Akademie der Künste

“YOU DON’T MISS YOUR WATER,” the saying goes, “till your well runs dry.” True, I never thought I’d miss Hanne Darboven so much. That was my initial reaction to “Notation,” a vastly ambitious show on view last fall at Berlin’s Akademie der Künste that travels next month to the Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie in Karlsruhe, Germany. Organized by image theoretician Hubertus von Amelunxen along with artists Dieter Appelt and Peter Weibel, the exhibition is billed as a broad overview of “sign systems [in] literature, music, painting, choreography, architecture, photography, film, and media art.” It wasn’t that Darboven was altogether absent from consideration; it was that the single, small work of hers in the show—a modest grid of sixteen pages (Score, 1990)—suggested a woeful omission, given how elegantly her work turns on the moment when exercises become aesthetics. What I missed, without a major piece by Darboven, was the clarity with which she articulates this boundary, the way her works marry doodley, “notational” mark making with rigorous conceptual “notation”—the simple act of recording days, moments, months. Her work would be a fitting anchor for a show that means to size up notation in an expanded field: It must have been a willful omission. Standing in her place at the heart of the show was a selection of more than a thousand prints from Allan McCollum’s Shapes Project, 2005–. Taken together, these individually framed black silhouettes are like a nightmare wall of cartoony family portraits, huge and slick. The piece is emblematic not of difference, clarification, or classification, but of pure accumulation. The exhibition itself risked a similar effect, with a checklist that literally ran from eggs (Greg Lynn’s Embryological House, 1999–2001) to apples (Apple Advancing, in Hollis Frampton and Marion Faller’s Sixteen Studies from Vegetable Locomotion, 1975); from matchbooks to smoke machines; from scientific studies to architectural models. Toss in some Cy Twombly paintings, a sheet of Marcel Proust’s galley corrections, and a Le Corbusier/Edgard Varèse/Iannis Xenakis multimedia spectacle about the history of man (re-created virtually—visitors donned 3-D glasses to view it). More than 150 artists, writers, choreographers, composers, and scientists were featured, with about three times that number of works. Perhaps I was wrong to ask for an anchor. Perhaps we were meant for murky waters.

In fact, the galleries brimmed with little bombshells, such as the manifold output of nineteenth-century scientist Étienne-Jules Marey. As the inventor of chronophotography, in which sequential, almost instantaneous moments are exposed across one picture, he’s the Continental Muybridge, a forefather of film (not to mention seriality and many other twentieth-century tropes) and a key example of the fruitful union between the history of science and early photography. Though meant primarily as research, Marey’s techniques for observing animal locomotion and imaging invisible forces pack a surplus of visual pleasure. More than as a scientist, Marey emerges as an indomitable tinkerer with the ways things can be seen. His sculpture of a gull in flight—a literal conflation in bronze of consecutive positions from a chronophotograph—is both daft and astounding. The metal is made to embody the indistinct blurs and overlaps that are usually the purview of photography, and fails to create an impression of forward flight, the pressure instead running backward, with each prior “position” pressing uncomfortably, urgently, from behind. This depiction of time has the most perverse stasis. Nearby, a grid of three dozen photographs pasted onto a board should simply document the flow of air in Marey’s proto–wind tunnel of 1899, in which parallel streams of smoke curl, snake, and disperse around an object placed in their way. Again and again, the system is interrupted, with a different shape, to a different effect. These serial images are among the most fragile and mysterious there could be.

It is awfully easy to take Marey this way, to cast his works as art. Consider how his smoke trails spoke to their unlikely bedfellows. Alfred Stieglitz’s photographs of cloudy upstate–New York skies (“Equivalents,” 1926)—notational because each is meant to represent an emotional state—are high modern in their use of heightened black-and-white contrast and disorienting cropping. In an adjacent room, a piece of high-tech phenomenology by Anthony McCall labored to fill the space with a thin mist of smoke, while razor curves of light from a digital projector sliced through it (You and I, Horizontal, 2005). There was a formal logic—indeed a real elegance—to putting these three works together. Yet the framing here also urged that we take the art differently—that we consider the McCall, for instance, not for what it is, but for what it could denote. I wonder whether the slip that Marey’s work makes into “art” can run in reverse?

We’re often enamored of, and at times unsure what to do with, exhibitions of a different kind—collections, perhaps, of natural history or of artifacts from “material culture.” This show likewise challenged us to look in a different way, and it was precisely the tangle of intentions and context that allowed us to browse more freely. Rarely do you find an exhibition so thoroughly researched, so loaded with precise data and specific objects, that solicits so little synthesis. What I missed in Darboven’s absence was a clearness of purpose, but ultimately, the discombobulation of “Notation” may have been its greatest strength. At its best, by refusing our familiar categories and scuttling schematic readings, the show held us on the cusp of how we judge.

Similar means of refocusing art’s lens have been employed before—notably in a work by Mel Bochner from more than forty years ago, shown again here. Working Drawings and Other Visible Things on Paper Not Necessarily Meant to Be Viewed as Art, 1966 (see page 49) was one of the opening volleys of Conceptualism, and its pages, newly re-Xeroxed, as they should be, still seemed crisp and strong. In these four identical binders, sketches by Eva Hesse sit alongside mathematical proofs by Arthur Babakhanian, anonymous technical documents (I love “Dummy True Airspeed Module Schematic Diagram”), receipts for Donald Judd’s fabrication costs, and the assembly diagram for the Xerox machine on which these were first copied. It questions what’s meant by both “working” and “drawing,” and all the while Bochner’s clear conceptual gesture hums with the nondirectional satisfaction of just flipping through.

The “Notation” exhibition was an even rangier project, its lessons both more private and wider in scope. Take, for instance, Robert Walser’s 1920s “micrograms”—inscrutably small handwritten texts crammed into the margins and gaps of telegrams and postcards he received and written in a kind of private code that mirrored his own retreat into introspection. They embody language as an impractical drive and a practical necessity. Almost as minuscule, though quite different, are Walter Benjamin’s spidery jottings—works of a mind so interested in stepping out. They range from color-coded indexing systems for research to drug-spurred meanderings and little bursts of multilingual wordplay, growing in whorls. Together they’re almost as varied as Paul Klee’s pedagogical notebooks, whose pages map different types of marks, color interactions, class assignments. If these are just three examples I’ve pulled from the treasure trove, they are also touchingly intimate: three artists working out their own translations from the mind down to paper. Words (or associations of ideas, or classroom lectures) aren’t handled as draft and redraft. They are nurtured on the page. (One might add an undated Twombly drawing to this list—block letters scrawled with crayon: ANIMULA ANIMULA VAGULA BLANDULA. Somehow I can’t shake it.)

Among the most remarkable working drawings in the show were those related to midcentury experimental animation. Oskar Fischinger’s optical “sound ornaments”—drawn patterns meant to produce “synthetic sounds”—were displayed along with his Motion Painting No. 1, 1947, a strange double-sided abstraction that still bears the accumulation of marks made (and filmed sequentially) for animation and that achieves, like filmmaker Paul Sharits’s drawings nearby, an echo of its animated cousin. That Sharits’s drawings “construct the future in the present” is noted by artist Paul Chan in a recent issue of Parkett, where he observes that Sharits’s marks—resembling musical notation or written script and thus implying a description of the past or a model for the future—seem themselves to perform what they describe. This promise of a performative document is one thread that ran strongly through “Notation,” expressed above all with a heavy dose of twentieth-century composers. As well as proper scores—real formulas for sound—there were pieces diagramming the structure of music and works veering to the purely abstract, such as John Cage’s delicate drawings and etchings (notably the “Where R = Ryoanji” series, 1983–90) and the scattered dot clusters of composer Mauricio Kagel’s photographic score notations of 1959–60. The composer and engineer Iannis Xenakis is quoted in the catalogue, saying, “The ‘music’ is judged according to the beauty of the drawing . . . taking music outside itself.” With the scores in vitrines, one could judge the music here only by such criteria, making one seesaw perplexedly between seeking a “performative” visual analogue to the music and reveling in the poised otherness, the alienation, of the musical notes. Buried among the scores like a sleeper cell, meanwhile, was Rodney Graham’s Parsifal (1882–38,969,364,735), 1990. In this piece, the artist scores a simple loop that would extend Wagner’s opera from its opening night until the year 38,969,364,735—basically beyond the end of time. Graham is using musical notation to make a logical slip into the unthinkable.

Indeed, notation can lend itself to almost any kind of use, from the specifics of particular mark making, such as written language or musical transcription, to big conceptual moves. Yet the exhibition’s selection of works was inevitably a personal one, bearing the stamp of the curator-artists gathering up what they love, charting the waters they’ve swum. In part as a result of this idiosyncratic approach, however, I found myself thinking more about where these things came from and how I was choosing to see them. (I ended up even second-guessing Darboven, her muteness suddenly less clear.) I was forced to assess the way works embody what and how they mean. An exhibition like this seems essential for loosening the noose around discourse, for allowing us to look at things autodidactically, freed from clear direction. We need more shows like this, not so that we can revel in some kind of antidiscourse, but because at times the best move forward is to spool back and consider loose ends like Marey’s bronze gull and Fischinger’s hand-drawn sound. Many of the formal strategies shown here are still with us; indeed, these days, we see the trappings of Conceptual art deployed and redeployed to all kinds of ends. It’s instructive—even corrective—to go and muddle through all these forms of notation. They may not all be counted as Conceptual art, yet they pivot on the boundary of ideas and forms.

“Notation: Calculation and Form in the Arts” travels to the Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie, Karlsruhe, Germany, Mar. 1–July 26.

Matt Saunders is an artist based in Berlin.