An Archival Impulse
Hal Foster’s “An Archival Impulse” October 110, (Fall 2004): 3-22.
Hal Foster examines three contemporary artists whose work uses the concept of archives in his essay “An Archival Impulse.” While there are many artists who use archives today he chose to look at Thomas Hirschhorn, Sam Durant, and Tacita Dean. Before he elaborates on each of their work he first discusses some of the qualities used in archival art.
The first and probably the most notable function of archival art is to “make historical information, often lost or displaced, physically present. To this end [archival artists] elaborate on the found image, object, and favor the installation format” (4). While pop cultural sources are often used, many artists also use obscure references. Because these sources are found, issues of originality become important and the idea the archival art as an art of post-production is an easy assumption. With the Internet readily available “information does often appear as a virtual readymade…[this] might imply that the ideal medium of archival art is the mega-archive of the Internet,” Foster suggests that while art has absorbed much of the language of the digital age, like “inventory,” “sample,” “share,” and “interactivity,” archival art remains an obstinately physical calling for “human interpretation, not machinic reprocessing” (4-5).
Another aspect of archival art is its similarities to the museum. Some artists play on this relationship and the concept of collections, but this art is produced using a different set of guidelines because the artists “are not as concerned with critiques of representational totality and institutional integrity…[suggesting] other kinds of ordering—within the museum and without” (5).
The artist working through archives often attributes archival language to their work such as “collection,” “ramification,” and “combination.” This reinforces Foster’s last attribute of archival art in that it “not only draws on informal archives but produces them as well, and does so in a way that underscores the nature of all archival materials as found yet constructed, factual yet fictive, public yet private” (5). Archival art uses public or private collections or found materials to create new public archives, placing the information within a new context to be interpreted by the viewer.
The three artists Foster highlights produce very different works within the category of archival art. He first looks at Thomas Hirschhorn who creates direct sculptures, altars, kiosks, and monuments. Each of these installations focuses on historical figures, such as artists and philosophers, and attempt to “expose different audiences to alternative archives of public culture” (7). While some pieces come across as devotional, (the altars), and some more informational, (the kiosks), most of the figures represented have special importance to Hirschhorn. His personal investment makes each piece about more than the informational content provided and displays a sincere desire to acquaint his viewers with figures in the “avant-garde past threatened with oblivion” (10).
Tacita Dean uses many mediums to recall “lost souls” in her work. Foster notes that archival artists are “often drawn to unfulfilled beginnings or incomplete projects” a theme undoubtedly present in Dean’s work, she presents the past as always incomplete. In one example of her work she retraces the steps of a stowaway girl and records the coincidences that seem to echo the girls journey that ended in a shipwreck. Another work creates a visual archive representative of the voyage of Donald Crowhurst’s failed attempt in the Golden Globe Race. While some would attempt to look at history as including a redemptive quality Dean is does not, instead she exposes a “romantic fascination with ‘human failing’” (16).
The last artist Foster discusses is Sam Durant. Durant is similar to Dean in that he uses multiple mediums in this work but differs in that his source material is much more eclectic pulling from the histories of rock-and-roll, art, architecture, literature, social activism, as well as others. He often pairs these materials in a way that seems to encourage disorder. One example is his citing of Smithson’s Partially Buried Woodshed installed on the campus of Kent State, the site of the shooting of four students by National Guardsman. Durant continues to combine iconic pop culture events with national tragedies like Woodstock and Altamont. His work combines the utopian with the dystopian creating a “cultural-political archive of the Vietnam era” (19).
Ending with Durant’s seemingly disordered pairings, Foster suggests that another aspect of archival art is its will to make connections, “a will to relate—to probe a misplaced past, to collate its different signs…to ascertain what might remain for the present” (21). The desire to create these connections comes from a cultural-memory that already appears disordered and disconnected, a way “to recoup failed visions in art, philosophy, and everyday life into possible scenarios of alternative kinds of social relations, to transform the no-place of the archive into the no-place of a utopia” (22).