, Timeswings: The Art of Hanne Darboven, directed by Rasmus Gerlach (2016; Hamburg: Kinoki GmbH, 2016) BluRay.

27. Jean-Jacques Schuhl, Ingrid Caven (Paris: Gallimard, 2000), 78.Translation by the author.

28. Rainer Werner Fassbinder, The Anarchy of the Imagination: Interviews, Essays, Notes, ed. Michael Töteberg and Leo A. Lensing, trans. Krishna Winston (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), 87.

29. Hans Dickel, “Concept Art gegen Melodram––ein Bilderstreit” (Conceptual Art Against Melodrama: An Image Contest) in Hanne Darboven: Für Rainer Werner Fassbinder, exh. cat. (Munich: Kunstraum München, 1988).

30. Fassbinder, The Anarchy of the Imagination, 58.