Bill Carke: You first saw Cultural History in 1996 at the Dia Art Foundation’s Chelsea space. Can you recall what your response to the work was back then and how it’s evolved since?
Dan Adler: (Laughs) My initial response was of being overwhelmed! The installation took up several large galleries. And, the amount of material to look at! Over 1,600 panels containing thousands of sheets of paper and all these uncanny-looking sculptural objects punctuating the exhibition. I took notes at the time as a way of dealing with my feelings of intimidation, my fear of the work. So, it’s fortunate that I’ve had such a long time to reflect on the work and my notes, and to consider it in relation to other major statements, such as Richter’s Atlas. This gradually made Cultural History less intimidating for me.
BC: How familiar were you with her work before experiencing Cultural History?
DA: I was familiar with some early drawings – the Konstruktonen series made in the mid 1960s, but these are very different from Cultural History. They are humble in terms of scale and materials, consisting of numbers and graphs on paper. Because of that simplicity, they are considered key Conceptual works; the emphasis is on the ideas contained within the calculations. Cultural History, however, is concerned with issues such as historical memory, the reception of traumatic events, and the material reality of things. So, the Cultural History installation was a big surprise because it contrasted with what I though her work was.
BC: I feel her concern with history, especially Germany’s turbulent 20th century history, is shared by a number of her contemporaries. You mentioned Gerhardt Richter, but when I was reading your book, I also thought a lot about Christian Boltanski.
DA: Yes, both he and Darboven convey the events of the Holocaust and other traumatic situations in their work, and how that history is coldly archived, transmitted and distorted by historians, the culture industry and the media. They both deal with the politics of transmission, but in very different ways. By this, I mean the ways through which those horrors have been received by us photographically and textually. We live in a world in which there are forces distracting us from those realities, and that capitalize and make money off of those realities.
BC: You talk about earlier attempts to create atlas-like works in the book, such as Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas from 1929, but it seems to me that a work like Cultural History could only have been made in the latter half of the 20th century. I say this because when Warburg was constructing his atlas, history was probably conceived of in a more linear way – of one event happening after another rather than things occurring simultaneously. Word of events taking place on the other side of the world took days, if sometimes not weeks, to spread. Today, we learn about events almost immediately. We have much more of a sense of the simultaneity of events; however, this seems to have a levelling effect. The media often seems to give equal weight to everything. News of a celebrity having a meltdown is delivered to us in the same format as news of the latest complex developments in the Middle East. Cultural History seems to presage our current situation.
DA: Yes, there is a feeling of dilution of the power of the image today. For example, in Cultural History, we’ll see an image of Hitler saluting, followed immediately by an image of a cartoon picturing a baby eating. The images are brought down to the same level of information. No one subject is more relevant than another.
BC: Darboven’s work is critical of this.
DA: Yes, absolutely. Cultural History is meant to raise our awareness of how we have become detached from our own histories. The role of the culture industry is to detach us from such realities. Its role is to create spectacles that pacify us and make us less aware of ways of subverting the powers that be. One way is to keep us in a constant state of visual stimulation, which distracts us from the realities and injustices of history. The culture industry and the media are always forcing us onto the next thing. Think about the injustices that occurred during the Iraq war. Doesn’t it feel like we’ve already forgotten about them?
BC: Another element of Darboven’s work you mention is the act of itemizing, list-making and cataloguing. Again, this is a trait she shares with Boltanski, as well as artists like Mario Merz or Alighiero Boetti. What is the purpose of Darboven’s itemizing?
DA: Cultural History gathers together varied things as pre-World War II postcards, pin-ups of film and rock stars, World War I-era German cigarette cards, geometric diagrams for textiles, illustrated covers from Der Spiegel and Der Stern; the contents of an exhibition catalogue devoted to post-War European and American art, musical score sheets, pages of numerical calculations and a form of repetitive cursive writing, and imagery from some of Darboven’s earlier works. It also includes three-dimensional objects such as animal figures, a robot, a crescent moon hanging from the ceiling, a kiosk, a ceramic bust of a moustached man, a pair of shop-window mannequins wearing jogging attire, and a book placed on a pedestal. Darboven’s is a personal and non-hierarchical collection of materials, and it provokes consideration of how history is made and related. It draws distinctions between history and information, everyday and historical significance, and documentary and aesthetic import. Her work powerfully questions the division between the personal and the universal, as it operates in the process of portraying history. Most importantly, her work refuses to answer the call for interpretive synthesis.