in Opinion | 06 JUN 08
Featured in
Issue 116

Finding Time

A celebration of the over-looked, the under-appreciated and the disappeared

in Opinion | 06 JUN 08

What is missing? What has eluded us? If we are to believe that Noah was the first obsessive collector (he wanted two of everything), are we also to swallow the idea that there were no gaps in the living archive of what was important and what wasn’t? In the rush to collect the world in order to save it, what wonders were lost to indifference?

The recent ‘Archive Fever’ exhibition at the International Center for Photography in New York, curated by Okwui Enwezor, included Zoe Leonard’s Fae Richards Photo Archive (1993–6), a collection of sepia-toned photographs, dog-eared publicity shots and film stills chronicling the life of an African-American Hollywood actress who sank into oblivion and, as it turns out, never actually existed. Why are we so willing to believe the account of her disappearance from our collective cultural memory even after this fabricated fiction is revealed? Perhaps in the American story of celebrity, race and artistic self-invention she is considered an acceptable loss either way. In the same exhibition Hans-Peter Feldmann’s collection of front pages from newspapers on 12 September 2001, displayed without comment, reveals how the seemingly transparent process of recording can eclipse actual experience and draw a veil across personal memory. What remain are our vivid recollections, out-sourced to the mass media, dulled by repetition and the collateral damage of subsequent events.

I recently made a pilgrimage to Upper Manhattan, to the all but forgotten Hispanic Society of America at the Beaux-Arts Audubon Terrace, the most important cultural complex in New York that remains invisible to most Gothamites. Appropriately it was in this splendid eddy of once majestic institutions that the currently homeless Dia Art Foundation squirrelled away a contemporary art installation that contained no contemporary art: Francis Alÿs’ collection of over 300 portraits of the obscure fourth-century saint Fabiola. Here Alÿs proffered the devotional fruits of a little-known pictorial cult, culled from flea markets, attics and junk shops in Europe and Mexico over a period of 15 years, hung salon-style in the dark interior. The images, mostly anonymous and produced by amateurs, are copies of copies of copies of copies, based on a 19th-century painting by a French academician that was itself a replica of some lost ‘original’. Talent and technical skill have little to do with these pictures, which tell us next to nothing about their long-gone subject but which – executed in a range of media, from oils and watercolours to embroidery, beads, beans, rice, glass and mosaic tiles – speak volumes about the people who felt compelled to make them.

Alÿs couldn’t have found a better setting for his treasury of the anonymous paying homage to the ignored. Audubon Terrace was built in 1906 in semi-rural uptown Manhattan as a sweeping acropolis of museums and cultural institutions in anticipation of a belle époque City Beautiful that never arrived. It was to be the Lincoln Center of its day, built for the edification of generations of New Yorkers, but after the subway lines were laid under Broadway, the area became an outlying district for tides of immigrant population. In the 1980s it was known for its crack-dealing and gangland gun-play. Today it’s a culturally diverse working-class neighbourhood, home to Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans and others with roots across Latin America.

Of the original five institutions, only two remain. The American Academy of Arts and Letters began with dreams of fostering a new Athens on the Hudson, with high-minded rhetoric holding up its lintels, friezes and architraves, and quotations from John Milton and Ralph Waldo Emerson on every available surface; but as a centre of artistic vanguardism it sank into inconsequence. The other main institution, the Hispanic Society – a gem of a museum with its prized Goyas, Velázquezes and El Grecos – also gently withdrew into itself for the long, lingering twilight.

One by one all the other institutions either moved or vanished – the American Geographical Society pulled up stakes, soon followed by the Museum of the American Indian. The old brass plaque listing the resident museums is a study in erasure, the name of each deserter sequentially blotted out with different shades of black paint. The entire decaying complex of buildings is a set of lists that no one consults or questions, texts accruing meanings unforeseen by those who carved them. No one knew in 1906 that one hundred years hence, descendents of both the conquerors and conquered of Latin America would daily pass these wrap-around rosters of cultural subjugation and genocide on their way to the subway: the Zapotec, Carib, Arawak, Tupi, Yahgan, Aymara and others blithely immortalized alongside those who participated in their wholesale extirpation, Coronado, De Soto, Balboa, Da Gama.

Just south is the overgrown expanse of Trinity Church Cemetery, built on the site of John James Audubon’s family estate. Here the famed artist-naturalist retired to spend his final years maintaining a menagerie of creatures that he would observe and, on occasion, throttle and drag back to his study to dissect, index and illustrate. Now on the same ground generations of New Yorkers resident six feet under are similarly indexed, a pot-pourri of once happy-go-lucky nabobs and notables (a prostitute-turned-socialite, a scandal-plagued mayor, an Astor who gallantly went down with the Titanic) alongside mill workers, clerks, shopkeepers – all mouldering away democratically neglected and unvisited. These grounds seem unusually devoted to the oblivion of collecting and naming, to dreaming and forgetting, to grand gestures and the fading away of aspirations: sic transit gloria mundi.

Audubon, who moved to New York to study its prodigious variety of rats, is buried here too, under a cenotaph festooned with taxonomical reliefs of birds and mammals – zoology as epitaph. In almost Whitmanesque fashion the man is revealed through the tools of his trade (depicted in stone around the base are a flintlock rifle, a powder horn, specimen basket, palette, brush and pens) and by what small part of the world he managed to save from oblivion. As the economy slumps and previously certain values are questioned, take a minute to consider the overlooked, the irrelevant and underappreciated, to reconcile yourself to everything that is already falling through the cracks, to overreaching dreams, to plans half-baked and glorious futures unrealized. Here’s to the obscure lacks we’ll never know: to the missing, the lost, the forgotten, the dead.