Outlines: On the Positive Absence of Things

“Historiographers study the shape of evidence. Often they desire to determine how its form outlines the contour of an absence, a void, or a silence which in turn is assumed to be the ground of history.”(1)

The weight of the past unfolds itself into a network of interpretations, which constitute the incessant process of the writing of history. Discovery, handling, restoration, interpretation are operations that place material fragments into the glass box of the museum display, and transform them into monuments of a past - objects of our double desire to regain and to invent. But what is the logic that informs the gaze and the hand that determine what will make a set of material fragments interpretable objects, and distinguish them from others, which will become dust, refuse? These are the key questions of history and archaeology as disciplines that deal with the past. But such questions do not solely belong to history. Artists make visible, animate, or re-enact historical material in ways, which could not have been possible within the academic field. Many contemporary art practices turn toward the past, not only through reflecting on its fragments, but also by looking at the constellations of operations and material infrastructures that hold them. This tendency itself was a subject to a great deal of research and discussion. (2) Such practices reflect on questions as obsolescence, the status of evidence, what makes an object a document, and most importantly at the very infrastructure of display. Artists engage with history on a meta-level by looking at its operations. Such line of work belongs to the mode of what I would call performing history (or archaeology, anthropology) and critically addresses the architecture of display or of the archive, or the ways chronologies establish the causal logic of historical narratives. On a different plane, determined by different sensitivity and set of questions in many art practices there is a desire to look at acts of erasure, removing, disappearance and fascination with the processes of entropy, with the blind materialities of dust, residues, ruins. Their conceptual gestures do not memorialize their objects, but look at the process of objects falling out of the economies of use and meaning, and thus in a sense, situate themselves symmetrically opposite to history. Their artworks make visible the irreversible logic of entropy, which situates these materialities beyond representation, and the status of being evidence. Ruins and dust can be taken as poetic figures that embody ideas of time that go beyond the horizon of human history. For Robert Smithson, writing in the sixties, entropy was a central concept, which signified “the irreversibility of eternity.”(3) The ensemble of processes at the heart of modernity – urban development, acceleration in production, increasingly complex technologies, imply redefinition of the very process of ruination, which happens at a greater speed and produces what Smithson called “ruins in reverse” or “the buildings that rise into ruin before they are built.”(4) This charts out the outlines of a contemporary archaeology that still deals with ruins, but is done by artists who research, excavate, assemble and finally display fragments that belong to our present and simultaneously resist it. Artists witness and study material objects that don't qualify to get into the archive of history, or the glass box of the museum because they are ruins in reverse, which cannot deliver the promise of the archaeological object. Artists such as Tacita Dean, Rosa Barba, Lara Almarcegui, Alexandra Navratil, to name just a few, have shown an interest in contemporary ruins and obsolete technologies. Their works unlock the critical potential of such objects as reverse records of processes of production and consumption, but they also look at them beyond their identity as tools or commodities, or functional architecture, by witnessing their presence as entropic objects, as simply dust.

It is possible to distinguish yet another line of art practices, which belong to the expanded scene of such contemporary and performative archaeologies. They not only witness entropic processes, but also enact them on another level by employing a set of reductive operations when dealing with their objects, which can range from interventions in catalogues and archaeological publications, to re-displaying or filming contemporary objects as ethnographic artefacts. (5) The operations of subtraction, erasure present us with the outlines of a missing piece, or network of saturated absences. They enact the logic of the trace, and a trace is precisely a mark, a sign through which the missing simultaneously withdraws, resists, disappears and affirms its presence. (6) This resonates with an operation at the heart of modernism - abstraction, which delivers us at the surface of the medium committed to the formal vocabulary of the so called autonomous, abstract work, sovereign in its presence and not obliged to answer to any economy or representation. But at the present moment, and as employed in the installation in three parts by Lisa Sudhibhasilp, Go to the Hardware Store and Have a Museum Experience, the installation of outlines is not a repetition of a modernist moment, but its critical re-enactment, which uses modernist vocabulary as an open citation. The three-part installation includes generic white Styrofoam panels, which are usually discarded after they fulfilled their function as packaging material. They are formally complex, yet humble objects, and in a sense not ruins in reverse, but transient, fast ruins. In her installation they are set in a constellation and strategically supplemented by glass plates, and hover between being sculptures and a network of empty display elements. The glass plates both suggest the infrastructure of museum displays - shelves, plinths, glass boxes and resist being read as such. The constellation is an abstract machine of sorts, which resonates with archival art through looking at the architecture of displays on an abstract level, and simultaneously looks at the critical potential of a humble material that is designed to become trash.

The three installations interrogate the logic of the display through an operation of substitution and mimicry, and look at the anonymous materiality of displays and objects, and displays as objects, as well objects as displays. The shape of the Styrofoam panels resonates with technical objects (perhaps a science fiction film set from the seventies) and ancient architectural fragments. The minimal intervention of adding a glass plate, delivers a knot of questions concerning the economies of display and interpretation of the materiality of objects, as well as their inscription of different times and histories. We are invited to think about the economies of the commodity object, the status of refusal, and simultaneously confront the opaque presence of a fragment, which both invites and resists interpretation. More importantly Go to the Hardware Store... forms a stage of an object that has left, or a display, which is haunted by tautology, a display of itself. In a museum context displays have the power to transform objects, from humble things to be discarded into fragments that support a story. Although the Styrofoam panels are indeed trash, the piece does not assume the redemptive mode of recycling and making art out of refusal. The Styrofoam elements are considered as both objects to be discarded and formally and visually complex objects characterised by the negative space that is the outline of the objects they held. Generally speaking, there are two types of negative space – one formed by the missing piece that makes an artefact into a fragment, and the negative space of a container, or a display. There is something very powerful and riveting in the image of an empty display. It is an object that assigns status and interpretation, and includes the things on display into a conceptual order. Negative spaces refer to the interpretative power of display, but they also spill into resonating silences, erasures and ultimately call for witnessing another, entropic history.

  1. Tom Conley, “Translator’s Introduction,” Michel De Certeau, The Writing of History (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), viii
  2. See The Way of the Shovel, the catalogue of an exhibition curated by Dieter Roelstraete in 2013 at Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago
  3. The desert is not only a site, but an entropic monument, whose horizon situates us beyond history: “…the desert became a map of infinite disintegration and forgetfulness. This monument of minute particles …suggested the sullen dissolution of entire continents, the drying up of oceans… Every grain of sand was a dead metaphor that equalled timelessness, and to decipher such metaphors would take one through the false mirror of eternity.” Robert Smithson, “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey” In: Ruins, ed. Brian Dillon, (Whitechapel Gallery, The MIT Press: London, Cambridge, Mass., 2011), 51
  4. Ibid., 49
  5. See my Anarchic Infrastructures: Re-Casting the Archive, Displacing Chronologies discussing the work Maartje Fliervoet, Rob Johannesma, Alexandra Navratil, Suska Mackert, Sascha Pohle, Batia Suter, forthcoming in 2018
  6. The works I am discussing employ the deconstructive logic of the trace, its mechanism and effects, but still they exceed it in a sense, because they look at the trace simultaneously as a mark and as a residue which spills beyond any logic of signification