German artist Hanne Darboven (1941-2009) was essentially the opposite of Herman Melville’s character Bartleby, the Scrivener. While Bartleby, at his law-office job, one day refused to do his work of copying documents by hand—a decision that escalated to his rejection of everything, even eating—nothing, it seems, could keep Darboven from writing. During her self-imposed, strictly regimented eight-hour workdays, she generated row upon row of handwritten numbers, U shapes, boxes and other notations, filling tens
of thousands of pieces of paper over the course of her four-decade career.
After a two-year stay in New York, when she met some of the main protagonists of Conceptual art, including Sol LeWitt, with whom she maintained a close friendship, Darboven returned in 1968 to her native Hamburg, where she remained until her death. During the late ’60s, she began producing her signature work, which—serving as a method of marking time—involved translating calendars and the like into new numerical or visual systems based on her own inscrutable calculations. The resultant framed sheets covered countless yards of wall from floor to ceiling.
In the late 1970s Darboven began creating installations that encompassed her handwritten pieces, collages (incorporating magazine pages, postcards and photographs, among other items) and three-dimensional elements, such as sculptures she commissioned and figurines or items she bought at flea markets. With an ironic nod to trends in contemporary art, she once wryly remarked: “This is not Minimal but Maximal art.”
Such is the magnitude of Darboven’s oeuvre that it easily filled two of the largest exhibition spaces in Germany. The Haus der Kunst in Munich and the Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn organized a two-venue retrospective, each institution focusing on a different part of her practice. The Munich showing, “Enlightenment,” concentrated on Darboven’s working method and her exploration of the history of science as well as her research into literary and cultural figures. For example, her Erfindungen, die unsere Welt verändert haben (Inventions that Changed the World), 1996, is dedicated to transportation and communication technologies, such as Gutenberg’s printing press. In Bonn, “Time Histories” considered her stance on political events and German history, placing her biography at center stage.
The Haus der Kunst presentation was divided into 11 rooms and showcased works from the late 1960s to 2000. The music room from Darboven’s Hamburg studio was reconstructed here. It contains Darboven’s collection of musical instruments arranged in groups, along with various types of documents, her correspondence and an assortment of sculptures from Africa. In an interview she once said that her aim was to become more and more abstract in her art and that music was the ultimate abstraction. Thus, beginning in the 1980s, she began converting her date formulas into musical notes.
The central room in the show was taken up by Kulturgeschichte 1880-1983 (Cultural History 1880-1983), 1980-83. This major work consists of 1,590 collaged sheets of paper in identically sized wooden frames along with 19 sculptural objects, such as display dummies (dressed in outfits including 1980s sportswear and medical gear), a bust of Western Germany’s first chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, and a merry-go-round horse on a pedestal. Among the elements in the collages are pages or covers from Germany’s weekly magazine Der Stern and self-designed postcards stamped “ubiquist” (everywhere), which she also sent to family, friends, artists and gallery owners. Photos of film and pop stars are paired with pictures of a camera on a tripod; dull photos of New York doorways also appear. Kulturgeschichte 1880-1983 offers no particular argument. The material is just too disparate. Visitors can either get lost in details or admire the regularity of the patterns formed by the hang.
The centerpiece of the Bonn showing was the large installation Kinder dieser Welt (Children of this World), 1990-96. It consists of hundreds of children’s school exercise books presented in vitrines, Darboven’s musical scores hung on the walls, and a vast array of children’s toys, most notably a bunch of characters from the Kasperletheater, a German equivalent to the “Punch and Judy” show. There were also 10 differently dressed dolls seated on chairs and stools. This installation was interpreted in the show’s press release as Darboven’s reaction to the fall of the Berlin Wall, with the different skin tones of the dolls supposedly symbolizing an optimistic new beginning. There is no need, however, to impose this interpretation on the work and thus make Darboven a figurehead of the changes in 1989. As hinted at in the accompanying wall text, it can as easily be seen as the artist’s conception of lifelong learning, where steady writing exercises are as important as a childlike sense of play.
In Munich, the curators successfully presented Darboven’s colossal endeavor in terms of cultural analysis. The Bonn show was less convincing. It even seemed to trivialize her work by giving too much space to obvious, maybe even a bit cheap, installations, such as Ost-West-Demokratie (East-West Democracy), 1983. Here, her date calculations covering the years 1949 to 1983 appear in rows on the wall along with national flags: U.S. flags in the upper row; those of the former Soviet Union in the lower one; and a row of flags from the Democratic Republic and the Federal Republic of Germany framed together in the middle. But this lapse was remedied by the presentation of Darboven’s meticulously kept private pocket calendars, which not only record practical necessities but also served as sketchbooks and contain first ideas for her works. They offered invaluable insight into the mind of this artist’s artist, showing that her almost maniacal tracking of the world around her extended even to the most basic of daily routines.