New York

Hanne Darboven

Hanne Darboven’s STUNDENBUCH (Book of hours, 1991), was a diary of gestures that unfurled, in all the irony of their incomprehensibility and redundancy, around the exhibition space. Temporality was reduced to a simple, undifferentiated curving gesture infinitely extended so that it seemed to negate any notion of measurable time. Against this flux of gestures, the figure of Abraham Lincoln—in the form of a quasifolk-art statue held up by an African-American girl—stood out. The myth of his emancipation of the slaves persists in U.S. history despite the passage of time—even if it has been tarnished by the unfulfilled promise of full equality.

Darboven’s writing contains a Kafkaesque dimension of paranoia and victimization: it implies travel in a maze from which there is no escape—movement becomes an illusion, a self-deceptive means of standing still. Emblematic of nihilistic futility, the pages of pseudotext implicitly dissolve differentiated sense into the nonsense of homogeneous flux. Meaning may not completely disappear, but it becomes an unrealizable idea: the idea of meaning, the idea of writing, the idea of freedom, but never their concrete realization.

There was in fact some sensible, quite efficient descriptive text about Lincoln in the exhibition (and also dates and notes to herself), but it, like Lincoln, seemed superfluous: it lost its point even as the context made it unexpectedly poignant. I am suggesting that Darboven’s installation was an unresolvable contradiction, a Gordian knot of alienation. There exists an unbridgeable gulf between senseless writing and sensible meaning, between the American dream of social equality represented by Lincoln and the frustrating, perhaps ultimately unchangeable reality; there exists a parallel gulf between the American spectator and the presumptuous German artist. Why doesn’t Darboven comment on German history? Yes, the issue raised by FOR ABRAHAM LINCOLN, 1989, is universal, but the artist appears to be displacing.

The mire of Darboven’s anonymous faux writing, made hallucinatory and hypnotic by its redundancy, seemed at once ecstatic and depressive. As such, it was an expressive triumph, as well as a brilliant conceptual achievement, all the more so because of the populist representation—meant to symbolize social intervention and activism—that was introduced into its “abstract” midst. Darboven’s installation achieved what sociopolitical art should: something as complex as the issues themselves, subtly framing them rather than self-righteously deciding them. Her faux writing is a readymade, “decorative,” nonsignifying background she can use to contain, signify, and dialectically state any problem, forcing us to concentrate on it and admit we cannot solve it, making it as baffling and “abstract” as the entire installation.

Darboven may not quote Wittgenstein, but she is a truly intellectual artist, for she has understood what he meant when he said a language game was a kind of imagination of life—a matter of both. Her faux writing is one kind of language game, conveying a certain fatalistic attitude to life; the installation that included it was another kind of language game, simultaneously hopeless and hopeful. For the Lincoln sculpture is optimistic as well as tragic—as ambiguously ironic as the installation itself.

Donald Kuspit