BY Lucy Ives in Opinion , Profiles | 25 APR 23
Featured in
Issue 234

The Bewitching Style of Hanne Darboven

The artist’s ambiguous sartorial ensembles are a reflection of her artistic practice

BY Lucy Ives in Opinion , Profiles | 25 APR 23

Hanne Darboven always dressed well. In the late 1960s and early ’70s, she was a proponent of matching ensem­bles and the turn towards androgyny and casual comfort in women’s styles. One photograph from 1969 by Alfred Weber, for instance, records her in fashionable low heels and a dark mod skirt suit with curiously forbidding small metal closures. In another picture (artist unknown), likely from the same period, she sports a knee-length, A-line cotton trench and flares. It was only later that her ensembles began to speak to history and to the exploration of kitsch that informs so much of her artwork. By the mid-1980s, we see a very different Darboven: a figure of concertedly ambiguous gender whose simple, custom-made garments appear to be vintage, if not derived directly from her deceased father’s wardrobe.

In a 1986 photograph by artist Roy Colmer, Darboven’s high-waisted trousers are of thick, forest-green wool. They are secured with a pair of sturdy black braces. Her white cotton blouse has a delicate scalloped collar. She wears at least four necklaces, including a watch suspended on a long silver chain and what appears to be a hand-carved bird whistle. On her right wrist is a dark bangle, possibly of wood and metal. She sits in a heavy antique chair, surrounded by the stuff of her studio. Her extremely short blondish hair and small symmetrical features recall Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby (1968).

Hanne Darboven at Museum Mönchengladbach, 1969. Courtesy: Hanne Darboven Stiftung; photograph: Albert Weber / Archiv Museum Abteiberg

Often a vest features prominently in the ensembles of her middle age: practical for a draughty house or for stowing small items related to her work – writing implements or, perhaps, pocket calendars. In Darboven’s world, a vest may also be a site of intense embellishment. In a 2005 photograph of her in her studio, taken by Michael Danner, a black button-down vest hangs from a tailor’s dummy. It has been festooned with all manner of small metal and enamel pins and its neck is wound round with numerous hefty trinkets and bands. Darboven herself sits on a chair below this assemblage. She wears inconspicuous brownish glasses and a dove-grey collared shirt and waistcoat, an unlit cigarette between two fingers. Her person is a point of calm in a crush of incongruous things. In another shot by Isabel Mahns-Techau from 1999, she stands in front of her work wearing just such a decorated garment. The pins include a red exclamation mark on a white ground, a badge reading ‘SMART’ that has been affixed upside down, another badge that may read ‘Art is sexy’, a delicate mushroom, a heart, an oversized safety pin, at least one cameo. Impossibly, she pulls off the look. Everything Darboven touches becomes a sort of anthropological specimen, an object lesson (pun intended) regarding the society in which we live. She was a person who could make anything interesting.

There is a completism to Darboven’s looks: she seems to intend that her person blend into the ‘wallpaper’ of her installations or be confusable with one of the kitsch figures (or figurines, to place the noun in the diminutive, as so many of them are miniature) she collected or had fabricated and included in her arrangements. One could say that Darboven dressed like a toy, but that statement is so loaded it bears some unpacking. Her outfits perform a series of self-contradictory, ambiguously didactic references: she sports apparently masculine, homespun garb – she is a fantastical Alpine rustic – yet there are military and bureaucratic elements thrown in. Hers is an obsession with heavy, word-laden jewellery that touches on the postmodern ‘flair’ of the fast-food restaurant employee or the sports mascot. She is simultaneously an adherent of the long-standing modernist interest in so-called primitivist forms, such as the bronze embellishments found on the preserved bodies of Iron Age bog people. Meanwhile, all these accoutrements resemble children’s accessories in their advertisement of themselves as pure costume.

Angelica Platen, Hanne Darboven in Hamburg, 2002. Courtesy: bpk / Angelica Platen

Through her fashions, Darboven casts herself at once as an authority – a magician, philosopher, local politician, specialist or craftsperson – and as a character in the tableaux she fashioned. She is the impresario who inducts us into monumental rooms combining wall displays of seemingly endless pages of hand-drawn loops, cancelled calendars or musical notation, along with eccentric arrangements of objects referencing childhood, religion and commerce. Yet, she is also a figure in the distance, an example of local colour, a personification of the ‘cultural history’ that her work distils. Like her systems for marking time – developed as early as her 1969 film Six Books on 1968 – her clothes appear to be an eccentric device for toggling between the macro and the micro. They are a translating mechanism that permits her to at once inhabit the liminal space of her studio and to dwell within the enchanted yet deeply haunted realm of her art.

Much of what I have described above, particularly the citational nature of Darboven’s clothes, could place her in the category of dandy, and she is indeed legible as a reclusive swell. She may remind us of Joris-Karl Huysmans’s celebrated character Jean des Esseintes in Against the Grain (1884), a Robert de Montesquiou-like aristocrat who retreats in disgust from the bourgeois society of his day to construct a home life of extreme aesthetic indulgence. In 1968, after two years in New York, Darboven returned home to Rönneburg, a suburb of Hamburg, where she was to live and produce art for the rest of her life. Her elective retreat also brings to mind the strange fashions worn by the survivors of the Fourth World War in L.Q. Jones’s film A Boy and His Dog (1975), based on a series of narratives by Harlan Ellison. The residents of underground Topeka sport white face and engage in a ritualized re-creation of pre-apocalyptic, small-town society. While Darboven’s garments resemble those of the subterranean Topekans only nominally (in so much as white Midwestern folk culture is strongly influenced by German folk culture), there is something of a spiritual alignment. Darboven appeared to dress for an end of history – an era after the end of historical eras as we know them. She seemed prepared for a variety of possible doomsday scenarios. Her outfits are suitable for life in a bunker full of cuckoo clocks, as well as – given their references to uniforms and chronometry – aboard a time-travelling spaceship.

Hanne Darboven, 'Erdkunde und (Süd-) Koreanischer Kalender', 2020, installation view. Courtesy: Sprüth Magers, Berlin; photograph: Timo Ohler

Whereas the ideology of the Third Reich demanded a return to agrarian ideals and the consolidation of power in the hands of an ultraviolent patriarchy, Darboven’s interpretation of world history is queerer, nonlinear, unspooling. In Darboven’s art, years and events are stripped of figurative meaning. Rendered as loops and hatchings, they become the background for her groupings of allegedly trivial objets déco: hideous dolls’ heads, statuettes for tourists, Mickey Mouse phones, mannequins, commercial signage and print media of all kinds. Darboven received kitsch as a birthright but had no interest in the spectre of authenticity associated with it. Rather, she seemed to suggest that humans must be prepared to carry on in the absence of any unified cultural world at all.

There is, additionally, a mystical function to Darboven’s ensembles. Being a dandy – or, for that matter, an enchanted survivor of Armageddon – is a lot like being a witch. While the latter magnetizes objects and garments, the former dresses to cause others to hallucinate. Certainly, even at a distance, even when all that is available is a series of lo-res digital reproductions, Darboven’s outfits cause me to see things. In his essay ‘Unpacking My Library’ (1931), Walter Benjamin describes the power of the collector in drawing an occult ‘magic circle’ around those items that they gather into a group. There is a similar circle around the objects in Darboven’s studio, as well as around her ensembles, which seem to have been a way of disseminating the studio’s magic.

In Sigmund Freud’s discussion of human sexuality in Fetishism (1927), the eponymous subject is reserved for the developmental course of men. Yet, it is far from clear that men are the only ones who can be fetishists. Anyone can seek out substitutes and thereby enchant certain items, and I can say with certainty that Darboven did master the ambivalent and sometimes vertiginous dynamic of the fetish. Still, it is never evident whose fetish she presents. Certainly, we can’t be sure that it is her own. Rather, she seems to take up something larger and more collectively orientated in her enigmatic and deeply satisfying displays, such as Kinder dieser Welt (1990–96) and her magnum opus Kulturgeschichte 1880–1983 (1980–83).

Hanne Darboven in Bonn, Germany, undated. Courtesy: IMAGO / sepp spiegl

One might say that Darboven inverted all the disciplinary energy of her own culture. She reflected this power – which attempts to construct a child as a certain kind of adult and thereby create a subject of history – back into the world as a kind of nonsense, as a series of marks and three-dimensional images. An apocalyptic dandy, a reclusive occultist, a knowledge-worker, Darboven is also – and perhaps most resolutely – a resistor of Bildung, that process of aligning the self with broader culture by means of socially sanctioned maturation. Darboven does not – and did not – grow up. She rather travelled backward and sideways, spreading into the wallpaper, writing obsessively, saying nothing, showing everything, staying out of the way of the traps of semantic meaning. In order to fulfil this mission, she dressed as a kind of way maker or messenger: in a practical vest and pants, her hair shorn so that she never had to style it. Darboven brought news of the experience of an intimate and previously unheard-of encounter with time. She dared to disabuse us of our illusions regarding progress.

This article appeared in frieze issue 234 with the headline ‘Dandy, Witch, Fetishist, Saint’.

Main image: Hanne Darboven in Bonn, Germany, undated. Courtesy: IMAGO / sepp spiegl

Lucy Ives is a novelist, poet and critic. Her most recent book is the short story collection, Cosmogony (Soft Skull Press, 2021). In October 2022, Graywolf Press will publish her third novel, Life Is Everywhere. She lives in Vermont, USA.