Michel Foucault famously began his book The Order of Things with a fantastical poetics of archiving by Jorge Luis Borges, who delineated “a certain Chinese encyclopedia” that divided animals into “(a) those that belong to the Emperor, (b) embalmed ones, (c) those that are trained, (d) suckling pigs, (e) mermaids, (f) fabulous ones, (g) stray dogs, (h) those that are included in this classification, (i) those that tremble as if they were mad, (j) innumerable ones, (k) those drawn with a very fine camel’s hair brush, (l) others, (m) those that have just broken a flower vase, (n) those that resemble flies from a distance.” Borges’s inspired inventory suggests that all categories of knowledge, however objective in appearance, are subjective.
“Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art” explores the political reaches of categorization. It is about artists searching for forms and methodologies that might act as ontological glue or conceptual templates to reveal things otherwise unknown, overlooked, or forgotten. Organized by adjunct curator Okwui Enwezor, “Archive Fever” is intermittently pedantic, sometimes sensationalist, and occasionally preachy. Enwezor can treat art as if it’s supposed to be good for you and favors what might be called message-art. I share Enwezor’s politics, but as Gerhard Richter warned, “Messages are always distressing, boring, untruthful, botched, abject, and aggressive … You can’t say that art is no good because Mozart didn’t prevent the concentration camps.” Several pieces here, with manipulative or melodramatic content involving images from Bergen-Belsen or video of Eichmann, border on cheap shots. Nevertheless, this show is outstanding and has moments of profundity and catharsis. It is an archive of archives, a narrow-bore history of the obsession to know more by organizing what we know in new ways. There were moments in this show when I thought that our brains must have an unmapped archive-lobe hardwired only to organize information in strangely revealing ways.
“Archive Fever” is laid out in a mazelike configuration in the ICP’s sunless subterranean galleries—a perfect setting for a show about archives. The walls are raw plywood or painted black. A murmur of languages echoes from sundry earphones. Walking through it is like being in a Kafka novel; fact and fiction flip-flop, interpretive possibilities multiply. Photographs are everywhere, arranged in rows, grids, clusters, and vitrines. There are stacks of cardboard boxes sporting grainy photos of people, as if from the cold-case files of an old police precinct. There are forged documents, documentary film footage, and missing children; martyrs, mass murderers, and the murdered; archives of accumulation, autobiography, and witness.
There are also reams of explanatory wall text. I love dense, formidable shows, but it would take a day just to read “Archive Fever” and days more to view its 40 hours of video. My tip for navigating “Archive Fever” is to only read the last few sentences of each text. That will allow you to glean the idea and begin looking. The many high points of this show will make that approach worthwhile. They include Anri Sala’s astonishing 26-minute video of himself discovering an old silent film of his mother speaking at an Albanian Communist rally 30 years ago. He has an Albanian school for the deaf lip-read his mother’s speech and then shows her the newly subtitled film. She is horrified at her empty platitudes. This is a portrait of a son and his mother peering into a vacant place in the mother’s soul and a nation’s history. Harun Farocki, working with Andrei Ujica, gives us 106 minutes of a 125-hour work that splices professional and amateur footage of the 1990 Romanian Revolution, and in this very direct, banal way you are suspended over the open pit of history. That pit swallows us up in the exhibition’s showstopper: Hans-Peter Feldmann’s 100 newspaper front pages from around the world dated September 12, 2001. As the attacks are multiplied, you’re reminded of how the entire world witnessed not just destruction but something akin to annihilation (a local museum should buy this work immediately and put it on permanent view). Elsewhere, Glenn Ligon does nothing less than uncover new meaning to a recent canonical work. His Notes on the Margin of the Black Book intersperses images of Robert Mapplethorpe’s nude studies of black men with texts by authors such as Toni Morrison and James Baldwin questioning acts of so-called bodily colonization like this. After seeing this scathing work, you’ll never look at Mapplethorpe’s pictures the same way. You’ll also understand that archiving can be a revolutionary weapon.