The pairing of Marcel Broodthaers and Hanne Darboven in a single text would seem to favor the former’s methods, which lampooned and utilized the idiosyncrasies and serendipities of surface and contingency that brought about such a pairing in the first place—which is to say the occurrence of two contemporaneous exhibitions in two major German institutions by two artists who dealt with issues of archive, text-as-image, and art-as-work just as these tropes have re-emerged as the historically available “next-big-thing.” Be that as it may, we will go along with these politics of surface and proceed by looking into a few themes that both artists’ works touch upon.
“Ordnung ist das halbe Leben” (Order is half of life) – German proverb
“C’est belge” (figuratively, to refer to something that is stupid) – traditional from the French
“Enlightenment” was the title of the exhibition dedicated to German artist Darboven’s work and relationship with music that filled the whole of Munich-based Haus der Kunst’s oversize ground-floor galleries.1 Darboven is—unbelievably—but the second female artist to occupy the space since the Haus’s inception, in 1937.2 At the core of the show was Darboven’s Kulturgeschichte 1880–1983 (Cultural History 1880–1983, 1980–83), a work comprising so massive a quantity of information and labor that the experience of encountering it can only be described as vertiginous. Close to 1,600 framed collages are hung edge to edge, floor to ceiling, and grouped according to broadly defined categories. The collages contain such autobiographical elements as photographs and personal correspondence, as well as postcards portraying typically German landscapes, and clippings from news magazines, including photographic portraits of artists, and music and movie reviews. One large section is devoted to Roy Colmer’s photographs of New York doorways. Another features the same repeated image of a large-format camera on a tripod, taken in a full-length mirror. The collages are accompanied by 19 carefully selected objects, including a pair of store mannequins in sports outfits (which echo the geometries and red-white-gray-black color scheme of the collages themselves); a pink wooden swan-shaped cart from a carousel; and a rocking chair for a toddler.
Kulturgeschichte positions the individual as a small piece of a much larger mosaic. Its organization is recursive rather than self-reflexive. Save the repeated image of the camera in the mirror, no formal rhyme scheme appears, no key outside of algorithms and Darboven herself. If it is a history that is being shown, it is one so objective and dispassionate it nearly becomes a view from nowhere. This refusal to comment makes sense in a postwar West Germany whose re-education involved a mistaken conflation of fascism with the very notion of ideology, as well as an Americanized consumerist media. Covers and images from Der Spiegel, the German mainstream political news magazine, return in several areas of the work. In recognizing that a large part of Darboven’s project is a search for historical perspective, it is worth considering whether or not her view on events is so different from that of Der Spiegel itself. As the most influential magazine of reformed and prosperous West Germany, its investigative journalism took a neutral attitude regarding the country’s liberal course.
In refusing a synthesis, Darboven posits a nonideological objectivity as artistic realism. In this she shares a goal with other artists seeking a break with expressionism. At the same time, however, her work makes an inadvertent appeal to the classical sublime. This sublime aspect of her project—the scale, the mass, the nostalgia, a cosmicism connecting the individual to world events—falls in line with the German Romantic tradition of thought, and thus, despite her efforts to lend her process a clinical quality devoid of identitarian affiliation, she nevertheless proceeds, not unlike Joseph Beuys, in a way that is unmistakably “German” in character. National character operates as mode in Darboven’s work.
Meanwhile, in Kassel, the entire Fridericianum was dedicated to the work of Broodthaers. Some of Broodthaers’s earliest pieces, which were on display in the exhibition’s second gallery, take national identity as their key subject, while simultaneously portraying the artist as subject to his national identity. Nowhere is this rendered with more concision than in the iconic work Fémur d’homme belge (Femur of a Belgian Man, 1964–65), a human thighbone painted in the Belgian national colors. The joke here is twofold. Firstly, it is a joke on those who consider national character to be affirmative and invariable. Secondly, and with a comic melancholia, Fémur d’homme belge underlines the inescapability of national identity for Broodthaers in particular, a citizen of Belgium, whose second-tier status next to France he “internalizes.”
Nevertheless, Broodthaers’s repeated use in many of his early works of mussel shells, eggs, coal, and French fries—objects emblematic of a working-class citizenry whose culinary and cultural credentials lack the finesse of their French counterparts—is not devoid of attachment to a nation of underdogs. It also bespeaks the weight of the bitter and existential war fought within Belgium along linguistic lines. Broodthaers’s performative dismissal of his own ambition and sophistication as an artist might have stemmed in part from his recognition of his privileged position in belonging to the French-speaking Walloon population, who were considered more refined thanks to their greater cultural proximity to France—a state of affairs whose absurdity, considering the French’s widespread ridicule of the Belgians, was not lost on the artist.
One of the earliest works on view, Moule de moules (Mussels Mold, 1965–66), offers a clue to Broodthaers’s oeuvre in general. In a work whose method initially seems to be a simple accumulation à la Arman, twin absences weave in and out of one another. Empty mussel shells (signaling Belgian identity) are glued together into a clump that casts the interior of the pot in which they would have been cooked. The empty containers that are the shells signal the form of another empty container, the pot, which is itself absent entirely.
Broadthaers’s use of mussel shells short circuits dualisms of surface and essence, wrapping and content (clichés of identity versus “real” identity). That such dualisms are fantasy projections is poignantly embodied by the shells: once devoid of their content they are but empty containers ready to be discarded.
Jacques Lacan coined the neologism “lalangue” to capture the fact that language was no stable unity, but instead a slippery and subjective arena. It is not without reason that Lacanian as well as Magrittean thinking evolved within and out of the French language, whose polygamous phonetic-lexical relationships are akin to a semantic playground. A phoneme such as “L” can signify “wing” but also “she/her”; the term “l’oie,” for “goose,” is phonetically identical with “loi,” which means “law.” Broodthaers uses these among other examples in his “Poèmes industriels” (Industrial Poems), a series of vacuum-formed and painted plastic signs begun in 1968, some later specimens of which were represented on the Fridericianum’s second floor. The first few of these plaques that Broodthaers made3 refer to René Magritte via an image of the pipe in Magritte’s iconic painting La Trahison des images (The Treachery of Images, 1928–29), captioned in the original with the words “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” On the plaques presented in Kassel, the pipe reappears next to basic three-dimensional geometric elements such as pyramids and squares, positing Magritte’s semantic proposition as an addition to the Euclidean system and one of equal significance.
What Magritte proposed was more than the simple truth that an image of something was not the thing itself; it was that language as such was yet another image. The vacuum-formed words, phonemes, and signs conveyed by Broodthaers’s plaques are one with their conveyance. In their initial absence of signification, these “signs for nothing” appear simply as plastic objects as hollow semantically as they are in actuality. As with most of Broodthaers’s work, however, the chain of signification continues on. While it may have been the objective of some American Minimalist artists to recast their works as the Ding an sich (the thing in itself), “pure” abstraction absent of all representation, Broodthaers was aware at a very early stage that representation never entirely disappears from art. It merely changes registers.
For their part, the “Poèmes industriels” transport the mass-produced, vertically oriented text associated with advertising into the space of art, an iconoclastic move with regard to art’s institutional self-image. For Broodthaers, artistic identity is less a product of individual agency than that of power negotiations between artists and various institutions. In the case of his own work, these institutions are both real and fictional. The shift in register that takes place between Magritte’s painting and Broodthaers’s more multifaceted practice is the shift from a focus on the intertwining of image and written word to that of artist and institution. In each case, unspoken rules governing the placement of the signified and the signifier are put on trial, held up to scrutiny through various unexpected inversions.
What is Darboven’s take on language? She once put it plainly: “I don’t read, I write,” suggesting a materialist attitude toward the linguistic sign. Despite the presence of language, Darboven’s method is not narrative, or even communicative. Instead, she uses mathematics as a kind of historical trash compactor, compressing entire centuries into the sum of the numbers composing their beginning and end dates. Neither scale nor importance matters much to the Darboven apparatus. Her treatments of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s life span (For Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1982–83) and the cultural history of Germany (Kulturgeschichte 1880–1983) are much the same. A single day, with its individual or historical significance, is referred to only through its numerical signifier. There is a professed content—geography, literature, music, Schiller, Goethe, Fassbinder—but the method remains what it is. While Darboven’s numerical and linguistic signs operate as images, the individual “image” is rarely arresting; it doesn’t accrue much meaning in relation to the whole of which it is a part. In their repetition, the numbers and doodles invite a scrolling view rather than inquisitive retracing.
The recursiveness of her system was important to Darboven. The system of musical notations that she developed beginning in 1979 derived from her earlier date calculations. For her pieces of “mathematical music,” Darboven assigned musical notes to her system of numbers (1 = E, 2 = F, etc.) and turned them into performable compositions for organ, string quartet, and chamber orchestra. These works were a focus of the exhibition in Munich—several compositions were performed live or played over loud speakers over the course of the exhibition. This additional semantic layer of musical notation pushes Darboven’s process of abstraction even further. Erdkunde I, II, III (Geography I, II, III, 1983), for instance, a work consisting of hundreds of framed calendar pages and maps accompanied by her signature doodle and German folk imagery on wooden stands, contains hardly any information at all. The abstraction that the installation proposes regarding the concept of geography seems equivalent to that of the maps claiming to represent the world.
Nowhere does these artists’ work diverge more drastically than in their respective attitudes and approaches to the archive. Darboven can now be seen as one of a number of conceptual artists who have adopted the taxonomy (if not its logic) as a way of presenting their work. Precedents and antecedents include Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas, Gerhard Richter’s “Atlas,” the photography of Bernd and Hilla Becher, and Andre Malraux’s Museum Without Walls. Henrik Olesen’s Some Faggy Gestures4 is a more recent example. While Darboven is certainly engaged in developing a historical perspective, her methods—as they might in a sociological or anthropological study—have little to do with cultural affinities, formal relationships, or morphologies of ritualistic behavior. Her process even bars allegory.
“Just the fact of having a historical perspective means we respect these definitions…which are precisely the inventions of bourgeois historians,” Broodthaers once said.
Broodthaers claims to eschew historical perspectives, preferring to operate from a location that is decidedly “in it,” the “it” being the institutional and architectural structures his work inhabits. In his most immediately legible works, recognizable signs are used to make these structures appear. Broodthaers’s Musée d’art moderne, Département des aigles (Museum of Modern Art, Department of Eagles, 1968), for example, a selection of objects and images of eagles borrowed from institutions all over Europe, is at once an absurd collection around a single motif (again signaling nationality), and a stand-in for collections as a whole. Rather than construct an archive according to historical prerogatives, Broodthaers intervenes into the underlying rules of the field in which he chooses to operate. He accomplishes this by organizing historical materials according to the logic of the motif, conflating the archive with the collection. Installed as it is within an institution dedicated to the historical preservation of art, his parodic “museum within a museum” creates a situation of infinite regress, anathema to what he sees as the organizing principles behind museological preservation.
Distinctive artistic identities are formed in the work of both Darboven and Broodthaers, although Broodthaers, being a man, is given considerably more license to authorship and playfulness via his access to the universal signifier denied to Darboven as a “woman artist.” Neither, however, seems reluctant to play the role of the bourgeois artist. While the scope of Darboven’s labor makes it difficult to view her activity as a product of leisure, her fastidiousness and fetishism bear a strong resemblance to those of a hobbyist stamp collector, which she was. It is not uncommon these days to hear Darboven’s work discussed as a form of expression whose proper interpretation is a diagnosis of feminine hysteria. This is not something one hears said about her contemporaries such as Dieter Roth, however, despite his use of similar methods. Perhaps it is because his phallic bouts of anti-fetishist destruction, infantile as they are, mitigate this charge.
Broodthaers’s bourgeois affectations became a bit showier and more expansive as he took on the roles of party planner and interior decorator. In contrast to Darboven, his identity as an artist is largely based on a performance of aloofness regarding labor. Undermining his own as well as anybody else’s inclination to give earnest credit to his artistic effort, he cast his role as that of a sly scammer looking to make a buck. Opening with L’Entrée de l’Exposition (Entrance to the Exhibition, 1974), an installation comprising several potted palm trees and the first of many pieces repeating the artist’s initials, “MB,” on an accounting sheet, thus likening it to a currency, the exhibition in Kassel introduced Broodthaers’s disingenuous and commercialist artistic subject from the start.
On the invitation card for his first solo show, in 1964 at Galerie Saint-Laurent in Brussels, Broodthaers spelled out his founding myth, proclaiming, “I too asked myself whether I could not sell something and succeed in life…. Finally the idea of inventing something insincere came to me and I got to work immediately.” The irony that words could now be sold as objets d’art—while it was impossible to get any money or recognition for them back when he was a poet—was not lost on Broodthaers.
A work near the beginning of the show in Kassel consists of twin photographs of a grid of Broodthaers’s signature gold bars, which were notoriously minted and sold for twice the market price of gold, signifying their value as art. Of the two photos, the first is captioned with the names of various commodities, the second with the names of well-known artists. The work is titled Museum (1972). What was formerly an allusion to the arbitrary character of his own work’s exchange value is here extended to include not only the work of his contemporaries but also a wide array of substances, neatly demonstrating the logic of exchange value itself. One can’t help but recall Marx’s critique of the objective interchangeability of commodities under capital, leading to a situation in which, as Mikhail Lifshitz put it, “the greatest work of art is equal to a certain amount of manure.”5 In Broodthaers’s piece, this maxim is first made explicit, then followed by a series of comparisons of various forms of “manure,” further undermining the capitalist origin myths conflating use, scarcity, and exchange. It was quite clever for its time, but a moot point in the context of today’s journalistic media frenzy regarding art speculation and the actual transformation of the fine-art market into “a method of knitting together the elite of the global ruling class around an alternate reserve currency that only the most privileged, a supreme clientele of billionaires, may access.”6 It would seem that the speculators themselves understood this point of Broodthaers’s first and best.
A practice as time-consuming and hermetic as Darboven’s stands in stark contrast to Broodthaers. Who has time to write stuff no one will ever read? Why so much labor? These questions are disturbing when asked in a contemporary context because of the temptation to pathologize the work, rather than deal with its contradictions and tautologies. The ideals set by Darboven for art have little to do with gaming the system, an objective for which Broodthaers, as it turns out, practically wrote the instruction manual. The influence of his work on a generation of young artists looms large. One might have made a similar observation a few years ago about Martin Kippenberger, whose posthumous revival earned him a legion of young imitators and megaprices at auction. It is also noteworthy that both belong to a special category of artist: those who seek to critique the very system in which they eagerly participate. To ask the larger question, “To whom is it addressed?” is perhaps to see a way in which trite characterizations of Darboven’s vision as myopic and Broodthaers’s as expansive can easily be suspended, or, for those who prefer, reversed.
1 Contemporaneously, “Zeitgeschichten,” an exhibition at Bonn’s Bundeskunsthalle, focuses on Darboven’s relationship with literature. Back to top.
2 The first one was Louise Bourgeois, whose show there ran from February 27 to August 2, 2015. Back to top.
3 Presented at White Wide Space in Antwerp in 1968. The invitation referred to Lacan. Back to top.
4 Olesen’s Some Faggy Gestures is an art history based on a history of homosexuality and presented as an installation and a book. Its presentation as an installation is of primary concern here, as it bears a certain formal resemblance to Darboven’s work, if not its content or method. Back to top.
5 Mikhail Lifshitz, The Philosophy of Art of Karl Marx, trans. Ralph B. Winn (London: Pluto Press Limited, 1977), 93. Back to top.
6 Gavin Mueller, “Shackling the Masses with Drastic Capitalist Tactics,” Jacobin, December 14, 2015. Back to top.
“Marcel Broodthaers” was on view at Fridericianum in Kassel, Germany from July 17 to November 15, 2015. A retrospective of Broodthaers’s work is currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York through May 15. Hanne Darboven: Enlightenment” was on view at Haus der Kunst in Munich from September 18, 2015 to February 14, 2016.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of ARTnews on page 136.