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The art of archiving

In the archive we organize events, or traces of them, in relation to what we think is worth remembering. Art makes us doubt again.


[archiving] Holocaust centers document World War II extermination through photographs and testimonies, official medical records have overview archives of individuals' health history and predisposition to various types of diseases. The archive extends between the tracks of a collective, and an individual, history, and usually serves as historical backup and balance creator for a nation's self-esteem – or a reservoir for the individual's identity. But there are also more problematic archives.

Andy Warhol collected everything he came across in boxes and buried it down to the delight of the archaeologists of the future. The boxes had, one might imagine, a private content that served as a gift to future archaeologists and their archival formations as pieces in a collective history. In Research and presentation of all that remains of much childhood (1944-1950), Christian Boltanski relates as an archaeologist to fragments of his own life.

Warhol and Boltanski point out that art is a field in which the archival form can find ever-new forms, and thus questions the archival functions that prevail in a culture at all times.

Never neutral

In the anthology The Archive it is pointed out that an archive is never erected from scratch. Artist Susan Hiller writes about how a seemingly neutral archive will always overwrite another: A collection of data or objects claiming to be true remnants of an event defines data that could have told a different story.

In the same book, artist Thomas Hirschorn describes the monument as the archive's least productive form: The monument is not so much a memorial as is necessary to maintain a cultural stability or nuanced knowledge of the past, but rather an expression of a society's dominant ideology. Hirschorn mentions the Washington DC monument to the soldiers who died in Vietnam, and emphasizes that such forms appeal to uncritical admiration rather than reflection, thus defining an event of power rather than opening to real remembrance.

The shape of the monument may not be associated with the archived system's layered system, but the monument's defining power can also be found in the more low-volume archive folders.

Every archive is in a conflicting relationship with another – whether it is a register of Holocaust victims, your health journal or a monument. The function of art is therefore, as Hirschorn points out, to construct counter-monuments: objects that problematize how we, either individually or collectively, index or register past events, and thus also how we form our knowledge of them. In this way, not only is the tension between competing archives kept open, but our idea of ​​the archive, as such, can be reformulated.

Venice Biennale and Documenta

The major international art exhibitions can be a good place to explore this issue. Both because of the amount of possible alternative archives, but also as a symptom of how art archives itself.

This year, two of the most important exhibitions will be held, which provide quite different versions of this issue. The Venice Biennale was started in 1898, and is the largest of the exhibitions held every other year. Documenta in Kassel, Germany, for its part, is considered the most important international art exhibition, more highbrow than Venice, and is held every five years.

Venice leans towards the monument as Hirschorn describes it. The art on display is spectacular and is based on a core of very canonized names. If we imagine art as an archive of aesthetic forms in constant expansion, Venice is conservative, and addresses established perceptions, to art as an archive of names and works that have already been written into art history. Venice nurtures the admiration and recycling of established perceptions, rather than a critical examination of the concept of art and how the archive of the dominant actors in contemporary art is maintained.

Documenta 12, on the other hand, is unspectacular, sober and exploratory. In particular, Hu Xiaoyuan's The Times (2006) stands out. The work balances on the border between the private collection of objects and the official archive. Everyday objects, which have belonged to the artist herself, her mother and grandmother, are sewn into a long silk cloth. The personal memories around things can not be translated into any unambiguous official story, and as an art object, the value of affection is evoked as a picture of the archive's limitations. Nevertheless, we are reminded how the personal experience of an event will always form the basis of the official version of the story, and how established archives must always be linked to such moments in order to maintain their legitimacy and function.

The unique event will never be exhausted in a specific archive, Xiayuan tells us, but must be nuanced by circulating through several. This is, posed above the archive as a monument or something unquestionable, one of the most important tasks of art.

Theft as archiving

At the Venice Biennale there was a library where nothing was written, Wilfredo Pietos Biblioteca Blanca. I supplied myself with one of the undescribed books, and have used it as a notebook ever since. The blank pages now contain my archive of the Venice Biennale and Documenta 12. I therefore hope to see this work again: if I do, I will put the book back with my own notes on the shelf with unwritten books. A new archive is created. ■

Reviewed by Kjetil Røed

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