Dan & Hanne: An Interview with Dan Adler

By Bill Clarke

Hanne Darboven, Kulturgeschichte 1880-1983: Hanne Darboven, Kulturgeschichte 1880-1983 (Culture History 1880-1983), 1980-83. Installation view at Dia:Beacon, Beacon, New York. Lannan Foundation; long-term loan. Photo: Florian Holzherr.Hanne Darboven, Kulturgeschichte 1880-1983 (Cultural History 1880-1983), 1980-83. Installation view at Dia:Beacon, Beacon, New York. Lannan Foundation; long-term loan. Photo: Florian Holzherr.

The German Conceptual artist Hanne Darboven, who died last March at age 67, pursued a practice that was disciplined and uncompromising. Born in Hamburg in 1941, Darboven moved to New York in 1966, where she absorbed the principles of early Conceptual and Postminimalist art that were emerging at the time. The concepts of time and history, and how to capture and express them, informed Darboven’s art for over 30 years. Her exhibitions often took the form of complex installations and enigmatic book works filled with handwritten notations and cursive script.

Darboven’s maxim was ‘never apologize and never explain.’ Fortunately, there are others brave enough to attempt explanations of Darboven’s art. Dan Adler, an assistant professor of modern and contemporary art at Toronto’s York University, recently published a book on what is probably Darboven’s most complex work, Cultural History: 1880-1983 (1983). Adler’s volume is the latest addition to Afterall Books’ One Work series, which provides authors with the unique opportunity to write in depth about one work of art “that has made a difference.”

Adler sat down with Bill Clarke, Executive Editor of Magenta Magazine Online, to discuss Darboven’s importance, the challenges of writing about her work, the pitfalls of Conceptual art, and her influence on artists working today.

Bill Clarke (BC): First, congratulations on the book. How did the opportunity to write it come about?

Dan Adler (DA): Quite simply, I met artist Janice Kerbel, who is Mark Lewis’s partner. [Lewis is the editor of the One Work series and an artist; he is currently Canada’s representative at the Venice Biennale.] She mentioned that Mark was going to be in town for a show at his Toronto gallery, and so Mark and I met about an artwork that I thought would be suitable for the One Work series. The opportunity to do a close reading of an installation that I‘d been thinking about for 10 years, and doing justice to a work that is visually and thematically complicated, really interested me.

BC: It sounds like you had no doubt that Darboven and Cultural History were what you had to write about. Why?

DA: Mark and I recognized that she is an understudied figure in Conceptual art. We agreed that Cultural History was arguably her most important work, and we thought this was an opportunity to give Darboven some deserved recognition. There has been writing about her in German, but very little in English, so this book addressed a need. I’m hoping this text will start a new wave of interest in her work.

BC: And why did this particular work appeal to you?

DA: Cultural History is the sort of work that stubbornly resists being described. It is so enormous and complex that it needs a book to describe it. It presented the sort of challenge that, as a writer, I want to take on.

Hanne Darboven, Kulturgeschichte 1880-1983: Hanne Darboven, Kulturgeschichte 1880-1983 (Culture History 1880-1983), 1980-83. Installation view at Dia:Beacon, Beacon, New York. Lannan Foundation; long-term loan. Photo: Florian Holzherr.Hanne Darboven, Kulturgeschichte 1880-1983 (Cultural History 1880-1983), 1980-83. Installation view at Dia:Beacon, Beacon, New York. Lannan Foundation; long-term loan. Photo: Florian Holzherr.BC: How did you approach writing the book?

DA: My approach is very object-oriented; all the theorizing and interpreting I do flows naturally from my description of the work. In other words, the work comes first. This book is, in some sense, a statement of my priorities as a critic, and a test of what my principles will be as a teacher and nascent curator. Conceptual art is an area that I specialize in and I’d like to see more under-recognized figures added to the canon. In my teaching, I try to emphasize figures — especially those associated with the Conceptual art movement — who have been important, but have been relatively ignored by institutions.

BC: It sounds like you think most art writers don’t put the work first.

DA: It seems that, so often in the field of art writing, many people approach the work with a pre-arranged agenda, which blinds them to how the work operates on viewers. It is important for me to relay my experience of the work in the gallery and to provide a discourse that is accessible and coherent. At least part of the time, I want the reader to feel like they are in the gallery space with me.

BC: You’ve said that you don’t like the use of the term “pioneer” to describe Darboven. Isn’t being a “pioneer” a good thing?

DA: Well, yes and no. A number of obituaries have described Darboven as a “pioneering German conceptualist”, but that feels like an excuse for why she was given less attention. It’s a label that designates her as ‘ahead of her time’, and not as canonical as, say, Gerhardt Richter or Sol Lewitt. Women artists are more often labelled ‘pioneers’. Other than Eva Hesse, Darboven is one of the very few female, first-generation conceptual artists from Europe who have gotten any detailed scholarly attention at all.

BC: So, the ‘pioneer’ label is a bit of a double-edge sword?

DA: Oh, it can be positive, too, because it indicates the artist did something new and that they have become influential in some way. Darboven is a difficult artist, and she never made any apologies for that. It is understandable why people might want to avoid her, so my challenge was, in part, to make her more accessible without oversimplifying her artistic interests or process.

BC: You first saw Cultural History in 1996 at the Dia Art Foundation’s Chelsea space. Can you recall what your response to the work was back then and how it’s evolved since?

DA: (Laughs) My initial response was of being overwhelmed! The installation took up several large galleries. And, the amount of material to look at! Over 1,600 panels containing thousands of sheets of paper and all these uncanny-looking sculptural objects punctuating the exhibition. I took notes at the time as a way of dealing with my feelings of intimidation, my fear of the work. So, it’s fortunate that I’ve had such a long time to reflect on the work and my notes, and to consider it in relation to other major statements, such as Richter’s Atlas. This gradually made Cultural History less intimidating for me.

BC: How familiar were you with her work before experiencing Cultural History?

DA: I was familiar with some early drawings - the Konstruktonen series made in the mid 1960s, but these are very different from Cultural History. They are humble in terms of scale and materials, consisting of numbers and graphs on paper. Because of that simplicity, they are considered key Conceptual works; the emphasis is on the ideas contained within the calculations. Cultural History, however, is concerned with issues such as historical memory, the reception of traumatic events, and the material reality of things. So, the Cultural History installation was a big surprise because it contrasted with what I though her work was.  

BC: I feel her concern with history, especially Germany’s turbulent 20th century history, is shared by a number of her contemporaries. You mentioned Gerhardt Richter, but when I was reading your book, I also thought a lot about Christian Boltanski.

DA: Yes, both he and Darboven convey the events of the Holocaust and other traumatic situations in their work, and how that history is coldly archived, transmitted and distorted by historians, the culture industry and the media. They both deal with the politics of transmission, but in very different ways. By this, I mean the ways through which those horrors have been received by us photographically and textually. We live in a world in which there are forces distracting us from those realities, and that capitalize and make money off of those realities.

Hanne Darboven, Kulturgeschichte 1880-1983: Hanne Darboven, Kulturgeschichte 1880-1983 (Culture History 1880-1983), 1980-83. Installation view at Dia:Beacon, Beacon, New York. Lannan Foundation; long-term loan. Photo: Florian Holzherr.Hanne Darboven, Kulturgeschichte 1880-1983 (Cultural History 1880-1983), 1980-83. Installation view at Dia:Beacon, Beacon, New York. Lannan Foundation; long-term loan. Photo: Florian Holzherr.BC: You talk about earlier attempts to create atlas-like works in the book, such as Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas from 1929, but it seems to me that a work like Cultural History could only have been made in the latter half of the 20th century. I say this because when Warburg was constructing his atlas, history was probably conceived of in a more linear way - of one event happening after another rather than things occurring simultaneously. Word of events taking place on the other side of the world took days, if sometimes not weeks, to spread. Today, we learn about events almost immediately. We have much more of a sense of the simultaneity of events; however, this seems to have a levelling effect. The media often seems to give equal weight to everything. News of a celebrity having a meltdown is delivered to us in the same format as news of the latest complex developments in the Middle East. Cultural History seems to presage our current situation.

DA: Yes, there is a feeling of dilution of the power of the image today. For example, in Cultural History, we’ll see an image of Hitler saluting, followed immediately by an image of a cartoon picturing a baby eating. The images are brought down to the same level of information. No one subject is more relevant than another.

BC: Darboven’s work is critical of this.

DA: Yes, absolutely. Cultural History is meant to raise our awareness of how we have become detached from our own histories. The role of the culture industry is to detach us from such realities. Its role is to create spectacles that pacify us and make us less aware of ways of subverting the powers that be. One way is to keep us in a constant state of visual stimulation, which distracts us from the realities and injustices of history. The culture industry and the media are always forcing us onto the next thing. Think about the injustices that occurred during the Iraq war. Doesn’t it feel like we’ve already forgotten about them?

BC: Another element of Darboven’s work you mention is the act of itemizing, list-making and cataloguing. Again, this is a trait she shares with Boltanski, as well as artists like Mario Merz or Alighiero Boetti. What is the purpose of Darboven’s itemizing?

DA: Cultural History gathers together varied things as pre-World War II postcards, pin-ups of film and rock stars, World War I-era German cigarette cards, geometric diagrams for textiles, illustrated covers from Der Spiegel and Der Stern; the contents of an exhibition catalogue devoted to post-War European and American art, musical score sheets, pages of numerical calculations and a form of repetitive cursive writing, and imagery from some of Darboven’s earlier works. It also includes three-dimensional objects such as animal figures, a robot, a crescent moon hanging from the ceiling, a kiosk, a ceramic bust of a moustached man, a pair of shop-window mannequins wearing jogging attire, and a book placed on a pedestal. Darboven’s is a personal and non-hierarchical collection of materials, and it provokes consideration of how history is made and related. It draws distinctions between history and information, everyday and historical significance, and documentary and aesthetic import. Her work powerfully questions the division between the personal and the universal, as it operates in the process of portraying history. Most importantly, her work refuses to answer the call for interpretive synthesis.

BC: What were some of your challenges while writing the book?

Dan AdlerDan AdlerDA: Strangely enough, one of the biggest challenges was not to itemize Cultural History by simply listing what’s in the work. I wanted to provide an alternative reading, and one way of doing this was to present it as an allegory, putting it into an art-historical context and talking about Darboven’s work in terms of aesthetics and spirituality. She’s often associated with “anti-aesthetic” Conceptualism, and pegged as a purely intellectual artist who was only interested in things like mathematics. So, one of the things that I emphasize in the book, and that I’m particularly proud of, is the aesthetic dimensions of the work, such as colour and abstraction. I also describe some spiritual readings of her work, which may recall Modernist artists more than Conceptualists. Another worthwhile challenge was to broaden the historical background of her work, by considering sources such as Courbet’s painting, The Artist’s Studio (1854/55). I’m not sure other scholars who specialize in Conceptualism would necessarily agree with this approach, but there you have it.

BC: Ann Dean [the Director of Art Metropole in Toronto] mentioned to me that she felt there are a lot of similarities between Darboven’s work and that of Vancouver artist Geoffrey Farmer, and that your next writing project is going to focus in part on Farmer. Do you see similarities between Darboven and Farmer?

DA: First, the new book is going to be about single exhibitions by several different artists, Farmer among them. So, the format is going to be five chapters and each exhibition is like Cultural History in that they are difficult to describe, expansive and dispersed, and make use of relatively humble materials, so there’s a conspicuous absence of slick presentation and gimmicks in favour of forms and content - a monumental scale achieved using unmonumental materials.

BC: Farmer often does use unassuming materials…

DA: Yes, and the other interesting element to consider is artistic labour. Unlike a lot of other so-called Conceptual artists, both Darboven and Farmer are very laborious in their methods, but it is not always clear how the labour translates into value. They make artistic labour into an issue, which fascinates me. I see that you’ve brought along one of Darboven’s artist books…

BC: I thought it would be nice to have a piece of her work with us during the interview.

DA: I’ve not actually seen this book [Information, 1973] before, but it is a simple illustration of artistic labour, the pages and pages of repeated handwritten script. (Laughs.) She sure punched the time-clock on this one! At his mid-career retrospective in Montreal a few years ago, Farmer stuck a bunched-up piece of tape on the floor of the gallery as part of a larger installation, and it was like he was saying to viewers, “I dare you to find value in this”. Darboven also seems to often be making similar kinds of provocations. But, because there is an obvious indication of labour in her work, it prompts the viewer to attempt to find meaning in it. This contrasts with some canonical Conceptual works that have no indication of labour at all. There’s only the idea behind the work.

BC: I have sometimes thought artists hide behind the ‘idea’ of a work as a way to excuse poor technique or shoddy construction.

DA: Yes, sometimes Conceptual art suffers from the perception that an artist hasn’t spent any time on it, so why should viewers spend any time considering it? This is not always the case, though. There are plenty of works that have almost no labour, but are still compelling.

BC: Unfortunately, you weren’t able to meet Darboven before she died. What would you have asked her if you had?

DA: No, and that makes me very sad. I would have loved to have learned what she thought the limitations are in my reading of her work. I hope to write more about her in the future, so I would have wanted to take her thoughts into consideration. She was, apparently, a very frank person and incapable of being diplomatic, so I’m sure she would have been very honest with me.

BC: That sounds typically German!

DA: (Laughs) Yes, it does!

Hanne Darboven: Cultural History 1880-1983, by Dan Adler, was published in 2009 by Afterall Books. For more information on Afterall Books, visit www.afterall.org.