Hanne Darboven: Kulturgeschichte 1880–1983

May 3, 2003–March 26, 2005, Dia:Beacon


This monumental work consists of 1589 panels of uniform size and format. The work transcribes epochs of time and text into schematic, visual symbols, tracing one hundred years of history by means of texts and numbers, photographs and postcards, many bearing handwritten notes and quotations, as well as almost a score of objects.

Time today is no longer a principle of intelligibility . . . let alone a principle of identity. . . . So it is with an image of excess—excess of time—that we can start defining the situation of supermodernity. —Marc Augé

From the moment in the mid-1960s when Hanne Darboven moved to New York City, after a highly academic training at the Staatliche Hochschule für Bildende Künste in Hamburg, her work has been informed by Conceptual art practices. Based by the late 1960s on various forms of numerical writing, her systematic work securely occupied the realm of abstraction and universality.

I only use numbers because it is a way of writing without describing. . . . It has nothing to do with mathematics. Nothing! I choose numbers because they are so constant, confined, and artistic. Numbers are probably the only real discovery of mankind. A number of something (two chairs, or whatever) is something else. It's not pure number and has other meanings.1

Over time, time has become the focus of Darboven's art. For her, Annelie Pohlen argues, time constitutes the primary and essential structure of human life—it is "a basically intangible measure for the totality of the indices determining being; it is the content of consciousness; it exists beyond human comprehension."2 The calendar, which subsequently formed the foundation of Darboven's art practice, again offered a universal orientation, embodying a given, prefabricated, ready-made temporal system. Calibrated in her work in many ways over almost three decades, it has provided the basis of an arbitrary artistic system that has the appearance of objectivity. Conjoining a rigorous numerical process with free-associative roots, and tight rational thought with intellectual freedom, Darboven's capricious sense of time has resulted in diverse monumental works that may span a month, a year, even a century, all recorded day by day.

In the early 1970s Darboven introduced a kind of writing into her work that took the form of an even cursive script. Although executed by hand, this script was standardized and regulated, systematic and abstract. Its resistance to decoding conformed to a basic tenet of the artist's, epitomized in a quotation she borrowed from the Dutch politician Wiert Pauwel Berghuis: "A working method is not a system of thought. We do not believe that even the most ingenious of systems could completely illuminate life in its totality."3 In 1973 she began to incorporate texts—transcribed directly because, she has claimed, they could not be bettered— from various writers, initially Heinrich Heine and Jean-Paul Sartre. These texts spoke both to her recognition of the failure of the grand narratives of Enlightenment thought to provide convincing, encompassing interpretations and, equally, to her fundamentally romantic existentialist position. Then, in 1978, she introduced visual documentation alongside her numbers and looping texts, primarily in the form of found and rephotographed images, which allowed her to address specific historical issues for the first time. Shortly thereafter, she invented a system of musical notation, based on her system of numbering dates, which she has used since 1979 to compose scores for organ, double bass, string quartet, and chamber orchestra. Darboven sees her music as she does her "mathematical writing," a highly abstract language functioning in an entirely self-referential manner; it thus serves as an abstract correlative to the concrete, visual nature of her artwork.

Comprising 1,590 sheets, each measuring 27½ x 19¾ inches, and nineteen sculptural objects, Kulturgeschichte 1880–1983 (Cultural History 1880–1983), 1980–83, is one of Darboven's grandest, most epic works to date. Weaving together cultural, social, and historical references with autobiographical documents, it synthesizes collective memory with personal history, the social with the private. Braided among the vast numbers of postcards, caches of film- and rock-star pinups, documentary references to the First and Second World Wars, geometric diagrams for textile weaving, a heterogeneous sampling of New York doorways and portals, illustrated covers from major newsmagazines, the contents of an exhibition catalogue on postwar European and American art, and a kitsch literary calendar are extracts from certain of Darboven's earlier works, exhibition catalogues from solo shows, and other mementos of previous exhibitions. The result resembles an encyclopedia rather than an archive; it feels exhaustive but logically cannot be. Like an encyclopedia, the work catalogues and displays information without subordinating it to a dominant narrative form. Panels are sequenced and grouped, and then the groups are juxtaposed; although they are physically contiguous, they are seldom cognitively connected. In contrast to many of Darboven's previous large-scale works, no overriding calendrical system structures this work. Such is the magnitude of its scale that it invites, not a reading, but a visual experience. An image of information, it might best be unraveled by meandering through the site, wandering from panel to object, object to panel, part to part, aided by neither a strict nor an exclusive methodology. Installed in a tight-knit formation around the walls of a large space, it takes on a spectacular panoramic quality.

If accumulativeness is the effect created by too few objects and fragmentation the effect of too many, then between these extremes lies a point, precariously held in Kulturgeschichte 1880–1983, where quantity instills its own visual structure. At a microlevel, Darboven's use of the grid provides a taut formal structure that appears endless and infinitely repeatable; larger sections cohere by color and morphology rather than by subject matter per se. Repetition within any one section, or the rephrasing of a part later within the whole, creates a subtle rhythmic pattern of sameness and difference, such that the work ultimately escapes the twin poles of intolerable monotony and loss of aesthetic identity.

Perhaps more than any other work in Darboven's extensive oeuvre, an oeuvre that contains works of rich philosophical and political import, Kulturgeschichte 1880–1983 incorporates both a sense of spectacle and a charged emotional register. Supermodernity, as French anthropologist Marc Augé defines it, "makes the old (history) into a specific spectacle, as it does with all exoticism and all local particularity. History and exoticism play the same role in it as the 'quotations' in a written text."4

Kulturgeschichte 1880–1983 produces a kind of libidinal exuberance, an effect nonetheless shot through with pathos. Whereas in most of her work Darboven arrests the flow of time by recording it, here, divesting herself of a constraining temporal structure, she seems to surrender to its excess. Attempts to try to synthesize this vast array, to decode it or otherwise render it coherent, are futile. A patchwork of modes, its atomized epistemological structure calls into question the artist's former, Sartrean-derived position, which held that in the final analysis the universal is the truth of the specific. Nonetheless, within this grand, apparently unbridled display Darboven inserts the possibility, albeit qualified, of individual demurral. "At the end of the twelfth chapter of the Günter Grass book Das Treffen in Telgte (The Encounter [sic] in Telgte) is a passage that reflects exactly what I think," Darboven once stated.5 That passage reads, Heinrich Schütz, who had attended the debate as though absent, answered the question: For the sake of the written words, which poets alone had the power to write in accordance with the dictates of art. And also to wrest from helplessness—he knew it well—a faint "and yet."6




Doors New York City, a series of black-and-white photographs in Kulturgeschichte 1880–1983 was made by Roy Colmer.

1. Hanne Darboven, quoted in Lucy Lippard, "Hanne Darboven: Deep in Numbers," Artforum 12, no. 2 (October 1973), pp. 35–36. (Translation modified.)

2. Annelie Pohlen, "Hanne Darboven's Time: The Content of Consciousness," Artforum 21, no. 8 (April 1983), p. 52.

3. Wiert Pauwel Berghuis, quoted in Kathryn Hixson, "Chicago in Review," Arts 64, no. 7 (March 1990), p. 123.

4. Marc Augé, Non-places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (New York: Verso, 1995), p. 110.

5. Darboven, quoted in Amine Haase, "An Interview with Hanne Darboven," trans. Michael Schultz, reprinted inHanne Darboven: Primitive Time/Clock Time (Philadelphia: Goldie Paley Gallery, Moore College of Art and Design, 1990), p. 14.

6. Günter Grass, Das Treffen in Telgte, published in English as The Meeting at Telgte, trans. Ralph Manheim (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1990), pp. 68–69.


Hanne Darboven

Hanne Darboven was born in Munich, Germany, in 1941. She died in Hamburg, Germany, in 2009.

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