CLASSIFIED MATERIALS: ARCHIVES, ACCUMULATION, ARTISTS
The person best suited to approach an archive is Joseph K—or, at least, like Orpheus, anyone compelled to descend into hell. Classified Materials: Archives, Accumulation, Artists, the current exhibition on the second and third floors of the VAG, even fails to take us to the gates.
The problem with Classified Materials is not the work. There is some great work in the exhibition (along with some that is not so great). Neither is it, in a sense, the curation. The problem with the exhibition is that it takes on an extremely complex and urgent topic and then fails to engage with that topic or make any trenchant statement on it. The result is, at best, a diffuse exhibition.
The introductory text of Classified Materials declares that the exhibition “does not attempt to define archiving or accumulation. Rather, taking cues from a broad selection of works produced over the past thirty years, this exhibition sets out to consider a variety of ways in which artists have approached archiving and accumulating within contemporary culture and the ways that they transform the meaning of these words in the process.” One floor, we are told, is dedicated to art that uses “archives”; the other is more specifically about “accumulation.” How these terms are used, let alone the way their meanings are being “transformed,” remains unanswered.
Among the usual suspects to comprise the exhibition, the VAG, however, did one thing that involved a playful curatorial risk—it asked Geoffrey Farmer to arrange items from its catacombs. The Hunchback Kit (2000-05) appears throughout both floors of the exhibition. The main staircase, for instance, is overwhelmed with banker’s boxes. The rotunda on the third floor contains a series of vitrines containing old typewriters, fake trees, and rope. Between two chairs appears an old fax machine (a note on it declares it still works). A broken lamp, with the lit bulb still in, sits in the middle of another room. In one corner, a series of old cabinets are lit in blue light, with the nighttime soundtrack of crickets. Farmer’s archival interventions give Classified Materials both a boldness and a character the exhibition would have otherwise entirely lacked.
So, to be sure, there is some work in this show that should be praised, but the organization and topic that subsumes it is questionable.
In The Décor Project (2000-05), for example, Hadley + Maxwell, randomly placed on the “accumulation” floor, collaborate with a curator, collector, or editor by redecorating the home of said collaborator. The work of Hadley + Maxwell offers an extended meditation on subjectivity. The work asks: what happens when two interested subjects collaborate? In the case of The Décor Project, the following objects are produced: a binder with a completed questionnaire, a letter from the artists to the participant, and a series of photographs of the rearranged dwellings.
The collaboration between an artist and a cultural producer in The Décor Project does an unexpectedly poignant thing. It marks how fragile human relationships can be. The documents track people’s lives, the way they change over time, who moves out, who loves the way their kitchen looks in different light, who breaks whose heart, who couldn’t stand living in a specific place to begin with. There is a remarkable consistency to Hadley + Maxwell’s work, dating back to an early show at Artspeak in 1999, Negotiating Desire. I look forward to seeing more of The Décor Project, but in terms of the exhibition, I find the relationship to “accumulation” tenuous.
There was also some great photography in the exhibition as well. It seems almost trite to praise Ed Ruscha’s gorgeous aerial photographs of parking lots (1967-99), but these, along with Ruscha’sSunset Strip (1966) accordion-photograph, were among the highlights. As was Roy Arden’sRupture (1985), a series of archival photos framed below blue monochromes. The images are placed in a row, and they have a haunting effect, definitely another highlight of the exhibition.
But I’d like to return to my main criticism. If it seems pedantic to complain that the VAG lacks a definitive position on its topic, the sinister applications of an archive are being ignored. However warm and nostalgic Heather Passmore’s Bikini Projection (2003) may be, for example, any connection that work has to Stephen Shearer’s Metal Archive maquette (2000) is beside the point. Both use found images, yes, and both accumulate images—but they’re presented as archives. (Discussing how these two artists obsess over gender would be far more interesting.) Shearer’s use of the term “archive,” in fact, is a bit of a misnomer.
An archive, in a strict sense, refers to a process of categorization—most commonly by an interested group—a government, a corporation, a community, or a family. Archives are potentially sinister things. They’re also potentially compelling, too, a mixture of care, surveillance, nostalgia, skepticism and veracity. But to neglect the sinister aspect of archives misses the complexity, and danger, inherent in any system of classification. I don’t mean to slag Shearer’s virtuosic drawings, for example, but in terms of the exhibition, something is lacking. The Long March Project (2004) and Jayce Salloum’s (kan ya ma kan) There was and there was not (1988-98) consider the more sinister aspects of archives. But little else on either floor considers does, and “accumulation” alone is vague.
The exhibition reminds me of Rebecca Comay’s statement in the introduction of Lost in the Archives: “What isn’t an archive these days?” Classified Materials does not interrogate what an archive is or could be. Instead the exhibition rests on general assumptions. It blankly states that contemporary culture “archives” and “accumulates” things without offering any statement on what an archive or an accumulation may do.
As I’ve said, the problem with Classified Materials isn’t the work. The exhibition falls short of making a statement about its topic, and the failure of making a statement on its topic is the exhibition’s greatest flaw.
We are in need of statements—vulnerable, overconfident, provincial, incoherent, didactic, brilliant, whatever. Any kind will do.
Aaron Peck is co-editor of Doppelganger magazine