New York

Hanne Darboven

Leo Castelli Gallery

Ansichten”: points of view. Not a singular subjectivity, not one I/eye or one viewing position, but several. Yet if Hanne Darboven’s title initially suggests the possibility of a plurality of readers and of readings, our experience of the work itself soon confronts us with singularity: on the one hand, Darboven herself, the art’s point of emission, the “narrator” who obsessively marks the passage of one year across 52 panels or “pages” of the piece; and on the other hand, ourselves, each of us the single point of reception, the “reader” who retraces this passage in another, condensed, time as we traverse the work’s space. The extreme subjectivity of the artist’s gesture distances the reader, and yet it is the reader’s subjectivity, and what constitutes the object of knowledge for it, that becomes the issue. For what are the coordinates by which we recognize Darboven’s subjectivity? By the same token, what coordinates determine one’s own sense of being, and where is this located in relation to the entity that is the collective, social self?

I understand this to be the theme stated by the introduction to the work, a 53rd panel acting as a prelude to the rhythmic repetition of its succeeding panels. This beginning presents an arrangement of two sets of images. Above, a display of Edwardian colored greeting cards illustrates orchards, harbors, rustic scenes: Gruss aus Blankness . . . Estebrügge . . . Süllberg . . . dem Kirstenlands—Greetings from the cherry regions, from a prewar past, innocent and picturesque. Beneath these pictures of scented, cherry-blossom sentimentalism is a selection of black and white photographic views of an industrial city. Austere and prosperous, it is Hamburg, Germany’s onetime commercial lifeline to the world, a major port from which one embarked on glamorous oceangoing liners (and, later, from which sailed the machines of war).

The postcard, die Ansichtskarte, represents another time and place, an other’s time and place. In seeming to close the space separating sender and receiver, it nevertheless makes both conscious of the distance between them; representing the point of view of the sender, the postcard is at the same time the mass-produced and anonymous image of collective desire. Subtending the cards in this first panel are what one might expect to find on their reverse sides—handwritten inscriptions, a signature. But here the “message” refers to death, two accounts of which Darboven briefly narrates: “Gorch Foch,” seaman and narrator of seafarers’ tales, who died on board ship during World War I; and Albert Balin, owner of the shipping line in which “Foch” was a clerk, who committed suicide in despair at seeing his business jeopardized by the conflicts of war. Here are individual lives submerged beneath the collective fantasies, whether benign or malignant, of their time.

Eine kollektiv Schuld gibt es nicht doch kollektiv Sham” (There is no collective guilt, but a collective shame): Theodor Hauss, 1948. How does the social body implicate the individual? German philosophers, from Friedrich Nietzsche to Martin Heidegger, have been instrumental in the search to understand individual consciousness, while paradoxically the capacity in Germany to subjugate identity to a corporate ideology has in the past given rise to a vast contempt for individual life; how did Germany itself become the bearer of the problem of the self and its other? Darboven’s work is deeply political—less, however, in its politically loaded references than in the way they lead us into the problem of representation itself: the desire for the image, for “writing,” to present the self, to narrate life, but at the same time the impossibility for “writing” to present the self as anything but a representation—Being forever subjugated to its representation by the discourse of the collective other. Sein und Zeit, being and time.

Like the story of “Foch” and Bailin, but with a different focus, the work’s narration unfolds the tale of the self never present to itself. The 52 panels each present the same photographic portrait of an unnamed World War I seaman, and a vividly colored picture of a liner on its passage out to sea. These accompany Darboven’s familiar system of numbers and script written into the work in daily integuments (her “Tagesrechnung”). But the further one progresses around the work, the stranger it becomes. Repetition paradoxically engenders not familiarity but estrangement—like repeating a word over and over until its meaning slips beneath the surface of its objectness. We lose touch with our initial identification with the portrait. The images recede into a fictional space, a mythic time. Darboven’s numbering is a hermetic language which, like German writing (to this author), like her wordless script filling the blank spaces of the calendar, becomes indecipherable, unaccountable. Week after week, each successive total consumes and supercedes the previous ones—a difference within sameness that is both a displacement, and a marking (of) time. It is not “presence” we claim here but a present effect. Darboven’s “presence” wordlessly traces the passage of its own absence, its own death and unaccountability in language. There are further inscriptions: “Gedankenstrich,” “line of thought”—a trace of consciousness, which is also a “dash,” a void or an interruption of the narrative flow. “Und keine worte mehr,” “no more words”; the word for “today,” “heute,” is canceled through, making the present no longer present to itself. Panel upon panel, the work marks this absence, appearing in its totality as a field of memorial crosses—individuals killed and replaced by an anonymous sign in corporate language. Lost at sea. Lost in language. Time becomes a mourning for the self.

Jean Fisher