New York

Hanne Darboven

Leo Castelli And Sperone Westwater Fischer Galleries

To tune in to Hanne Darboven’s work we must discard Oppenheim’s geometric hardware bulging with emotions, forget his ethical agonizing over the slow depletion of his potential through each formalized expression of it, and turn instead to a brand of philosophy particular to women—one with a notion of existence as something there and naturally available. It is here that Darboven’s principle of compulsive writing, counting and copying is voiced: “By doing it, it becomes not more and more, because it is already there, but clearer and clearer.” It is at the opposite end of the scale from Oppenheim’s concentric circuitry, at the wavelengths of linearity where Darboven’s conscious writing-away, the ceaseless spending of her reservoir, will come in without static, and turn down your treble knob totally.

Her work is in a strangely dry register; it’s an art which holds no major surprises but which instantly demands attention. Her art activity indicates a person alone, but it also has an unmistakable confidence, so that even the features of her simple arithmetic have a supremely independent allure. The “constructions” she exhibited recently spanned two galleries, with an index referencing the system and ten large panels actually delineating the system in each space. Her means of execution are all of the following, simultaneously: numerals, index cards, graphic units, loop writing. Every panel consists of 60 sheets of yellow typing paper, each with two gray index cards, and the variety of progressional coding methods mentioned above written, glued and drawn on them. They are framed ten across and six down, which is curious since one number is the basis of the decimal system and the other of the Babylonian hexagonimal system. I wondered if Darboven constructed the piece around the crossing and merging of these two counting systems, but I can only speculate—and barely at that. What I am certain of is that the panels include “X”-ed-out index cards which increase in number per panel at Castelli, and decrease at Sperone. If I am right, the number of “X”-ed-out cards determines a particular shift of the permutation throughout the panel it belongs to, thus the overall arithmetic progression is distorted in varying degrees, making each local area slightly out of sync, until in a relay-loop-like manner, it catches up with itself, or rather with the new order it defines and dictates. So within the mechanisms of her counting and writing and filing, Darboven complicates the system she works with enough to have a hovering tension as the disturbed orders articulate their new form and complete the cycle. Her work is certainly not a relentless exercise of brainless repetition. She seems to make sure that there is enough challenge imposed on the simple arithmetic to sustain her.

Her challenging of herself is the important factor of her work; it removes the terror of engagement in a naturalistic yet unnatural activity, and proves that she is alive and well and enjoys being well. It has helped me to overcome my critical frustration with the work’s communicative and experiential evasiveness and pointed out to me that the best I could do in terms of her art would be to respect and trust it, which I do.

And through this trust I come to understand the morality behind copying (a process routinely practiced in academic art schools and directed toward “appropriation”) and the obsessive urge to re-do as a manual/mental task of apprenticeship, which in turn leads to one’s recognition of one’s identity. This process of individuation (which is continuously nascent during copying) is what shapes the work. It is also the mechanism by which the artist identifies with her work, and thereby gives a meaning of life to art in a one-to-one manner. If art has not been part of civilization-at-large in this century—and it hasn’t—then art is nothing but its very own issue. The only possible sanctity and depth attachable to it in this pared-down state is the artist’s life, as a vehicle for art. Darboven’s work seeks to resolve the existential issues of the artist’s life and the battered existence of art.

Edit deAk