Curated by French art historian Georges Didi-Huberman, ‘Atlas: How to Carry the World on One’s Back’, explored and paid homage to the intellectual and aesthetic legacies of German art historian Aby Warburg, who died in 1929, and specifically to the continued significance of his Mnemosyne Atlas for art in the 20th and 21st centuries. In 1924, in the reading room of his research library in Hamburg, Warburg began assembling a Bilderatlas, or picture atlas, from thousands of images from his personal collection, which he arranged and pinned on wooden screens covered with black fabric. At the time of his death there were 79 panels – some of them were used as the basis for lectures, others were not – but they were disassembled and lost when his colleagues fled Nazi Germany for London, where they re-established his Kunstwissenschaftliche Bibliothek as the Warburg Library (now the Warburg Institute). The only remaining trace of the Mnemosyne Atlas is a set of black and white photographs of the panels. These images are paradoxical freeze-frames of what was conceived as a mobile compendium of art and architectural reproductions, maps, ephemera, Warburg’s own diagrams and drawings, as well as contemporaneous photographs of historical and political events, which could be repeatedly montaged to retrace and reveal the cultural survivals and migrations of specific forms and gestures across times and places. In the same spirit, Didi-Huberman’s ‘Atlas’ presented art works of all media, books, maps and documents sans hierarchy.
At the ZKM, the exhibition’s second venue after the Reina Sofía in Madrid, ‘Atlas’ opened with life-size enlargements of several of Warburg’s panels, including one labelled Plate 1 (1927–9), with its reproduction of Babylonian and Etruscan divinatory sheep livers, carved in stone or cast in bronze, that receive close attention in the opening section of Didi-Huberman’s phenomenal catalogue essay ‘Atlas or the Anxious Gay Science’. In that text, Didi-Huberman, whose reputation as a Warburg scholar is long-established, develops the premise for this exhibition, which balances academic rigour and contemporary cultural critique while calling for nothing less than a total revision of art-historical methodology – from one that relies too strongly on teleological narration toward one that is pieced together in and through the ‘visual forms of knowledge’ that are atlases.
How does this get translated into an exhibition? ‘Atlas’ was divided into sections – ‘Knowing Through Images’, ‘Reconfiguring the Order of Things’, ‘Reconfiguring the Order of Places’, ‘Reconfiguring the Order of Times’ – which at the ZKM were arranged on an upper floor in a sequence of rooms around the airy central courtyard of the former munitions factory. Each section contained subsections (such as ‘Alphabet Primers and Pedagogies of the Imagination’, or ‘A History of Ghosts for Adults’), with brief explanatory wall texts accompanying the selection of images and objects by artists ranging from Francisco Goya through to Karl Blossfeldt and Ulrike Ottinger. As could be expected, there were plenty of works that adopted the visual form of the atlas, including a 1998 diagram by Gerhard Richter of his ongoing, encyclopaedic Atlas, while the mythological figure Atlas was represented by August Sander’s Hod Carrier (1928) and Berlin Coalheaver (1929).
More significant than these straightforward references to the atlas form or figure was the way in which Didi-Huberman’s understanding of the atlas as a site in which different times, spaces and places cohabit became enacted and embodied in experiencing the show. The cross-fertilization of media, forms and contents was heightened by the fact that one could glimpse some things or anticipate others across the space at any given time. One of the very first objects encountered, Bruce Nauman’s Henry Moore Bound to Fail (1970), a cast-bronze wall sculpture of the back of a torso bound with ropes, was recalled further on in László Moholy-Nagy’s and Alain Fleischer’s photographs of street gutters and the wads of cloth that help direct their cleansing streams (Rinnstein, Gutter, 1925, and Paysages du Sol, Landscapes of the Ground, 1968). This act of recalling struck me most as a marker of time – of the time I had spent looking, and of the different historical moments in which these works were made.
Unexpected connections arose between the thick sludge of dust under a row of books in Moyra Davey’s Two Streaks (1999) and the luminescent powdery surfaces of the butterflies in Barbara Bloom’s ‘Nabokov Butterfly Boxes’ (1998–2008), seen much further on. The proximity of certain documents to each other, like Meyer Schapiro’s Travel Notebooks (1926–7), with their exquisitely detailed drawings, and Josef Albers’ equally focused photomontages of Mexican landscapes and monuments, provided new insight into the art historian’s and the artist’s working methods. Finally, it took the near sacrilege of hanging Bernd and Hilla Becher’s spartan ‘Water Towers’ (1972–90) next to Raymond Hains and Jacques Villeglé’s juicy psychedelic abstract film Pénélope (1950–4), inspired by paintings by Henri Matisse (!), for me to appreciate these four artists again.
If there had been any remaining doubts that the archive and the atlas have influenced artists since modernity – and I don’t think there are – Didi-Huberman’s ‘Atlas’ will sweep them away for good, and this despite the obvious and intriguing absence of a current generation of artists who at least must think they are working in a similar vein. It is impossible to summarize Didi-Huberman’s entire corpus here without doing it an injustice. However, it is fair to say that his ‘Atlas’ is a visual plea for us to recognize the fundamental complexity of the relationship between seeing, knowing and imagining in a world where images do not cease to proliferate – not so we can truly know the past, but so we can critically analyze the present.