Archive fever

Artists have re-discovered the cabinet of curiosities, which is to their and our advantage, argues Laura Gascoigne.

“There really is no such thing as art. There are only artists.” Easy enough to say at a time of rationing when there are few varieties of artist about. When Gombrich made his famous statement in 1950 there were only painters, sculptors, the odd avant-gardist and the usual sprinkling of con and piss artists. But now that artists come in more varieties than Heinz, with less flavour, his distinction no longer helps.

Things were different then, when artists were still distinguished as a class by the whiff of romance that clung to them. Even piss artists gave off a whiff of something more than drink. But archival artists? They smell about as sexy as musty ledgers. And archival artists is what we’ve come down to, though in our zero hours culture few can stick to just one thing. So Akram Zaatari, who gave a lunchtime talk at the ICA in November, is a filmmaker, photographer and archival artist, as well as a curator.

Where to draw the line between the last two isn’t clear. In recent years, as artists have watched curators steal more and more of their limelight, the enterprising ones have found ways of edging them out. Rather than merely producing art, they are collecting it, organising it, archiving it. In Zaatari’s case, ‘it’ is “a wide range of documents that testify to the cultural and political conditions of Lebanon’s postwar society… which he collects, examines and recontextualises”, but it could be anything. It could be an inventory of all the exhibitions held in Belfast between March 1968 and March 2001, or a list of everything the artist has put in her mouth for the previous eight months, hopefully minus the recontextualisation.

Producing things, in a Boris economy, is for bottom-dwelling cornflakes. But sorting things into clever little piles and columns is white-collar work. It requires a system and a language to explain it, putting the artist on a level with curators and directors. If you speak their language, you’re one of them. You’re not some troglodytic creature blinking in the light whose presence needs explaining to the public. Speaking the interpreters’ language saves them the bother.

In 2009 Tate Britain had a show called Classified that included a display of shells collected by Damien Hirst and a cabinet of ‘archeological’ finds retrieved from the Thames by Mark Dion. It drew attention to “the way artists use ordering systems in their work” and how they “often use these networks and relationships in ways that reveal the inherent instability of meaning.” The implication was that artists’ systems were more exciting because there was more madness in their method, but this wasn’t apparent from the installations. Hirst and Dion both used standard methods of display for objects that logically belonged together. Similarly, Dion’s new Maritime Artist installation for Porthmeor Studios in St Ives could belong in a local history museum.

What drives our need for ordering systems? Derrida called it ‘archive fever’, but it’s basically fear. We want to find patterns in the world around us that will help us survive the present and predict the future. Fear has a good track record for motivating artists – it inspired the art of the Sublime – but that was fear of the unknown. Fear of the unknown stimulates the human imagination, whereas fear of the known – information overload – shuts it down. In the two centuries since Burke, art’s imaginative possibilities have been shrinking as the pool of unknowability drains. Contemporary artists are driven by a new sort of fear, the fear of the known – the terror of drowning under a tidal surge of facts or being buried under a mountain of knowledge. There is simply too much of it about. What is an artist to do? Grayson Perry in his Reith Lectures defined an artist as “someone who notices things”. But noticing everything is a contradiction in terms.

The international exhibition at last year’s Venice Biennale, The Encyclopedic Palace, touched on this very problem, “the impossible desire of knowing and seeing everything” in the digital information age. While containing work by several archival artists the exhibition was not itself an archive, more of a mammoth walk-in cabinet of curiosities selected by its curator Massimiliano Gioni. It attracted record numbers and, for the first time, bigger crowds in its final weeks than at the preview. “After the opening five days of the exhibition, the yachts all departed and the following six months were characterized by the presence of the backpack crowd,” announced the Biennale president Paolo Baratta in the closing press release.

Interesting, the wily old doge with his finger on the art world pulse publicly disassociating the Biennale from the superyachties and turning for validation to the backpack crowd, like an Aussie publican. Bashing the rich art crowd is the coming trend, to judge by coverage of last year’s Frieze Art Fair in The Guardian, previously fawning but now dismissing the event as “an elitist shopping mall”. Art defined by its price tag – “just a big lump of money on the wall”, as Perry described it – is losing its allure. It’s got the thumbs-down from the backpackers, who are buzzing like bees around exhibitions on the popular encyclopedic model also adopted by the Hayward touring show Curiosity: Art & the Pleasures of Knowing at Newlyn Art Gallery and Discoveries: Art, Science & Exploration from the University of Cambridge Museums at Two Temple Place, both opening in January.

The wunderkammer is the new white cube. You don’t have to be an insider to enjoy these shows, you needn’t worry about whether it’s art or you’re being suckered, because it’s not so much about the art as the pleasure of knowledge administered in tasty bite-sized chunks. We live in interesting times. The continental drift between rich and poor is splitting the art world, leaving the private collectors of wall-mounted money on one side and the exhibition-going public on the other. The aspirational classes have lost interest in wall-mounted money since they gave up aspiring and switched off. The ‘handbag and hipster test’ of fashionable art proposed by Grayson Perry is being replaced by the backpack test, and the vulgar taste of the one percenters by the wisdom of crowds.

It’s funny to think that just 10 years ago the other ICA – the International Council of Archives – felt the need to launch an Archive Awareness Campaign. It had little impact on the Tate and the V&A, both since accused of dumping picture archives – the Tate’s saved from the skip by the Mellon Centre, the V&A’s ending in an industrial shredder. A thematic archive “wasn’t a method of classification that was really necessary any longer,” said the V&A. Tell that to the archival artist and cabinet curator.

Pluralism is a problem, as Perry pointed out, but here’s a suggestion. Why doesn’t everyone move up a place? The archival artist can occupy the seat of the museum curator, the museum curator can replace the museum director, and the museum director can shuffle off and become head of an Oxbridge college. That should leave a seat empty for an artist with a pad and pencil to perch on, noticing things – particular things – and jotting them down.

Laura Gascoigne

The Jackdaw, 2014

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