BY Jan Verwoert in Features | 31 MAY 14
Featured in
Issue 15

Chain-Smoking Clotho

The artist’s studio as a clue to decoding her work? Four decades of Hanne Darboven’s conceptual art and artefacts from her house in Hamburg are exhibited together for the first time

BY Jan Verwoert in Features | 31 MAY 14

Photograph of Hanne Darboven in her home, now the Hanne Darboven Foundation, 2013, all images: Hanne Darboven Stiftung, Hamburg, Photograph: © Rainer Bolliger

Hanne Darboven? The name conjures the image of a highly consistent art practice. Indeed, her work is immediately identifiable. But does that mean we know who she is? Hermeticism is one of her trademarks. I know it’s a Darboven installation when rows of code, numbers and handwriting tower above me.

Because that’s what a classic Darboven installation looks like: a room tiled with frames from floor to ceiling, precisely aligned. Instead of pictures or paintings, the frames display pieces of paper. Page after page is filled with numbers or transcriptions of books and magazines. All handwritten – neat, yes, but free of any sign of compulsiveness. Number after number calmly copied onto the page. Row after row recorded in elegant script. Its loops are rhythmic and its rhythm smooth. The pen moves with ease, you can tell. Sometimes there is something glued between the rows of words and numbers like in a scrapbook. Collectable cards from the late 19th century, for example, or photographs of things. Most of these things are collectibles from each decade of the 20th century and some from the 19th. Nothing is worth much, but nothing is worthless either. Carefully curated odds and ends. One or the other thrift item shown in a photograph may reappear in the exhibition space on a pedestal. A foreign object amidst walls of paper, but it isn’t lost. Everything is exact: what is arranged where, how something is framed, how something is written. Nothing is left to chance. But the precision doesn’t weigh too heavily upon the mind; it’s not like pure reason is holding court. Precision is integral to a practice. And it was a daily practice. No one fills that many pages in one night, it takes years. Writing must be a fact of everyday life – like bookkeeping used to be in shops, the account ledger lying open on the counter. The shop owner hands the customers their things with one hand and records it with the other. That’s how the book fills up – day in, day out.

The Order of Time and ThingsThe Home Studio of Hanne Darboven, 2014, Installation view, Museo Reina Sofía, Madrid; courtesy: Archivo fotográfico del Museo Nacional Centre de Arte Reina Sofía

It’s not just a style. Her work bears her signature through and through. Darboven’s hand is visible in everything she exhibited: her handwriting, her choice of artefacts and themes, her bone-dry humour. But who was she? The work doesn’t offer many suggestions. It’s too reserved and enigmatic for that, in its peculiar sobriety. The current exhibit in Madrid’s Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, El tiempo y las cosas – La Casa-Estudio de Hanne Darboven (The Order of Time and Things – The Home Studio of Hanne Darboven) attempts to solve the puzzle. Part of the exhibition is an introduction to the work of the artist who died in 2009. The other part is an exhibit of her original desks and stacks of objects as they were in Darboven’s parents’ house, her studio for decades, in the Burgberg neighbourhood of Hamburg-Harburg.

Is the artist’s studio a clue to decoding her work? More like adding another question mark. The objects Darboven included in her pieces lie on and near the tables: texts, pictures and stuff. Like big hieroglyphs, the desks only redouble the question: how to approach the characteristic hermeticism of the work?

Let’s start with Darboven’s signature. She branded years of writing and collecting with a special sign off: a page is closed with ‘uuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu’ or ‘thought (+s)’ or ‘today’. These sign offs are like a defen­sive charm against further explications. Today crosses itself out at the end of the day. The completed thought wraps itself up. Each day underlines its own bill and is signed with lines of waves. Who can add anything to that and talk big about it? Darboven’s signatures seal the work. Break the seal? Decode the waves? No. Shame on those who think to interpretate. Yes, but only a coward wouldn’t try.

Artists who create their own systems force their interpreters to begin by investing time in describing their methods. No text about Darboven would be complete without an explanation of the date calculations that were one of her trademarks. Darboven de­veloped a formula for calculating the sum for any calendar day. Let’s take today’s date, for example: in Germany we write it as 4.6.14 and Darboven would add the numbers to­gether: 4+6+1+4=15 K. ‘K’ is Darboven’s unit of measurement. It stands for ‘Konstruktion’ (construction) or ‘Kombinationsmög­lichkeit’ (possibility of combination). This method inspired further projects. Darboven solved date calculations for entire months, years, decades and even centuries, filling pages with additions. Or she dated a page with a calculation above, next to or below passages excerpted from books and magazines or countless lines of waves. There are also her musical works, which she began in 1980. Darboven converted date calculations into musical notes: 1=e, 2=f, 3=g, etc. Opus 26 (1989–90), for example, is a 90-movement string quartet with a potential duration of 20 hours. The sound of the work is strikingly architectonic. Slightly discordant intervals build on each other, like steps of a never-ending spiral staircase. The music drills deeper into space and time with each rotation.

Kosmos – 85 – World Tour – in Memoriam to Humboldt (detail), 1985, 919 offset prints, Each: 34 × 30 cm; courtesy: Hanne Darboven Foundation, Hamburg-Harburg © Hanne Darboven, VEGAP, Madrid, 2014

This mathematical method has its history, which is told by the Reina Sofía exhibition. The story begins with an early untitled work from her student years at the Hochschule für bildende Künste Hamburg between 1962 and 1965. Darboven makes series of identically-sized monochrome paintings in different colours and punches holes in the canvases at carefully measured intervals. She is, to misquote Kraftwerk, the operator with the punch card calculator. It was likely her Brazilian painting professor, Almier Mavignier, who introduced her to cybernetic thinking.

Upon completing her studies, Darboven moves to New York in 1966. Here she gives her work its next twist: she includes her calculations for the preparation of the punched canvases as part of the work and titles the clusters of numbers on graph paper Konstruktion New York (1966–67). Mel Bochner’s 1966 exhibition at New York’s School of Visual Arts titled Working Drawings and Other Visible Things on Paper Not Necessarily Meant to Be Viewed as Art might have nudged her in this direction.1 Bochner asked his minimalist artist friends for project sketches, construction blueprints and bud­-get calculations, photocopied them and along with articles from the magazine Scientific America, arranged the copies in four three-ringed binders and displayed them each on a pedestal. The work is the documentation of work: a scientific joke between concept­ualists. Among them is Darboven. She, Sol LeWitt and Lawrence Weiner will remain lifelong friends. In 1968, her father dies. Darboven moves back to her parents’ house in Hamburg-Harburg, keeps her mother company and exhibits her work internationally.

Home of Hanne Darboven, now the Hanne Darboven Foundation, Hamburg-Harburg, 2013

Darboven began work on Schreibzeit (Writing Time) in 1975. This project forms the heart of her practice. Schreibzeit becomes the umbrella term and catch all for the writing she produced daily: date calculations and excerpts from books and magazines, collected in binders. There are 32 binders in total when she hands them over to the printers in 1995. Darboven supplements this corpus with writing she produces for installations such as Bismarckzeit (Bismarck era, 1979) and Sand (1979), dedicated to the writer George Sand. Conversely, her expanding volumes of text also serve as a reservoir to be tapped for filling new installations. Darboven prints the word ‘Schreibzeit’ on red poster board and makes photocopies of her daily transcriptions. She affixes the photocopies (and, since Bismarckzeit, pictures) to boxes of things she has collected. Darboven also uses segments from Schreibzeit in exhibitions. Wende 80 (Turning Point 80, 1980–81) or Für Rainer Werner Fassbinder (For Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1982–83), for example, are Schreibzeit spin-offs. Even larger installations, such as Kulturgeschichte 1880–1983 (Cultural History 1880–1983, 1980–83), feed from the Schreibzeit project. A significant portion of the framed writings that tile several rooms in this work (today in the collection of the Dia Art Foundation) are from Schreibzeit. A testament to the daily discipline of writing, Schreibzeit is at once source material, repertoire and colour palette.

Seen this way, content is filler. It feeds the writing, adds volume to the work and reading material to the exhibition. But the content isn’t random. A common thread runs through the texts Darboven copies from Homer to Heinrich Heine, from Charles Baudelaire to Walter Benjamin, from Simone de Beauvoir to Bertolt Brecht. These writers are key witnesses to the contemplation of writing as a medium to create consciousness and intensify life. There are also over-arching themes of war and peace, power versus reason.2 Darboven excerpts studies on Otto von Bismarck. She consistently copies from Der Spiegel – texts about the death of Ulrike Meinhof, for example, and Franz Josef Strauss’ candidacy for chancellor. In 1993, she inserts a copy of kiosk-owner Helga Mahlwitz’s drink sales accounting at the Strandhalle in Over near Hamburg, as an epilogue to Schreibzeit. In 1995, she adds a prologue: an anonymous eyewitness account of the Seven Years’ War titled Gespräche im Reiche der Todten 1761–63 (Conversations in the Realm of the Dead, 1761–63).

Home of Hanne Darboven, now the Hanne Darboven Foundation, Hamburg-Harburg, 2013

The meaning of writing underscores the question raised by the omnipresence of Darboven’s handwriting: that of the writer. What is her role? German scholars answer: that of the Bible-copying monk.3 The logic: creation is God’s handwriting. That’s why monks copy the holy scriptures. Their work (occupatio) is a reenactment of His work. The comparison almost works. Darboven certainly has monastic discipline. But unlike the well-behaved monks, she answers to no higher being. She’s in charge. K is her unit. Only she measures in K. Only she writes K. K is pure time. She writes time. Like Clotho (or Klotho) one of the Three Fates who spin time. In Greek mythology, the Fates, or Moirai, are sisters. They rank above the gods. Clotho spins the thread of human life. Lachesis measures it. Atropos cuts it. Darboven follows in the footsteps of the sisters – writing, calculating and planting cuttings from her thrift collection in her shows. She wields the Fate’s power soberly. And throws it into the wind just as laconically. There is a porcelain plate in Bismarckzeit with the inscription: ‘Einer spinnt immer wenn 2 spinnen wird’s schlimmer’. In German this is a double entendre. To ‘spin’ also means to act dotty. So it reads ‘One always spins (acts dotty) when 2 spin (act dotty) things get knotty’. A personal mythology? The aestheticizing of bureaucracy? If so, then à la Fassbinder: Clotho chain-smokes, Lachesis keeps accounts of lemonade sales and Atropos cuts and grafts scions.

Uber-gods of the Southern Elbe – Darboven planted this clue herself. She uses the address of her parents’ house in one of her signatures, ‘– am Burgberg, 1972 –’. Many of her catalogues include pictures taken in this old house. Some show her smoking, near one of several desks, defiantly staring into the camera. The tables are engulfed by a dizzying array of things: animal figurines, toy theatres, fetish objects, toilet seats, dolls, doll’s houses, toys, flippers, Picasso prints, musical instruments, carousel animals, postcards, collectible cards, books, dishware and now and again calendars, clocks and signs emblazoned with the name of her grandparents’ business, J.W. Darboven – founded in 1895 as a general store and coffee roaster in Harburg and erased from the commercial registry in 1972.4 The desks are islands, or faucets to an enormous sink. The rooms of the winding house are tanks Darboven gradually filled with objects. When she prepared an installation, she briefly turned on the faucet and let a stream of objects course into the installation. In the case of Kulturgeschichte, a compact mix of colonial kitsch, pre-war toys and curiosities from economic wonderland West Germany or rare porcelain dolls in Kinder dieser Welt (Children of our World, 1990–96) – never too much.

Untitled (calendars) (detail), 1971–2008, Offset print, ball pen, felt pen and pen on cardboard, 71 sheets, Each: 21 × 30 cm

What stays behind, unexhibited, in the house, is a counterweight to what’s displayed. But it doesn’t reveal much about the artist herself. When I visited the house (today the Hanne Darboven Foundation) a few months before the exhibition in Madrid, what I noticed was that even though the house is filled to the rafters with thrift items, the objects are not arranged in any particular manner, they are simply stacked some‑ how and some seem almost untouched. They aren’t wrapped in a cocoon by the sticky spider yarn of pervasive ego, like in Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau (1920–36) or Dieter Roth’s Grosse® Tischruine (Large Table Ruin, 1978–98). The collection is like a warehouse. What enters the depository can exit. None of the artefacts shows evidence of a desire to recuperate or incorporate them. Nothing is owned. Everything is stuff. Protected by walls of objects, Darboven is a hermit at an import-export office: she writes herself free from the symbolic weight of belongings. The dates and words are her own and yet they are not. She doesn’t work in coffee, but in art. She breaks family tradition but keeps her mother company and fills the house with witnesses to the past century. Much of it, especially the toys, are from the time before mass production and air raids – remnants from a world of handmade things that the generation of war children was still born into, only to witness its obliteration. (Dolls like those in Darboven’s house also populate my mother’s study.) Darboven internalizes history. But it’s more than that. She externalizes it in the process of taking it in. Schreibzeit opens with the dedication ‘To Everyone’. Her writing time is an investment in communal consciousness, not a deposit into her personal account.

With her particular rigour and reserve, Darboven takes on the role of an heir who renders herself possessionless in the act of writing. Therein lies her particular dandyism. In portraits, she often wears her father’s re-tailored shirts. Armed with a cigarette and an unreadable expression, she is reminiscent of the portraits of the women with the air and attire of enigmatic gentlemen that Romaine Brooks painted in 1920s Paris. By embodying tradition with a twist, they unmake convention – just as Darboven treats history. She accepts the inheritance and disinherits herself simultaneously. Voiding herself of owner­-ship, she turns her persona into a prism in which the turmoil of a century reflects itself. Together, however, with moments of happiness that outlast disaster. Darboven’s favorite goats live on in front of the house in Harburg and amicably bleat at everyone who visits. Truly, everyone.
Translated by Yana Vierboom

The Order of Time and Things – The Home Studio of Hanne Darboven is on view at Madrid’s Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía until 1 September 2014, in collaboration with Sammlung Falckenberg, Hamburg, and the Deichtorhallen Hamburg.

1 See Dan Adler, Hanne Darboven Cultural History 1880–1983 (Afterall Books, London 2009), p. 17f
2 See Ernst A. Busche, Themen und Strukturmerkmale der ‘Schreibzeit’ (Themes and Structural Elements in ‘Schreibzeit’), in Bernhard Jussen (ed.), Hanne Darboven – Schreibzeit (Walther König Publishing, Cologne, 2000), pp. 69–84
3 See Bernhard Jussen, Geschichte schreiben als Formproblem: Zur Edition der ‘Schreibzeit’ (Writing History as a Study in Format: This Edition of ‘Schreibzeit’), pp. 12–42
4 Related to, but not the same as, J.J. Darboven, whose emporium introduced the world to Idee-Kaffee (a brand of coffee whose name means ‘idea coffee’). There are jokes about Ideenkunst (Idea Art) and Ideenkafee (at one’s own expense) throughout the Darboven house, including a collage in which Disney character Gyro Gearloose is contemplating a conceptual art work and exclaims ‘I have an idea!’

Jan Verwoert is a writer and contributing editor of frieze. He is based in Oslo, Norway. Cookie! (2014), a selection of his writings, is published by Sternberg Press.