Hanne Darboven

Recognized for three decades but never really reckoned with, Hanne Darboven’s work remains very much an unknown quantity. The full measure of her proliferative practice and the terms it sets for contemporary art has been all too easily obscured by art criticism’s unstoppable romance with authentic subjectivity, the private, the personal, and the autobiographical. True, the literature is surprisingly scant and suspiciously slight. Nearly all of it, however, sidesteps Mel Bochner’s 1967 avant-garde of impersonal systemizers, paying its dues instead to Lucy Lippard’s signal redemption of Darboven’s exploit in the name of an art that “comes directly from the artist’s own needs and compulsions,” to the indelible image she forged of the German artist’s virtually pathological assiduousness and obsessiveness. Tags like Johannes Cladders’ “mad enterprise” refer not to the enigmatic nature of Darboven’s massive corpus, but to a “process” critics have felt compelled to attribute to the perpetual motion of self-definition. Yet, when you step into Dia’s third floor and encounter the unconditional weight and magnitude of her “Kulturgeschichte 1880–1983,” (Cultural history 1880–1983, 1980–83), its stark facticity, you know this is a work that belongs to no one.

Behind its ponderous title, “Kulturgeschichte 1880–1983,” is a show that could pass, superficially, for a centenary compilation: an anarchic, anachronistic tribute to ultraprosaic collectibles and mass-media codes. No criterion for inclusion reveals itself other than the vast miscellany of the public domain “circa 1880–1983.” But the exhibition’s irregular strata are so larded with recognizable excerpts from Darboven’s earlier production that the whole reads as a self-styled retrospective, as well as something of a signature piece. Indeed, the distinction between “excerpt” and “work” constitutes one of the most troubling and provocative features of Darboven’s practice. Given its postulates of quantity and continuation, her shows, catalogues, and artist’s books necessarily amount only to samplings. Darboven is an artist who–like history—can be known only in excerpt. “Kulturgeschichte,” “the work,” is itself a remake of an earlier version shown in Paris in 1986, a new “assortment” culled from Darboven’s considerable reserves. The question is less which piece is “Kulturgeschichte” than whether Darboven makes “works” at all. “Kulturgeschichte’s” modulability and suturing (underscored by a panel of textile-weaving diagrams) distinguish Darboven’s use of the excerpt from the more common deployment of literary or pictorial citation. “Samples” become the unavoidable corollary of her work’s ceaseless expansion challenging the very notion of “the work of art.”

Filling the institutional exhibition space, wall to wall, floor to ceiling, Darboven’s surd sampling of a century seems devised to escape the viewer’s visual reach. Its “soundtrack” (a Darboven composition), as well as a panel of her musical notation, however, suggest a synoptic “sight-reading” of the 1590 uniform frames, one that reveals an overall art of phrasing across “measures” and into large, powerful graphic configurations. But within the compass of Kulturgeschichte, you find yourself—like the nineteen isolated sculptures (a cross, a Bible, a robot, two joggers . . . )—dwarfed, overtaken, indeed staged by the ongoing mise-en-scéne. This is the Welttheater so insistently repeated in another panel, a backdrop of endless reinscriptions from which all narrative has been scrupulously excised. The representational value of picture postcards, pinups of movie stars, photos of artists, newsmagazine covers dwindles to mere surface effect. Here, the viewer’s place is unassignable. No vantage point exists from which Kulturgeschichte will show itself as given or past, or somehow definitive. All the interstices of its grid-like structure mark intervals out of which something that exceeds “the work” verges on emergence.

This studied play on “too large” and “to be enlarged upon” in fact qualifies as a hypertrophy and instability that would seem to be intricately bound up with Darboven’s grasp of “history.” If “Kulturgeschichte” manages to convey a sense of something called “a century,” it does so with more complex and more strictly contemporary means than scale and abundance. The stratified plurality of its sections, their typological and chronological heterogeneity, their intensive, repetitive patterns of minute, unnameable differences, establishes a structure equipped to deal “abstractly” with great tracts of time—although it wreaks havoc on any conventional concept of history, of history as concept. Those who find that Darboven’s work lacks political bite should look here for its critical edge: in the ruination of various historical models, in the nonlocalizability of events within “the long accumulation unnoticed.” What Darboven would seem to have chosen to mimic and to mine is just this ahistorical heritage, one that knows no distinction between before and after, between significance and insignificance, but only the possibility of retrieval, re-sorting, and re-marking.

Dia curator Lynne Cooke’s observation that Kulturgeschichte “resembles an encyclopedia rather than an archive,” offers a provocative distinction. For Darboven’s “epic works” resemble encyclopedias only if you readily accept the absurdist nominalism of their rubrics, the logic of repetition in their entries, the proof of inexhaustibility in the place of conventions of closure. The archive, on the other hand, admits neither of concept nor of closure. It testifies to an accumulated past, maintaining this reserve along arbitrary, synchronic lines, often like with like, in the expectancy of future interventions that cannot but augment its size. With Darboven, who has acknowledged a debt to Kurt Schwitters, the personal archive and the Merzgesamptweltbild (Merz-total-world-image) reemerge, only with much more of the archival work factored into the page-making. In this high art of the file cabinet, the “document,” unaltered and under glass, shows its stamp of receipt and of update in the logistics of layout, and, most forcefully, in Darboven’s annotations—the cursive script that eschews natural language but, in its rhythmic movement, demonstrates its potential for logarithmic expansion.

Kulturgeschichte’s” inclusion of some of Darboven’s well-known “numerical calculations” serves as a reminder that her tracking of “the signatures of all things” by way of an art that refutes fixity and finality follows a certain logic. Her early geometric diagrams conjugated with their equivalent equations already evinced an attraction to the myriad virtual subsets lurking in the reputedly “simple and single” Minimalist object. With her remarkable move into “pure number,” in the late ’60s/early ’70s, Darboven not only dispensed with what we conventionally call “representation,” but began to operate in a realm defined by its own limitlessness. Putting arithmetic to work on dates, however, inserted a temporal dimension into the work of art in a disconcertingly explicit, if not to say absurdist manner. But to speak of these operations as “time,” whether in the terms of metaphysics or of phenomenology, as everyone has done, is to ignore Darboven’s concerted effort to rupture chronology as we know it, to yank it away from its questionable conceptual moorings. Her idiosyncratic reductio ad absurdum of Gregorian calendrical notation to only forty-two denominations for each century (the date of this publication, 3/1/97 would be “20,” 3 + 1 + 9 + 7), together with endless attendant extrapolations, detaches what would better be called the “experience of dates” from astronomy, from the strictures of convention, and, above all, from events. It levels all the heterogeneous matter accumulating within those few slots by imposing a network of thoroughly autonomous relations. With the appearance of pictorial material in Darboven’s work in 1978, “numbers” became something to pit against “objects” as if in some ontological contest, just as calculation arose as a credible armature for large-scale concatenations of images. For the “date” as such had lost its prestige as an unrepeatable singularity and, with it, that other supposedly unrepeatable singularity, the work of art.

Kulturgeschichte” concludes—at least at DIA—with a series of snapshots of New York doorways and portals. Remarkable for the excessive heaping of photographs compressed by the glass of each frame, these collages attest to more than variety in sameness. The architectural elements that belong stylistically to the period 1880–1910 have been captured in snapshots (actually commissioned by Darboven in the ’70s) with the distinctive format and paper of the period 1930–5o—although both portals and prints remain part and parcel of 1983, or even 1997. Of all the notions of “time” attributed to Darboven, no other approaches the obvious “noncontemporaneous present” that “Kulturgeschichte” exemplifies. Somewhere between the emptying of “dates” and the amassing of the archive, a logic of endurance and of continuation was revealed. If all “appropriation art” participates to a greater or lesser degree in a sense of the synchronic availability of the past, if Schwitters’ “gallery of the ordinary street” has become a commonplace, what is unique to Darboven is the effort to offer an “image” of the world’s many ages, an effort imbued with the acute understanding that such a “work of art” transits through the interminable.

Lauren Sedofsky is a writer who lives in Paris.