An archive is defined as a store/institution that acts as a repository of information about a place, time, civilization, etc. Archives play a valuable, unique role in society. An archive seeks to deliver information in a non-prejudicial way as to inform the public and to instill culture. In digital age, the popularity of archival institutions has started to shift, public interest often limited to those in academic institutions and specific occupations.
There is a calling to reignite the importance of the archive in the modern world. To remind the modern audience of the human nature to document and remember.
Throughout history the work of literary figures, philosophers and artists have recognized the importance of the archive. However, the revival of this topic has seen a resurgence of archival artists to the contemporary art sphere.
To expand: the usage of the ‘archive’ theme in contemporary art could be seen as two dimensional. The first dimension is central to a definitively non-abstract concept, referencing the physical involvement with archiving and the actions associated i.e. collecting, arranging, conserving, and displaying. However, while archival artists may also include these representational qualities in their work, there is another, more abstracted, dimension to this theme.
An artwork following this axiom will seek to convey through the suppositions of image and object, focusing on fractures in timelines and loose ends. These artworks focus on fully embodying the definition of an archive and are often self-referential.
To elaborate: an artwork can be archival in another sense. Artworks can retain an individual or collective history. They can be symbolic of a time and its previous tendencies and ideology. It can also hold certain connotations or evoke involuntary memories through association. As the artist’s delivery of subject is by means of emotive aspects, this facet of archiving through art becomes an abstract concept; separate from its usual definition.
American historian and art critic, Hal Foster, touches on this idea in his essays “An Archival Impulse” and “Outmoded Spaces.” Foster defines the archival artist as one who “seeks to make historical information, often lost or displaced, physically present.” This is the direction of an archival artist: often focusing on missing information, the artist aims to be informative.
In his essay “Outmoded Spaces,” Foster develops a notion to compliment the abstract concept of archiving, titled ‘the outmoded.’ The Outmoded can refer to an object, literary work or ideology that has a been made redundant by today’s measure. A perception lost or fractured in time thus leaving a window open for interpretation.
The movement of Dada, originating in the early 20th century, is an example of an artistic movement of art that followed the idea of ‘the outmoded.’ Dadaists incorporated objects from the past in their work as a signifier of acceptance towards the past over a rejection of modernity.
The artists selected these objects as an understanding that there is no present without the past. Without primitivism, there is no modernism, and without old world ideology, there is no modern thought. Dadaist knew that an object could exist as an icon of old world ideals, hopes and industry; highlighting that the art object could be a repository of information from harnessing the history of the object itself. They popularized an idea that succeeding artists, subsequently, carried on into contemporary art.
In his posthumous essay, “Aesthetic Theory,” the contemporary German philosopher, Theodor Adorno, described an auratic object as having ‘the memory of the [makers] hand’ that exuding from the object or artwork ‘appears as a breath.’ Adorno understood this sign of hand to lend an artwork a sense of ‘spirit’ of vulnerability and humility. Archival artists uphold this belief that an object can retain an aura of its past, as such, there is a heavy focus on the materiality in the work of these artists.
Comparatively, Foster creates a distinction of the type mediums and materiality used in ‘archival art.’ He categorizes them as ‘archival materials.’ Foster, possibly influenced by his predecessor, Adorno, defines the use of the medium as: “recalcitrantly, material, fragmentary rather than fungible, and as such they call out for human interpretation… [these objects] appear to return our gaze… if it bears the traces of the practiced hand –that is if it retains the mark of human labour.”
From this, there is an assumption that the materials do not represent pristine artifacts or absolute statements or truths. Often they are faulty, used and obscure. They are overtly material and typically succumb to wear. Therefore, archival artists choose materials that are related to life, the fragility of it, and the traces left behind. Specifically, these materials are reminiscent of human error, failed thought and production yet they are constructive and honest.
There is something relatable for the viewer in the imperfections of the materiality, making a comment of the fragility of the human self-understanding and ego. Something poignant in the physical embodiment of the discarded ideas of yesterday replaced by more efficient technology. There is a sublime poetry in the archival artist’s work that chimes into an inherent bias present in all humanity: the simple wish to not be forgotten and to have mattered.
English-born, Cornelia Parker is a contemporary artist with a significant focus on these archival materials. She understands her mediums as multifaceted: as both tools and materials. She tends to use objects that are of used condition. For Parker, it is imperative that these objects carry the scars of use and the fingerprints of previous functionality, attributes Parker values in artistic mediums.
Parker’s method of display also compliments the material. Her work is fragmented, delicate yet orderly. She presents her work in a concise and considered manner; she employs the physical element of archiving into her works through the mode of collecting, organizing and presenting. However, Parker also employs the abstract archival concept into her work.
Parker uses found object as a portrayal of historical events. The typical connotations one has with these objects reflect certain events in collective and personal history. For example, in her work “Thirty Pieces of Silver” an installation piece, Parker exhibits a collection of over 1000 pieces of flattened silver suspended from the ceiling. As Parker states: “silver is commemorative, the objects are landmarks in people’s lives.” In doing this, she allows the material to speak for itself as she understands that each piece provides an index of life, ownership and possession.
With these works, Parker reaches further than the ‘found art’ or ‘readymade’ artist as she displays these works as fragile and beautiful in their object-hood. She delivers a context with these works, while making sure to not to pinpoint a narrative.
This concept of materiality (objects holding an individual history or implication) is not new. Foster talks about the feeling one gets when encountering an object from the past. He describes that one might get “flashes, unexpected moments of realization, fortuitous associations and dizzying coincidences.” There is a strange feeling of familiarity to the object. There is a sense of nostalgia, but there may also be a sense of the uncanny or eeriness when encountering an object from the past.
The French novelist Marcel Proust often incorporated his personal philosophies into his novels. Proust aptly deconstructs this concept of the archival object in his involuntary memory theme present in his novel series, Swann’s Way: In Search of Lost Time.
Proust adapts this idea into a narrative in Swann’s Way via the protagonist, Charles Swann , encountering a strange occurrence. Sitting in a cafe Swann is served tea and madeleines suddenly a seemingly unprompted memory of his aunt springs into mind. Initially, he is unclear of why this has occurred. However, Swann comes to understand the memory has originated from the madeleines. Swann, struck with a jolt of reminiscence, comes to realize that an object has the potential to ignite independent personal associations or memory that could be resurrected with no other prompt than merely the object itself.
From Proust’s writings, there is a development of an idea that an object can relate to one’s autobiographical memory. Although Proust was the first to coin the term there are other theorists who have observed the subject of involuntary memory linked with an object. Surrealist writer Andre Breton also touched on this issue. Similarly, Breton pointed out how objects or materials have the potential to incite memory. Breton worked closely with artists and studied how their choices on form and materiality linked to the concept. He noted how artists and their choices of material might, in fact, relate to previous experience and may not be entirely unconscious choices: a concept that can be used to analyse the works of the contemporary archival artists.
An example of a contemporary artist that applies this memory-object theory to practice is the African-American, Nick Cave. Not to be confused with the experimental Australian musician of the same name, Cave is well known for the creation of his multifaceted art pieces called “Soundsuits.” These “Soundsuits” double up as sculpture, wearable art and performance pieces. Cave exhibits these works initially through performance followed by installation in a gallery.
Cave is interested in art as communication; he typically focuses on the topic of race. Cave communicates these difficult subjects through art, performance and sound as opposed to direct written or spoken dictation.
Traditional African costumes used in dance inspire Cave’s suits similarly they are also a statement on identity. His gender and race become concealed when he performs in the suits rendering him temporarily immune to the judgments of others. These works are fashioned out of many found and cast off craft materials such as buttons, beads, fur, ceramics, toys, etc.
Cave practices conventional archival processes; he collects each material in a meticulous selective method with years of rummaging through thrift shops and flea markets. Once accumulated, the materials are then displayed in a formulated manner as a suit. This precise selective process recalls Breton’s observation on artists careful, ‘random’ selection of material. Cave acknowledges and embraces this connection he has with his materials. He combines the shared ‘histories’ that these materials have endured and specifically groups them together as a type of ‘archive’ that emanates a spirit, energy and life as a collective.
Assuredly, Archival artists don’t seek to give a definite viewpoint but rather to make a connection with the broader public. There a strong comment on empathy in these works. They succeed in highlighting the fragility of life by using materials we might often overlook on an artistic pedestal. Thereby, helping us see the value and preciousness of everyday life. Reminding us that an archive can educate us about life itself. Between learning from mistakes and the inevitability of them, meaning and tradition the instinctive need to belong; archival artists reanimate the dead, cold and often tragic view of the past and unveil the ridiculous phenomenon of the present. These artworks provide a vessel for meaning as they trigger recognition within viewers. Archival artists can help us view the present with more integrity and the past with more respect.
But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more immaterial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping,
amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection. – Marcel Proust.