New York

“Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art”

“Decision 2008” is shaping up as a campaign during which, collectively speaking, we are looking for equal parts inspiration and transformation. The sense of “history in the making” is palpable, the race also being played up in the media as an infinity of meaningful moments, ranging from the cataclysmic to the cozy, that may be used to sell a candidate or lobby for a cause. These days, it seems, everybody has a hand in history. When a culture suffers from short-term memory in this way, archives are vital testaments to times past, repositories stuffed with documents, photographs, films, records that are as valuable as the gold in Fort Knox. But there is no fair witness; archives are prone to bias. Shaped one way, the story goes like this; structured differently, it’s as though it never happened. Depending on who’s doing the telling, veracity hangs in the balance.

The idea of truth, lost and found, turned every which way but loose, haunted Okwui Enwezor’s “Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art.” Staged in the International Center of Photography’s bunkerlike lower gallery, it included plenty of old film footage and black-and-white photographs, many of them materially distressed or diminished. The visual signature of another era—the twentieth century—proliferates in many works that reference a cornucopia of personal histories and defining cultural events. Stan Douglas’s Overture, 1986, is a flickering 16mm film of a train ride in the pioneer days in the Canadian Rockies. A narrator reads from Proust, but neither the location nor his identity are ever clarified. In this show, the idea of anonymity linked one work to another and another.

In Andy Warhol’s silk-screened Race Riot, ca. 1963, we know none of the police or their victims by name. The identity of the strangely beautiful dead woman in a photograph at the Bergen-Belsen camp, a print of which is presented in a baroque frame by Robert Morris (Untitled, 1987), will remain forever unknown. So it is, too, with the folks from the Great Depression who peer out from a series of black-and- white photographs in Sherrie Levine’s “After Walker Evans, 1–22,” 1981. Free art is on offer in the form of a stack of Felix Gonzalez-Torres posters featuring a mug-book grid of faces of people we’ve never seen alive in Untitled (Death by Gun), 1990. Fazal Sheikh shows us photographs of photographs of missing Afghan refugees in Afghan Images . . . ,1997. It’s staggering how little information we’re given and yet how much we immediately know about these lost people, and about all the others whose faces haunt this exhibition.

For many artists, the “look of truth” is an occupational hazard. Eyal Sivan, in The Specialist: Eichmann in Jerusalem, 1999, gives us footage of the war-crimes trial of the Nazi official whose deeds led Hannah Arendt to coin the term “the banality of evil.” Hans-Peter Feldmann, in 9/12 Front Page, 2001, displays a grid of 117 front pages taken from newspapers around the world, published the day after the attack on the World Trade Center. Yet, it was critical to the success of the exhibition that Enwezor included, as he did, artists whose concerns are more explicitly with the associations we make than with the veracity of photographic evidence presented. Zoe Leonard and Cheryl Dunye’s The Fae Richards Photo Archive, 1993–96, documents, among other things, the life and times of an African-American film actress and her lesbian lovers. Of course, you’ve never seen any of her films because she’s Leonard and Dunye’s fiction, expertly presented as real. Similarly, “Floh” (Flea), 2000, Tacita Dean’s extensive archive of found family photographs, takes the viewer on a romp through a highly convincing invented personal history. Authentic and invented, that’s the Janus nature of the archive Enwezor has designed.

Jan Avgikos