The nature of the archive seems to be a compelling concept in current thinking about culture. Collections, images, files and documents of all kinds, objects, records, recordings – traces which constitute archival material have to be accumulated to be constructed and given agency by others. Something about the idea of the original constitutes an authority of primary research which can be borrowed, appropriated, interpreted, organized or assembled in the interests of creating new ways of thinking and making sense.
According to curator and writer Charles Merewhether, art represents a significant sphere where some of the most searching questions have been asked on what constitutes an archive and what authority it holds. Gerhard Richter, Tacita Dean, Ilya Kabakov and Susan Hiller are examples of artists who have created and used concepts of the archive to address a range of issues about identity, history and cultural meaning.
I was reminded of the currency of the archive in MA students’ recent final shows. The archive seemed to be embedded within a significant range of works such as collected domestic detritus re-assembled and preserved in textiles; spoken narratives, edited, re-framed and performed; a critique of the family album collaged into different ways of seeing; the use of archived information to create new hybrid objects; scaled-down assemblages made from fragments of stored furniture; casts from packaging waste made strange and displayed in vitrines as if drawn from excavated archaeological finds. Texts, and visual material come to rest in ‘final’ work, constituting a form of testimony to thinking and working through ideas. Thus a biographical archive of practice forms an infrastructure to visual resolutions. Bibliographic material accumulated and considered over months support concepts and approaches which fabricate new becomings.
An ‘archival turn’ appears to be emerging: a significant number of exhibitions it seems, are now determined by archival material. As a portrait of Virginia Woolf, her ‘Art, Life and Vision’ (National Portrait Gallery) gathers together manuscripts, letters, paintings by Bloomsbury artists, photographs, posters and first editions to create a perspective on her life and work. The retrospective of Malevich (Tate Britain) defines the artist’s importance in twentieth-century art through its selection and presentation of his stage designs, painterly experiments and writings against the context of Russian history. The recent exhibition of selections from Kenneth Clarke’s collection which incorporated period reconstructions, textiles, prints, paintings and sculpture was more of a demonstration of patriarchal taste than of democratized art history.
The archive though, gives voice to the present. The Black Cultural Archives finally opened in July 2014 in London after long struggles with funding. Created from material amassed since 1981, it aims to review grand narratives of history and expand awareness of the presence of Africans in Britain over 2,000 years, not just since The Windrush.
Artist Leon Kossoff recently discussed his relationship to the National Gallery as an important archive of classical and modernist paintings by artists such as Poussin, Goya and Cézanne which have inspired and informed his approaches to drawing and composition for over 50 years.
The archive will always constitute a surplus: its boundaries will never be reached because new ways of thinking are always developing. The archive itself will always be in the process of becoming something other than itself, supplementing and be supplementary to something else. The archive both informs and generates new texts, its fecundity enables it to be constantly alive: its animals are potentially frenzied, tame, innumerable, fabulous and embalmed.
Collaboration is essential to the archive to enable it to become more than itself, sometimes temporarily or provisionally, but always being re-interpreted and re-imagined. It will thus always have potential. The archive constitutes a boundary between the pragmatic and the insightful – on the one hand, an organized assemblage, on the other, a rich field of possibility – both sides of which are embedded in chance. The archive constitutes connections and configurations waiting to be made; it is a shrine to the history of the unknown. Vulnerable to interpretation, always metamorphasising in a state of proposition, the archive’s fragments are suspended particles seeking expression and new relevance.
The archive is time-bound: historical and temporal, stabilised and de-stabilised by time, it is caught-up in past and future time. It is always waiting for its (present) time to come, to be contemporary and full of new insights. It can be added to, but it will still exist as historical and of the past. Etymologically, the archive suggests a derivative of the archaic: ‘that of a primitive, early period, not in ordinary use but retained for special purposes.’ The archive is of objects endowed with reverence, consulted, respected and deferred to, their import taken away and re-inscribed into new accounts, proposals, narratives or objects. Its materials collaborate with those who approach with care and patience, who revere the power of the archive and its potential to challenge and change how others understand and know.
The archive is simultaneously overwhelming and intriguing, in suspension to scholars, artists and shamans who enliven its stasis with alchemy. The archive is ingenuous, unaware of any processes of collusion, exploitation or alibis to history, yet is always a witness waiting to stand.
The archive’s fragments are borrowed, re-presented, connected and memorialized – it meets the mind’s fundamental need for order over a mass of chaotic detail. The archive frames identity: if it goes missing, is confiscated or made exclusive, trauma can follow.
Haunted by preservation anxiety, its contents’ disintegrated, neglected or forgotten, the archive is hence ever opportunistic to the potential of its future lives, willing to collaborate with new pathways to resurrection and to new identities, provisional or otherwise.