New York

Hanne Darboven

Tanja Grunert Gallery

If you’ve seen an installation by German artist Hanne Darboven, her signature style will likely have stayed with you: wall-to-wall grids of page-size panels, marked by wave-like rows of what appears to be crossed-out cursive script. This gnomic stand-in for legible text is punctuated by series of numbers or passages of German prose, black-and-white photographs, or stamped labels reminiscent of the return address and postmark on envelopes. The panels are often framed identically, and a bureaucratic palette of black and red ink on white, buff, or green paper maintains throughout. The result is information overload expressed as precisely edited monotone.

Darboven is, in her cryptic way, a game-player, and her embedded mathematical, historical, and pop-cultural details challenge the determined sleuth with polyvalent epistemological and chronological puzzles. The Dia Foundation’s website even includes a tutorial about the monumental Kulturgeschichte 1880–1983 (Cultural History 1880–1983), 1980–83, that was published when the work was shown in Darboven’s last New York exhibition in 1996–97. In her recent show at Gasser & Grunert—which included two pieces, one small, one large, both more than a decade old—four pages of an essay by Dietmar Elger were made available to provide interpretive assistance.

It is perhaps perverse to refuse such helpful glosses, but Darboven is not unperverse herself. “I don’t describe,” she has said. “I write.” Well, yes and no. For Darboven, “writing” and “drawing” function as “thinking” and “counting,” and this can be seen without exegesis. A complete understanding, though, is intentionally obstructed and would in any case run counter to the meditation on structures of knowledge that the work provokes. In Evolution Leibniz, 1986, the more complex piece presented here, an evacuated approximation of handwriting is overwritten in a kind of double negative that questions the power of record keeping and the personal, physical gesture. The librarian’s palette and exploded-book format splay the private space of reading across a public installation, introducing problems of scale and focus the solutions to which elude even the informed viewer/reader.

Similarly, the smaller piece, Dostojewski, 1990, is hardly as modest as it may at first appear; it represents the “December” of a twelve-part arithmetical riff on the dates of 1990, which also concerns, eponymously but tangentially, the works of Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky. The mathematical progression can be unpacked with an external key, but the way in which the sixteen notebook-size graph-paper sheets marked with black-inked numbers are grouped is not thereby described. The numbers’ relationship to a collaged postcard depicting a colonnaded building and several Russian editions of Dostoevsky’s books simply cannot be made transparent or direct.

The room-size Evolution Leibniz comprises a grid of 222 framed pages of anti-cursive mixed with texts copied from entries in the Brockhaus encyclopedia on the seventeenth-century German philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. These are interspersed with photographs of objects from Darboven’s collection of nineteenth- and twentieth-century kitsch. A toy toilet figures prominently, as do a toy blacksmith at his anvil and a wooden leg in a vitrine. High up in the top left-hand corner, the first panel gives away the game of linguistic fragmentation—NO COMMENT, it reads. But this is neither description nor proscription. The gallery is filled with commentary on life, death, work, fear, memory, and longing; the installation is a picture of such commentary. What it might mean is another story. Like Gertrude Stein, to whom she has been compared, Darboven records not narrative or data but the process of perception and the passage of time. Walking around in her daunting archive of composition-as-explanation, the visitor is left alone to sift through scattered words and pictures, to take an active role in assembling a unified impression of the whole.

Frances Richard