As a theme or structuring element in contemporary art, the archive answers to two potentially dichotomous desires: the desire for the pathos of a recovered artefact and for the critical force of its redeployment in the present. Archives are often too obviously places of either melancholy fixation on the remains of the past or sites where it’s easy to get overexcited about smuggling one’s discoveries back into the world. ‘A History of Irritated Material’ proposed itself as an archive of sorts, but eschewed both mourning and zeal, premature resignation and the urge to translate its contents too swiftly into the terms of the present. Rather, the show was conceived with a certain ‘irritation’ (a concept borrowed from Norbert Wiener’s writings on cybernetics) in mind: the manner in which the works shown – including early propagandist illustrations and graphics by Ad Reinhardt and documents of performances by Moscow collective Inspection Medical Hermeneutics from the last years of the Soviet Union – brushed up against both art and politics without being readily reduced to one or the other. Indeed, some works in the show approached the archival theme only enigmatically: a series of sculptural works by Inspection Medical Hermeneutics presented oblique glimpses (in the form of hat and glove motifs) of aspects of European culture buried and preserved in Russian folk tales.
In his accompanying essay, curator Lars Bang Larsen described the exhibition’s discrete installations as ‘positions’, each of which might ‘jolt – or irritate – history into running, if only as trickles of time that art makes seep from the archive’. The first such archival array was ‘Lygia Clark: From Object to Event’: a series of ten videos, shown in sequence on two monitors, produced by curator and psychoanalyst Suely Rolnik and excerpted from a larger project that documents the life and work of the Brazilian artist (who died in 1988). In 1968, Clark moved to Paris, and the interviews here – with such associates as Yve-Alain Bois, Guy Brett and Rolnik herself – concern the conditions of her exile and the origins of the project that occupied her from 1976 until the mid-1980s. ‘Structuring the Self’, a project in which the artist engaged individuals’ experiences of trauma through the use of ‘relational objects’, was conceived and put into play as an ambiguous meeting place between Clark’s art and her therapeutic practice. Though Rolnik’s reconstituting of the project and its milieu risked immersing viewers – without much to orient them – in the minutiae of mid-1970s Parisian psychoanalytic circles, the cumulative effect was of a body of work that still retained considerable purchase on those it had touched.
What Rolnik had archived was a set of relations and collaborations; something similar was broached among the textual residues of Group Material, the artists’ collective that was active in New York between 1979 and 1996. At times, the manifestoes and minutes from meetings threatened to make the collaborators look like just another self-declaredly radical groupuscule, riven by comically parochial schisms: ‘group members have to discipline themselves’, complained one typewritten record. But the work itself – represented here by such pieces as Shopping Bag (1989): a plastic carrier bag that listed the world’s retail and arms-dealing capitals – rhymed revealingly with Sture Johannesson’s neighbouring installation ‘A Study of the Ethics of Discomfort: Cannabis Gallery and a Cut in the Groin’. The Swedish artist’s psychedelic posters of the late 1960s detailed on an expansive scale the kind of cultural and political alienation that Group Material would diagnose in more coolly conceptual terms. Johannesson’s later archival and photographic exploration of Sweden’s notorious eugenicist sterilization programme was a good deal more austere than his work of the 1960s, but no less concerned with the actions and iconography of malign institutions.
Much of the work in ‘A History of Irritated Material’ seemed to orient itself around a now somewhat disparaged (because excessively humanist) notion of alienation, which Larsen hoped to reanimate ‘in terms of an artistic method that is poised against potentially paralyzing traits in contemporary politics and culture’. Its most engaged expression was ‘Disobedience: An Ongoing Video Archive’, curated by Marco Scotini and comprising 18 examples of activist filmmaking from the 1960s to the present day. (The monitors were arranged in an expanded-minimalist lattice, designed by artist Xabier Salaberría, that knowingly recalled El Lissitzky’s Soviet pavilion for the Cologne Press Exhibition in 1928.) Here the critical and nostalgic aspects of the archive were fascinatingly convolved: footage of post-1968 Italian demonstrators composed a documentary constellation on four monitors, while more recent works formed a phalanx of screens opposite it. But if it was hard not to see ‘Disobedience’ as a kind of spectacle – individual narratives, documents and polemics being flattened to a single aesthetic plane – the structure also invited prolonged engagement with single works: Harun Farocki and Andrei Ujica’s Videograms of a Revolution (1992), which looked at the Romanian revolution of 1989, or Eyal Sivan’s extended interviews with Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz in 1993. At such moments, the archival artefact seemed to hover between its moment and our own.