The great German conceptual artist Hanne Darboven (1941–2009) believed herself first and foremost to be a writer. As she told her friend Sol LeWitt in a letter from 1973: “I write/I don’t describe/writing writing/there is nothing to describe.” Although there is no Rosetta stone for Darboven’s massive, magisterial, and elusive installation Kulturgeschichte 1880–1983 (Cultural History 1880–1983), currently up at Dia:Chelsea, to think of it as a text of sorts — of her art practice as the fusion (and confusion) of word and image, grammar and composition — is one way to find a center of gravity in the writer/artist’s brilliantly vertiginous masterpiece.
Apart from a stint in New York City from 1966–68, when she met LeWitt, Joseph Kosuth, Carl Andre, and other of her conceptualist compatriots, Darboven lived and worked in her family home in Hamburg until her death. She was a ferocity of her own design, one who kept goats as pets (all of whom were called some derivation of “Mickey”) and dressed in custom tailored suits so that she could cut a presence like that of her beloved father, a local merchant. She was also a rabid collector of things — taxidermy animals, musical instruments, mannequins and dolls, figurines and ephemera, tchotchkes and artworks, Hollywood memorabilia and books — and whatever caught her eye found a home displayed in her house, then sometimes in her art. Darboven wasn’t a flâneur; she was by many accounts completely focused on her work most of the time. Rather, she was a récepteur, a receiver who brought the stuff of the world into her own, then transmitted it back out again along new waveforms.
Darboven was an artist who wished to avoid expression and expressiveness, being not very interested in the twirls and blurts of self — or any kind of lumpen subjectivity. She was driven by formal meditations and mediations, “because everything else,” she said in 1981, “would be boundless.” Her earliest works, the “Konstruktionen” (1966–68), were a series of intricate geometric pencil drawings on graph paper that Darboven “wrote” from a complicated (and not obvious) system of equations. Order, and how to make it, and what to make of it, was in part the writer/artist’s project — and Kulturgeschichte 1880–1983 was one of her most epic inscriptions thereof.
“Reading” Kulturgeschichte is therefore no small task. Its 1,590 sheets are presented in identically sized frames hung in tight rows that wrap around the gallery from just above the floor to the tops of the walls. Each sheet is collaged with either the artist’s drawings or found images, all composed on the paper with equal precision. Magazine clips, postcards, instruction manuals, photographs, celebrity glamour shots, and more all weave together to create, presumably, a historical cultural survey. Darboven interrupts the image overload with nineteen found objects, pieces from her personal collection: a portrait bust, a prayer bell, a Bible, a cross, a doll, a stuffed animal. All are organized into several sections that are thematically, or materially, connected: covers from her subscription to Der Spiegel between the years 1976 and 1979; photographs of artists appearing next to images of a single work by them, arranged alphabetically from Albers to Warhol; textile weaving patterns; photographs of New York City doorways taken by artist Roy Colmer between 1966 and 1968.
The word SCHREIBZEIT, “write time,” appears over and over again, printed at the top of certain sheets. This beautiful repetition — directive or mantra — speaks most clearly about Darboven’s impossible task: not to write about time, but to write time — not to illustrate it, but to mark it, and to somehow collapse the action with its subject, its object. The writer/artist has not answered this call; rather, she seems to have overwhelmed it. The immensity of Kulturgeschichte refuses encapsulation. It aborts sense.
But the distinct brilliance of Darboven’s art is that sense isn’t all there is to make of it. Kulturgeschichte confronts, produces, a certain banality of meaning, teased out in the moments where exhaustion — of the viewer and of the image — sets in. (If banality seems too strong a word, then consider meaning as a glass ceiling, barring what else art might have to offer.) Repetition of an image, a word, a symbol can seem like connective tissue, echoes reverberating from one section of the installation to another to make the whole feel whole. Repetition can also erode an image or a subject’s presence, cheapening it, draining it of urgency, of aura — of “look value.” (Note also the inclusion of a few photographs documenting the first exhibition of Kulturgeschichte, a repetition that collapses time — entwining then and now — inside the installation, a kind of visual echo chamber that dizzies the viewer.)
One section of the show comprises a series of diptychs on the left-hand side of which is a photograph of a camera on a tripod, its lens pointing right; on the right-hand side Darboven affixes smaller images of celebrities edge to edge, their names written in pencil beneath. Elizabeth Taylor, Ronald Reagan, Pat Benatar, the band Van Halen: To see each of these once is perhaps to think about image-making, faces and portraits, or to ponder something of the surface values of stardom. (Or see connections across the installation, as in the picture postcards featuring the actress Lilian Harvey, which send tendrils to Liz, Bette Davis, and others, all women who played the ingénue.) To encounter these same images a second time — there’s Van Halen again — dampens a quality of attention, exposing how quickly scarred-over an otherwise alert eye can become.
So overwhelmed by the sight of it all, I began to think of Darboven’s images as musical notes, transmitting frequencies in shifting rhythms from movement to movement across the walls of Dia. (My “vision” was in no small part prompted by the sounds of Darboven’s Opus 17A, 1984/1996, a low, lumbering piece she composed for the double bass, which is here piped into the gallery.) Schreibzeit. Music too is written time, melody or cacophony perhaps depending on the angle of your ear. Time isn’t the natural order of things; it’s a concocted direction, a touchstone to track motion through presence. Like the exhibition, time too will end without a fine point on it — an irreducible experience inside of which we all must make our own marks.
Hanne Darboven: Kulturgeschichte 1880–1983 (Cultural History 1880–1983)
545 West 22nd Street
Through July 29