Today I become an invited scribe for this blog, of which I’ve been a long time admirer, of the curatorial and thematic quality that Sofia Silva has been able to nurture and maintain. If nothing else, these would be enough reasons to agree to participate, although Sofia’s invitation also encountered my own ambition to find other ways to participate, collectively, in photography. For about 4 years I’ve written in abitpixel, a personal blog, idiosyncratic, individualistic, in portuguese, which is now somewhat on hold due to my other activities, but to which I plan to return. In the meanwhile, I’ll be contributing here, as regular as I can and with the themes made achievable, so may this contribution meet Sofia’s wishes for this ”new” Nihilsentimentalgia’s life.
Aby Warburg makes us question how history is constructed, reported and sometimes turned into a cartel. The plastic formality of the warburgian panels facilitates an anachronistic, non-linear, understanding of time, one where nothing is positioned before or after, but instead side by side. This allows for a narrative approach to History, which is less in the teleological domain and more based on persistences, symptoms, traces, porosities and constellations. These figures tend to democratize and contaminate the reflection with different ways of perceiving the historical event, promoting a rupture with certain rhetoric grounded on a deterministic, operational, functional and progressive view of history.
Contemporary art practices have denoted a certain appetite for the appropriation of historical, social and political, artistic and biographical contents. These enunciate a willingness not only to reinterpret, also implying the possibility of some deviations, sabotages or fictions of such content, but also to produce new approaches to the question of History. Some of these strategies are present in the work of Wolfgang Tillmans, since his early works.
Although at the core of Tillmans’ artistic concerns there is no evidence of an interest in historicity, the way he uses all sorts of photographic material indicates his interest in their documental qualities, raising questions about the use of a document, pertaining its authenticity and its value as “truth”. In Warburg, not only do we detect his confidence in the photograph’s authenticity as an empirical document, but also the support and validation, which equates reproduction with photography. This is something valid for both authors, as we find similar techniques, as the use of image copies, and images from various sources, even if that formula can refer to a depreciation of the image’s ontological value, by the means of copying, reproducibility and authenticity, as discussed by Walter Benjamin.
Somehow, it’s in the profound change in the way one builds an archive, as well as in the way the research process develops and how one extracts its results, that seems to lie the value of the warburgian legacy, which is quite obvious in the recent practices and formulas on how to approach the archive.
In Tillmans’ work, the archival seems to refer to a more personal universe, as can be seen in the work “Soldiers: The Nineties”, a book containing a collection of images from the 90´s, of police officers and soldiers wearing their uniforms. There are enough hints allowing us to associate the images but, in most cases, there are no titles, no essay, paging or an index. All this accumulation (and lack thereof) seems to indicate that the status of the document is much more subjective than for Warburg is. Almost as Tillmans is using them as drafts in a notebook, like a personal memory with its fantasies and desires and far from the standard way of accounting for one’s social or collective memory.
Concerning the archive, Warburg’s pioneering practice is evident in the strategy used to build the Mnemosyne Atlas, of which the elaboration of the panels was a fundamental part. They denote Warburg’s non-hierarchical approach to the image, splitting from the modernist installations, something that we can also find in Tillman’s:
I found my signature in terms of showing my pictures in a non-hierarchical way. It was a very radical thing at the time, to show magazine pages alongside original photographs and to leave the photographs unframed; not to make a distinction in terms of value – you know, what belongs on the wall, what doesn’t.(1)
This democratic approach to both processes of editing and exhibiting seems to actively refuse the choice of what’s important, challenging conventional formulas of artistic linearity, of a certain inflated authorship (perhaps authoritarian), that the photographic medium wishes to claim for itself. the provocation itself being a glimpse of the sort of non-hierarchization found in Warburg’s work. This challenge to conventions and disobedience of social expectations, locates the eye as a subversive and transgressive tool, in which the tactic of appropriation, coupled with the author’s work, not only redefines the work of art but also the statutes of a document.
1.“Peter Halley in Conversation with Wolfgang Tillmans”,in “Wolfgang Tillmans”, Verwoert, Jan, Halley, Peter, Matsui, Midori: London, Phaidon Press 2002, p.15