John Latham, Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1971, still from a black-and-white film in 16 mm, 6 minutes. From “Atlas.

John Latham, Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1971, still from a black-and-white film in 16 mm, 6 minutes. From “Atlas.


John Latham, Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1971, still from a black-and-white film in 16 mm, 6 minutes. From “Atlas.

“Atlas: How to Carry the World on One’s Back?” is a project conceived by Georges Didi-Huberman for the Reina Sofía (it will travel to the ZKM in Karlsruhe and the Sammlung Falckenberg in Hamburg). The operation underlying the project is ambitious, yet simple and plausible: to use the panels of Aby Warburg’s “Mnemosyne Atlas, 1925–29, to define what might be called the “atlas drive,” a voracious strain of archive fever (to borrow Jacques Derrida’s phrase) that has spread throughout Western culture since what Karl Kraus called “the last days of mankind,” and to illustrate this argument with a selection of 365 works, mostly from the twentieth century.

Indeed, since World War I brought an end to people’s trust in language, as evidenced by avant-garde poetry such as that of the Dadaists (long before Adorno’s denial that there could be poetry after Auschwitz), there has been an endless stream of epistemological ruptures: There is a gap between signifier and signified; reality does not lie in its representation; and, still worse, truth no longer submits to scientific positivism. As French philosopher Michel Serres would say, in this state of affairs the Western subject is forced to once again become a cartographer and to replace all the existing maps with his own work from scratch. The atlas, like a new operative field where, as Didi-Huberman says, “everything could begin again,” is precisely what emerges after dictionaries have been abandoned. Whereas the encyclopedia is composed of the sum of details, the atlas takes shape through fragments—the largest conceivable units, though still incomplete—that are continually combined anew with the endless power of the imagination.

If the epistemological category of the archive takes the place of the library, the atlas, as a panel of images, takes the place of the painting. In the library, we recognized ourselves before a body of irrefutable and canonical knowledge; before the painting, we recognized the common space on which things were laid out. Both formats assumed a framed, delimited body of knowledge. The archive, on the other hand, is simply a pedagogy of unlearning, and the atlas a promise of a new Dionysian (non-)knowledge, akin to a Nietzschean “gay science.” In responding to the labyrinth of information, images, and texts that compose the archive, as in the boards on which the images of Warburg’s Atlas are presented in sets, the only operation possible is montage, which fails to offer the pleasure of recognition or the slightly bewildered surprise that might form part of more conventional reading systems. Nonsensical, fascinated by morphology (all atlases entail a materialist practice), and sensitive to unexpected and revealing analogies (the psychic component also stirs atlas making), montage does not seal the world off, but rather renders it chronically unconcluded.

Though the Bauhaus albums (1923–25)—photo albums documenting the different techniques practiced at the school—coincided with Warburg’s panels, the exhibition doesn’t set out to explore synchronies but rather to narrate indirectly; that is, by means of discontinuous accounts of layered temporalities and geographies. That is how, as it grows, the atlas becomes capable of bearing the entire, also growing, weight of the world: From Barbara Bloom’s “Nabokov Butterfly Boxes,” 1998–2008, in which the artist has used photographs rather than real butterflies to commemorate the novelist’s collecting passion, to On Kawara’s I got up, November 22,1971–February 7,1972, seventy-seven stamped postcards documenting each new morning, it keeps recording both the most precious and the most abject.

Martí Peran

Translated from Spanish by Jane Brodie.