NICOLAS DE OLIVEIRA AND NICOLA OXLEY: The Story in the Archive: Installation art Documents

‘An exhibition is a construction that reveals itself continuously. A reality that happens in front of our eyes, a series of experiences oscillating between permanency and the traces of a present that becomes past, a future already present’ [1].

BBM4 72

‘A Book of Burning Matches’, Installation View, meCollectors Rooms/Olbricht Foundation, Berlin.

Commissioning the new in the form of large, ephemeral works is inevitably accompanied by its inverse: the institutional impulse to chronicle and collect; to keep what resists permanence, an archive of spent endeavor. Accordingly, the twinning of the activities of displaying and archiving points towards a concern with the Institutional [2].

‘Institutions are not just physical structures, but also sites — or scenes — for instituting, meaning that they produce certain relations and posit certain ideas and ideologies. […] Institutions are as much functional as fictional’ [3].

The compilation of an archive on Installation Art [4] necessarily invokes a conflation of the institutional nature of the collection and the fictional status of the document. In doing so it signals a departure from the dematerialization of the object and proposes a rematerialisation through the archive. The process of un-archiving the work, serves also to counter its retrenchment in a system, designed to preserve a state of suspension. Conversely, the selected documents ought to convey something more about the projects in question since none exist any longer.  A document distinguishes itself from a work, in that it refers to it, becoming a placeholder for the thing no longer present; the document is then a mnemonic device – an aide-memoire – that recalls the object or event [5].  It cannot replace it precisely, but is able to witness certain of its qualities, its authorship or context. In short, it extends aspects of the work’s life, readying it for activation in the spectator’s imagination.

The afterlife of images was the central concern of the art historian Aby Warburg’s ‘Mnemosyne Atlas’. His term ‘Nachleben’, explored the perseverance of images, their continuing survival, in photography, print, and film. Warburg had devised a series of 79 wooden panels covered in black fabric on which he fixed 2000 images. The faded black and white documentary photographs that survive the destruction of the boards serve as reminders of an idiosyncratic archive, organized by form and image, rather than ordered by language.

There is something distinctly installational in Warburg’s approach as his images are held in a formal, spatial arrangement, rather than in a more traditional, file-based archive. This quality presents the archive ‘as a form of speculative history, or rather a speculation upon history’ [6].

According to the art historian Julia Rebentisch, ‘Installation art resists an objectivist concept of the work by transgressing the boundaries of the traditional arts’ [7]; instead, the work exists within what she terms an ‘event culture’, driven by an audience’s experience, leaving the ‘work’s determination to potentially conflicting readings. […] The term “experience” refers to a process between subject and object that transforms both’ [8]. It poses the question of what happens to a dislocated Installation when it is divested of its experiential quality and is accessible only through a document, such as a photograph. Rebentisch suggests that works of Installation ‘seem to anticipate their own photographic reproduction’ [9] and yet cannot be ‘reproduced’.

The argument against the reproduction of ephemeral artworks is rather partial, however, as it relies explicitly on the dispersal effect of documentation – no translation into a different medium, be it photography, video, sound or text, can precisely represent it. Instead, an exhibition of documents does not propose a complete match of specific artworks, allowing the act of translation to underline the spatio-temporal dislocation from those works.

‘For photographs express a desire for memory, and the act of keeping a photograph is, like other souvenirs, an act of faith in the future. They are made to hold the fleeting, to still time, to create memory’ [10].

We consign things of importance to documentation, usually as language or image reproductions, so as not to forget. Though they dredge up the past, such documents and images come crashing into our present; according to the Philosopher Henri Bergson ‘from the moment that it becomes image, the past leaves the state of pure memory and coincides with a certain part of my present. […] The image is a present state, and its sole share in the past is the memory from which it arose’ [11] Image or object are part of the realm of sensation, of all that is felt through the body, and belongs properly in the present. ‘To perceive means to immobilise’ [12].

Although the documents in the exhibition ‘A Book of Burning Matches: Collecting Installation Art Documents’ held in Berlin in 2015 record large works, it is their ability to fix detail, combined with their modest scale that allows us to effect the transition to mental images that catch the attention. The critic James Wood describes how detail opens the way to recall; he uses the term ‘snag’, perhaps in the way one might inadvertently catch one’s sleeve on a barb causing the garment’s fabric to unravel or tear. The offending obstruction is so small that we are caught unaware by this minor incident. Detail does not only tell us what things are, but how they are; it slows down sight, it directs and contextualizes: detail is the telling of the story that captures our attention. Seen in this way, a photograph or videorecording of a work may function as a kind of distillation of a previous event, or, conversely, as a trigger that allows for the imagination to take hold. It directs us towards the work and offers an interpretation.  A document that follows an event both reveals and hides what it chronicles through its own presence.

Nicolas de Oliveira and Nicola Oxley

[1] Mathieu Copeland, Choreographing Exhibitions, JRP Ringier, Zurich, 2014, p.23.

[2] A key aspect of the research undertaken for this exhibition was the examination of artists’ works that involve a positioning within institutional discourse through critique, archiving and collecting. Louise Lawler’s ‘Arrangements’ exhibitions featured strongly, along with Marcel Broodthaers’ ‘Décors’, Barbara Bloom’s elegant spaces, Ilya Kabakov’s overwhelming archival rooms, or Jason Rhoades’s scattered scapes, and Goshka Macuga’s installations.

[3] Simon Sheikh, Instituting the Institution, in: Kunsthalle Lissabon: Performing the Institution(al), KH Lissabon and Atlas Projectos, Lisbon, 2012, p.90–3.

[4] The process of archiving began in earnest in 1990, as we co-founded the Museum of Installation, London, whilst developing a substantive body of writing on the practice.

[5] The selection of images and texts for our publications Installation Art (1994) and Installation Art in the New Millennium: Empire of the Senses (2003) underlines the very temporality of the medium; what renders these books extraordinary is the fact that almost none of the works exist today, at least not in their original site or form.

[6] Jeremy Millar, in: Mulberry Tree Press: Partial Fictions, Mulberry Tree Press/SE8, London 2011, p.35.

[7] Julia Rebentisch, Aesthetics of Installation Art, Sternberg Press, Berlin, p.14.

[8] Julia Rebentisch,

[9] Julia Rebentisch, Aesthetics of Installation Art, Sternberg Press, Berlin, p.17.

[10] Elizabeth Edwards, Photographs as Objects of Memory, in: The Object Reader, Fiona Candlin and Raiford Guins (eds.), Routledge, London and New York, 2009, p.332.

[11] Henri Bergson, Matter and Memory, N.M Paul and W.S. Plamer (trans.), Zone Books, MIT Press, Camb.Mass., 1988,  p.140.

[12] Henri Bergson, ibid, p.208.

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