On the art of archiving
Precedents for this art, as with so many others, lie stowed in a suitcase. Marcel Duchamp casually dismissed his project of the Boîtes-en-valise as mere financial enterprise - ‘small business, I assure you’ 1 - an attempt to drum up a little cash. More recent valuations acknowledge the Boîtes as the first critique of museum practice: it ‘parodies the museum as an enclosed space for displaying art…mocks [its] archival activity…[and] satirically suggests that the artist is a travelling salesman whose concerns are as promotional as they are aesthetic.’ 2 But the project seems to have been more self-consciously motivated than either claim recognises.
It was 1938; the war was encroaching, and Duchamp’s art had already proved vulnerable to accident. The Large Glass was cracked in transit between Brooklyn and Katherine Dreier’s home in 1926, though this was not revealed until the crate was opened several years later. What better place to preserve the past than a museum? And so Duchamp devised one small enough to fit into a suitcase. He consigned printers and light manufacturers throughout Paris to make 300 copies of miniature versions of each of his artworks, customised a briefcase to store and display them, hastily packed the rest of his bags and came to America. 3 The task of assembling and editioning the Valises stretched beyond Duchamp’s death in 1964. In the end, the project was not only autobiographical, a life-long summation, but anticipatory as well. As an artwork designed to be unpacked, the viewing of a Valise carries the same sense of expectation and event as the opening of a crate.
The crate is, of course, a carapace and a coffin. In an increasingly international art world, works are routinely sealed up into protective bins and cartons to be jetted off to exhibitions and salerooms all over the world. Entering the collection or returned to the studio, they are consigned to storage in this same secreted state, sometimes never to be opened again. Over time, the crate supplants its contents as the object under consideration, the thing which is monitored, moved, and maintained.
Accelerating this eventuality are Richard Artschwager’s recent crate sculptures: empty wooden boxes that deviate only slightly from true art shipping form. An unlikely corner, sly angle, or jog in the silhouette embody the gestalt of Artschwager’s furniture-like sculptures and, resting in their chamfered frames, his sculptural paintings. Collectively, these funereal objects transform the gallery into a crypt, subjecting the history of Artschwager’s achievements to the crudest form of encapsulation. They adjudicate the assessment of art as so much cultural furniture.
Haunting the storage spaces of galleries, museums, and auction houses, Louise Lawler photographs the object-inmates as they move from racks and rooms, wheel past conservation studios, pause in corridors, wearily stand on view, step up to auction blocks and shuffle back into the storeroom. A dormant pall hangs over these transactions, turning the bustle of the marketplace and the dynamism of history into equally mythic properties. To watch the digital counters affixed to Ashley Bickerton’s sculptures, set during the ago-go 80s, and ticking away the seconds of a presumably ever-increasing worth, today seems only wistful.
The sense of loss which is intrinsic to these critiques depends on a consensus on what’s at stake. (You cannot mourn what you don’t care for.) To this extent, the crate becomes a figurative presence. Magritte made light of this potential in his pastiches of David’s Madame de Recamier and Manet’s Le Balcon, in which the subjects of the original paintings are encrypted into craftily customised coffins. Artschwager’s self-reflexive crates confront the viewer with the immediate presence of totems. With their plain pine facades, they recall something Magritte once wrote about trees:
‘Pushed from the earth toward the sun, a tree is an image of
certain happiness. To perceive this image, we must be immobile
like a tree. When we are moving, it is the tree that becomes the
spectator. It is witness, equally, in the shape of chairs, tables
and doors to the more or less agitated spectacle of our life.
The tree having become a coffin, disappears into the earth.
And when it is transformed into fire, it vanishes into air.’ 4
Marcel Broodthaers brings this imagery of identification to its most intimate disclosure, writing of a ‘deep storage’-style installation he created for his own Musée d’Art Moderne, Département des Aigles, Section XIXème Siècle, located in his Brussels apartment: ‘My crates are empty. We are on the brink of the abyss. Proof: when I’m not here, there’s nobody.’ 5
Other artists seem more resigned to the ephemeral nature of representation. Rirkrit Tiravanija, for example, makes works as temporary as camp sites. Like Samuel Beckett’s Molloy, who systematically moved stones from pocket to pocket, Tiravanija moved the contents of 303 gallery’s storeroom out into its exhibition space. In the back room, he set up a small stove to cook and serve meals to itinerant gallery-goers. During his absence, dishes and pans indicated the artist’s imminent return. In the meantime, the space afforded by Untitled (Free) (1992) generously envisioned a world without storage problems.
In many cases, the storage of fine art has become practically an art in its own right: crates and conservation measures sometimes seem more elaborate than the very works they are designed to protect. Captivated by its symbols, labels, and materials, as well as the mysterious forms it engenders, Martin Kippenberger has cultivated the beauty of fine arts handling. It’s a far-ranging aesthetic. Bins of the artist’s own canvases, shown as if jettisoned from the warehouse, are as romantic as ruined temples. The crates Kippenberger exhibits alongside his sculptures are so intricately absurd that, in the manner of the best gothic art, they defy common sense. Striped cardboard boxes, exhibited like Donald Judd wall-sculptures, are smooth icons of minimalism. And a series of mummified works, wrapped in Kippenberger’s own customised packing tape, becomes archaeological treasure, mysterious fetishes of some marginal sect.
Taking this Egyptian preoccupation one step further, Jason Rhoades fashioned an entire installation of his artworks and possessions as if entombed in a suburban family garage. While Kippenberger elevates wrappers to the status of artworks, Rhoades intimates that it’s all - art and sepulchre alike - so much trash. With Suitcase with Past Financial Endeavours (1993), a shabby version of Duchamp’s Valise, Rhoades conjures up a comic image in which the suitcase takes advantage of the first-class luxury of the contemporary art circuit. Packed meticulously by professional handlers, fawned over by devoted registrars, expensively insured and gingerly installed, this slacker suitcase filled with rolls of cellophane tape, magic markers, balled-up aluminium foil, and vials of ‘wee-wee’ will travel from gallery, to museum, to collection, taking an occasional time-out to relax in climate-controlled storerooms - a Beverley Hillbilly come to high culture.
Occasionally an artist is invited to infiltrate the sanctum sanctorum. Museum exhibitions that feature artists as curators seem to have made their debut in 1970 with Andy Warhol’s ‘Raid the Icebox’ at the Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design. 6 David Bourdon describes Warhol’s tour of the vaults:
‘Warhol wanted the entire shoe collection. Did he mean the cabinet as well? “Oh yes, just like that.” But what about the doors? Would he allow people to open and close them? “Spectator participation,” Warhol murmured… One of the biggest surprises for Warhol was finding one of his own works…sharing a rack with two Charles Hawthorns and one Zoltan Sepeschy. “Doesn’t it make you sad to see all these forgotten artists?” Robbins asked Warhol. “...uh…”’ 7
A work’s fate once it leaves the studio domain can prove the source of some anxiety. Contemplating the unknown, Franz Erhard Walther took precautions against the possible mishandling of his First Work Series (1963-69). This multi-faceted sculpture consists of a suite of ‘before’ drawings, the realised fabric sculptures, ‘after’ photographs documenting these in performative use, and a shelving-unit for storing the entire ensemble. Altogether the piece serves as both museum and archive: a pragmatic minimalist structure that attempts to control its own physical and interpretative destinies. On a similarly hermetic note are On Kawara’s date paintings, which come housed in their own cardboard boxes. Inside the lid of each box is affixed a newspaper page for the date situating the day’s work into a world of external events.
Reifying a stored work’s existence through a paper trail of photographs, sales records, loan forms, and letters is the archive. The archive was Walter Benjamin’s great unfinished project: an attempt to organise the tidal waves of an ensuing modernity into a cohesive architecture of information and imagery. The inherent futility of this attempt, as each fragile structure slips beneath the crushing weight of the next oncoming wave, makes for an appropriately unstable paradigm in an age of reproduction that is itself giving way to the juggernaut of the information superhighway.
For artists working from mediated imagery, as opposed to first-hand experience, archives are invaluable studio references. Eugene Atget, whose work was once primarily purchased by other artists and engravers as reference tools, referred to himself not as a photographer, but as an archivist. (Duchamp decided to give up painting to become a freelance librarian at the Bibliothèque Sainte-Genevieve in Paris.) Among Joseph Cornell’s papers are neatly titled dossiers - whose subjects include ‘Claire Bloom’, ‘Clouds’, ‘Patty Duke’, and ‘Peter Engels’ - from which he culled for his collages. Likewise, Karen Kilimnik maintains files on everything from ‘Andy Warhol’ to ‘Waterbabies’ as possible fodder for her scatter-style drawings and installations. 8 For both artists, personal obsessions sustain collecting impulses that give way to assemblage by way of the archive. For the collaborative team of Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler, whose perfume Êtes-vous servis? (1992) reproduces the scent of the National Archives in Paris, the repository is its own obsession.
Working an undefined interstice between archivist and artist, collector and curator, Douglas Blau maintains a vast accumulation of film stills, postcards, photographs and magazine clippings for use in his picture shows: installations of cycles of uniformly framed images lined up in neat rows on the wall. This format results in a deceptively simple narrative. It’s easy enough to follow the logic of this idiosyncratic flow of imagery when taken one picture at a time, but almost impossible to reconstruct in terms of a whole. Thrown back on the curatorial project in general, Blau’s selections point out a fictive fallacy whereby every exhibition is an essay reflecting arbitrary predilections and biases, what’s at hand, and what someone remembered to dig out of storage.
Sometimes the collecting impulse overwhelms the archival process. Instead of throwing things away, Warhol crammed his unopened mail and other casually-acquired ephemera into cardboard boxes, which he shipped off to storage in New Jersey. Currently being opened and catalogued at The Andy Warhol Museum, the Time Capsules’ contents would seem a historian’s dream - a post-marked paper backdrop to the famous artist’s daily life. Except that the staggering volume of the capsules reveals Warhol’s revenge, drowning the speculator in details of little or no importance.
The artist’s life is a grand archive, in which every discarded receipt, marginal note, or studio scrap might someday be deemed tremendously significant. Besides Warhol, consider the Robert Mapplethorpe and Jackson Pollock/Lee Krasner Foundations, dedicated to compounding interest in their subjects through the availability and upkeep of archives. These archives spawn those other great testaments of worth, catalogue raisonnés, such as the giant tome just published in conjunction with the Bruce Nauman exhibition. Jockeying for control of the raw material are institutions like the Getty Museum, which offer to pay living artists large sums of money for their dead papers. While these activities maintain and minister to a flourishing art market, the resultant accumulations of documents are also telling memory banks, demonstrating the ways in which historic figures are valued.
The issue looms measurably in Meg Cranston’s Who’s Who by Size, University of California Sample (1993). These blank stelae portray the relative importance of a panoply of cultural figures, from Emily Dickinson to Mohammed Ali, according to the number of inches of shelf space they occupy within the stacks of the library at the University of California. With individual merit counting for little - Nikola Tesla is dwarfed by Thomas Edison, despite his substantial contribution to engineering - it’s the adage of the art review come true: when it comes to securing a place in history, perhaps it’s not so much what gets written as the number of inches racked up in print.
When Sarah Seager approached the Smithsonian Institute’s Archives of American Art with Excuse My Dust (1992-93), she implicitly challenged the archival system of inclusion. Her donation of found correspondence written or received by the former archivist of the Huntington Library, was subtitled, Why do we circulate all these papers when everyone says it will make no difference? It tells of ‘...the archivist’s coming to terms with his wife’s nearly fatal bout with pneumonia’ and in itself, serves no more or less a purpose than documenting a fragment of a facet of an otherwise untold story. However, housed in the Archives of American Art under ‘The Sarah Seager Papers’, it speaks of a historical process that only selectively chooses its evidence from a vast arena of information, while the rest falls away into an ocean of insignificance. 9
Anxiety and dust provoke the archiving impulse. In the museum - the mausoleum most artists still aim to enter through their work - the recesses of the storeroom simultaneously beckon and bar access to history. Art that assumes the storeroom’s cladding and demeanour of the stores displays a desire to repose within the museum’s collection. At the same time, these works also elude the museum’s authority by inventing alternative systems of self-containment outside of its ordination. These systems might be seen as individual struggles against time, or as simply autobiographical.
The process of storing is always one of mirroring and self-evaluation. Whether that self be a cultural body, squirrelish individual, or Citizen Kane, ‘you are what you keep.’ When these dual modes of internal and external assessment intersect in an art of impenetrable closure or inexhaustible accumulation, they attain an ongoing afterlife within deep storage.
1. Marcel Duchamp quoted in Calvin Tomkins, ‘The Bride and the Bachelors’ , New York: The Viking Press, 1965, p.60
2. Jackie McAllister and Benjamin Weil, exhibition catalogue essay ‘The Museum under Analysis’ in The Desire of the Museum, New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1989, p.10
3. The task of assembling and editioning the Boîtes-en-valise multiples progressed at a rate of about 30% per year and involved a whole history of hired hands, including at one point, Joseph Cornell.
4. Magritte quoted in Harry Torozyner, Magritte: Ideas and Images, New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.,1977, p.109
5. Marcel Broodthaers’ open letter (dated 29 September 1968) quoted in Birgit Pelzer, ‘Recourse to the letter’, Broodthaers: Writings, Interviews, Photographs, Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, ed. (Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1988), p. 170. The installation of an arrangement of crates and postcards of 19th century paintings, placed under the sign of the eagle, remained in place for exactly a year. Broodthaers’ open letters document the opening and activities of the museum on ‘official’ letterhead, comprising its ‘Section Littérature.’
6. The show was part of a series conceived by John and Dominique de Menil, ‘who wanted to bring out into the open some of the unfamiliar and often unsuspected treasures mouldering in museum basements, inaccessible to the general public.’ c.f. exhibition catalogue essay by David Bourdon, ‘Andy’s Dish’, Raid the Icebox 1 with Andy Warhol, Providence: Museum of Modern Art, Rhode Island School of Design, 1970, p.17
7. ibid. pp.17 & 24. Bourdon continues, ‘Back in his office, Robbins informed the curator of the costume collection that Warhol wanted to borrow the entire shoe collection. ‘Well, you don’t want it all,’ she told Warhol in a rather disciplinarian tone, ‘because there’s some duplication.’ Warhol raised his eyebrows and blinked.’, p.20
8. Other topics include anorexics, ballet/bows, god’s little creatures, murders, overbites, and pajama parties. c.f. Melissa E. Feldman, ‘Karen Kilimnik: A Material Girl,’ Karen Kilimnik: Escape in Time, Philadelphia: Institute of Contemporary Art, 1992, p.1.
9. In a letter dated September 14, 1992, the artist describes: ‘These letters were recently sent to my mother by a woman who found them in the basement of a Santa Cruz home. How the letters turned up in Santa Cruz remans a mystery, but it is in this unusual manner that I have become the custodian of the correspondence.’ c.f., Sarah Seager, Excuse My Dust, ed. Cornelia Lauf, Gent: Imschoot, Uitgevers, 1994
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