Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 23, 2008
Okwui Enwezor Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art Exh. cat. New York and Göttingen: International Center of Photography and Steidl, 2008. 224 pp.; 185 ills. Paper $45.00 (978385216229)
Exhibition schedule: International Center of Photography, New York, January 18–May 4, 2008
Fazal Sheikh. The Victor Weeps: Afghanistan. Abdul Aziz holding a photograph of his brother, Mula Abdul Hakim (1997). © Fazal Sheikh. Courtesy of the artist and Pace/MacGill Gallery.

Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art, curated by Okwui Enwezor, explores a variety of ways in which contemporary artists appropriate, investigate, and reconfigure archival materials and structures. It focuses on photography and film while at the same time conducting, as Enwezor argues in his catalogue essay, “critical transactions” against “the exactitude of the photographic trace” (11). The term “archive” is thus meant to suggest not the literal image of a dusty file cabinet full of old documents but, following Michel Foucault’s influential The Archaeology of Knowledge (Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, trans. A.M. Sheridan, London: Routledge, 1972), a regulatory discursive system, a set of a priori historical rules that determine the conditions of possibility for statements, i.e., what can be said and seen in specific formations of knowledge. The use of the phrase “archive fever” in the exhibition title references Jacques Derrida’s book of the same name in which he analyzes “the science of the archive” as a system of laws through which statements acquire their privileged evidentiary status (Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, trans. Eric Prenowitz, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996). In the context of the exhibition, the archive marks an inherent epistemological and institutional tension in the photographic document between its self-evident claims to transparency and “truth” and its heterogeneous economies of production, distribution, and reception that complicate any form of semantic closure and totality. As the exhibition suggests, this dynamic underlines the practice of many contemporary artists who either read archival documents against the grain or create new kinds of archives in which this epistemological problematic is explicitly evoked.

Yet, as Enwezor acknowledges, an interest in the critical logic of the archive is nothing new and was already prevalent in modern and postmodern art. In fact, Foucault’s concept of the “archive” provided the theoretical ground for the postmodern critique of authorship and originality and for the formation of an “anti-aesthetic” discourse of postmodern art in the 1980s by critics and art historians such as Rosalind Krauss, Douglas Crimp, and Abigail Solomon-Godeau. Within this critical project the archive served as both a theoretical term and a descriptive one in the analysis of projects by artists such as Marcel Duchamp and Marcel Broodthaers, both of whose work is constructed as an archive in order to dismantle the idea of a coherent artistic identity as well as to criticize the museum as an institution that regulates the cultural and symbolic currency of artworks. This critical legacy informs Archive Fever, yet what the exhibition offers is not a genealogy of the archive but an opportunity to understand critical engagements with the archival document as part of the contemporary “broad culture of sampling, sharing, and recombining of visual data in infinite calibrations of users and receivers” (23). What becomes clear is that while an “an archival impulse,” to use a term coined by Hal Foster (Hal Foster, “An Archival Impulse,” October 110 [Fall 2004]: 3–22), dominates current artistic production, its objects and aims of critique are no longer focused on the museum or on aesthetic notions of autonomy and authenticity. Rather, as Enwezor argues, the works included in the exhibition are concerned with “art’s relationship to historical reflections on the past” (35) and with “art’s active interpellation of history and document as a way of working through the difficult zone between trauma and memory” (35).

This concern is made evident in the two works displayed at the exhibition’s entrance: Andy Warhol’s Race Riot (ca. 1963) and Robert Morris’s Untitled (1987). Warhol’s silkscreened media images, the exhibition suggests, are paradigmatic for contemporary investigations of the photographic document as part of a globalized spectacle culture. By mobilizing mainly photographs of violence and death and monumentalizing them, his works formed a profound political and psychological archive of what Enwezor calls “the American collective imaginary,” while exposing the way this imaginary is formed by voyeurism. Morris’s Untitled also appropriates an iconic image: a photograph of an emaciated body of a young woman partially covered by a blanket. The photograph was taken at the liberation of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp by a member of the British Army’s Film and Photographic Unit. The original image is enlarged, cropped, and silkscreened while encaustic is applied to its purplish surface. Morris’s work aestheticizes and decontextualizes a horrifying historical image, yet by doing so it also disrupts the identification of archival documents with historical truth. That is, the work pushes the assumed rationality of the archive to its limit by using an image of an event like the Holocaust that challenges received notions of proof and witnessing. The exhibition also includes Eyal Sivan’s film The Specialist: Eichmann in Jerusalem (1999), which is composed from the footage of the 1961 trial in Jerusalem of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi officer who coordinated the deportation of the Jews to their death. By reediting the footage so that it does not run according to the chronological order of the trial, the film not only criticizes attempts to ideologically instrumentalize the Holocaust, but also, like Morris’s work, calls into question the evidentiary claims of historical forms of representation.

Sivan’s film is displayed in the exhibition’s central room, which focuses on trauma and loss. It includes Felix Gonzales-Torres’s Untitled (Death by Gun) (1990), a stack of offset prints of photographs of 464 people who died from gunshots during a one-week period in May 1989. As Enwezor explains in the catalogue, in this political work the document is turned into a monument, an altarpiece for death (28). Gonzales-Torres’s piece is presented in proximity to Ilán Lieberman’s Niño Perdido (2006–7), a series of miniaturized drawings based on photographs of missing children from Mexican newspapers that also oscillates between monument and document, and between the different functions of the photographic portrait: as a tool of public identification and a private image for commemoration. This functional tension becomes the subject matter of Fazal Sheikh’s haunting photographs from the series The Victor Weeps: Afghanistan (1998). Each photograph shows a hand holding a tiny passport photograph of a family member who died during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

One of the most provocative works in the exhibition that deals with trauma and public memory is Hans-Peter Feldmann’s 9/12 Front Page (2001). Installed in its own room, the piece is composed of one hundred front pages of international newspapers published a day after the destruction of the World Trade Center. Encountering these iconic images seven years after the event triggers different temporal registers in the viewer while investing these traumatic images with new geographical and historical perspectives. One the one hand, the strictly American perspective on the event is decentralized in a way that potentially changes its political and collective meanings; on the other hand, one is made aware of the horrifying events that followed: the war in Iraq, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, etc. In this regard the headlines in some of the newspapers—“A War on the World” as opposed to “A War on America,” for example—read now as a missed opportunity, since the sense of shared communality in the face of the events no longer prevails.

Archive Fever also includes works by artists such as Walid Raad, whose investigation of the document and its relation to historical representation is achieved through the employment of the fictional. In his work under the moniker The Atlas Group, Raad challenges not only the rational truth claims of the archive but its very configuration of the “real.” The exhibition includes a new work by Raad, We can make rain, but no one came to ask (2008), which juxtaposes fragmented and abstract images of a specific car bomb explosion in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War next to images of the site taken a few years later. In this stage of his work, Raad investigates not the failure of images to represent traumatic events but the refusal of the real to inscribe itself as a legible image—the gap between what he sees and what is recorded in his camera. Another fictional archive on display is Zoe Leonard’s The Fae Richards Photo Archive (1993–96), which stages, together with filmmaker Cheryl Dunye, the life of an imaginary black Hollywood actress. While Raad is interested in the fictional as a psychological and hysterical symptom of trauma, Leonard’s work employs it in order to point at the constructed character of social and cultural identities.

Leonard’s work belongs to another strategy in the exhibition whereby artists take the role of the historian, translator, and curator in order to investigate what Enwezor defines as the “ethnographic conditions of the archive” (39)—that is, the specific economies through which images are distributed and exchanged and thus assigned meanings. Some of these investigations are directed, like Leonard’s work, to constructions of racial identities, as can also be seen in Lorna Simpson’s works Untitled (guess who’s coming to dinner) (2001) and Study (2002), or in Glenn Ligon’s photographic appropriation and analysis of Robert Mapplethorpe’s homoerotic images of black men. Others are more concerned with photographs as ethnographic objects in themselves. Tacita Dean explores amateur photography in Floh (2000), which is composed of images collected in flea markets in Europe and the United States. Although displayed as “art photography” (they are enlarged, grouped, and framed), these “found” images also challenge the coherency of unified aesthetic definitions and classifications of photographic genres. In a similar way, Thomas Ruff’s Machines (2003) appropriates the photographic archives of Rohde and Dörrenberg, a defunct German tool and machine company. Ruff crops, colors, and enlarges the images, transforming them from functional advertisement images into what Enwezor calls “iconic markers of industrial fetishization” (41). For both Dean and Ruff, it is precisely the muteness of photographs that triggers their intensified circulation, and at the same time, that makes them such contested and unstable cultural objects.

Foster suggested the term “archival impulse” as a way to differentiate the critical motivations of contemporary artists from artists in the 1970s and 1980s whose work was underlined by what Craig Owens famously called “an allegorical impulse” (Craig Owens, “The Allegorical Impulse: Notes toward a Theory of Postmodernism,” October 12/13 [Spring and Summer 1980]: 67–86, 59–80). Foster argues that today artists can no longer assume any form of “symbolic totality,” such as formalist hegemony or the modernist canon, but must begin with “anomic fragmentation” as a condition for representation. To this argument one can add that in the current political context the assumption of coherent, non-ambivalent forms of identity and identification becomes not only problematic but also complicit with repressive consensual divisions between “friend” and “enemy.” Certain works in Archive Fever, in particular ones that deal with identity, suggest in a way that feels dated the prevalence of “symbolic totalities.” For example Nomeda and Gediminas Urbonas’s work Transaction (2002), which analyzes the construction of “Lituanianianess” in Lithuanian film made under the ideological control of the Soviet Union during the cold war. These investigations, meant to expose an ideological “lie,” construe critique in a way that is untenable today and that points to the limits of identity politics as a productive form of political subjectivization under globalization.

More problematic is the fact that in Archive Fever, both the exhibition and its catalogue, the term “archive” is used in a highly inclusive, not to say inflated, manner, to the extent that every collection of images, every form of database becomes an “archive.” Yet, as a critical and historiographical term, the archive designates a historical form of intelligibility that is composed not from “data” but from statements that are regulated forms of enunciation. In Foucault’s archeological analysis, it is precisely the rarity of statements that is significant, the suggestion that in specific periods only certain things can be said and seen. By collapsing the “archive” into no more than a generalized (digitalized) databank of information, the exhibition reifies the term’s critical currency and obscures the specificity of its contemporary operations. This results in an exhibition that functions primarily as a (perhaps necessary) survey, but one that ultimately fails to provide an understanding of current critical artistic strategies beyond a remobilization of outdated postmodern forms of appropriation in relation to generalized thematic terms such as “identity,” “history,” “memory,” and “trauma” that are hardly specific to contemporary art. But perhaps this is not the failure of the exhibition, but of the political present, in which the viability of art as a critical practice is precisely what is at stake.

Vered Maimon
Full-Time Lecturer, Department of Art and Design, Northeastern University