In Critical Theory I, Stuart Steck’s statement that “the museum is a place where objects go to die”, conjured up many ideas and possibilities of working with and through objects for me. In Critical Theory II, we had the opportunity to explore a range of concepts, centered on the theme of the archive, in greater depth. These included: the archive resulting from as well as feeding into artwork; the precarious distinction of the archive from a library, a collection and waste; the blending of fact and fiction in the interpretation of the archive; the use of archived colonial objects to create a temporal structure; the role of technology mediating the archive and the complex manipulation of the archive by artists, such as Gerard Byrne, IlyaKabakov and Christian Boltanski (among many others) to challenge and examine our ascriptions of meaning and interpretation.
Two articles, namely “Working Through Objects” edited by Barbara Einzig and based on transcriptions of three of Susan Hiller’s informal talks and discussions of her installation in the Freud Museum, and Carrie Lambert-Beatty’s “Make-Believe: Parafiction and Plausability” are used in this essay to explore themes that are of particular interest and relevance to my work.
The first idea that struck me as interesting was Hiller’s observation that her work is examined more closely by the audience, when it is “condensed and constrained” (Hiller, p.41). She compares her vitrine display of boxed objects at the Freud museum, stating that people “will involve themselves in a more careful, slow and intimate way”, to that of her large installation work where “it is perfectly possible to stand in the doorway and take a mental snapshot … and not to get involved with the items placed within it” (Hiller, p.41). She goes on to say:
“We are well trained to go image by image or item by item through a museum case, and people seem to keep this habit of careful viewing when they see my collection. “ (Hiller, p. 41)
Based on her training as an anthropologist and from experiments in earlier works such as ‘Enquiries/Inquiries’ (1973-5), Hiller suggests that “any conscious configuration of objects tells a story, and it was by setting boundaries that the story was told.” (Hiller, p.42). According to Hiller, the narrative is activated by the context in which it is set. She discusses the complexity of showing in London’s Freud Museum, once a home (housing Freud’s own meticulously archived collection) and now a museum/shrine, and contrasts its multi-layered implications with the usually ‘neutral’ spaces of galleries. She elaborates that her post-modern, fragmented collection of objects is automatically read in relation to (and juxtaposed with) Freud’s primary, modernist one, that her gender as a female artist is implicated as Freud is the archetypal father figure and that their similar ethnic histories also feature in the density of her artwork’s situation (Hiller, 1994).
When considering the topic of narrative more specifically, Hiller states that there are at least two versions: that of the “narrator” and that of the “listener” (Hiller, p.42). She refers to Freud’s concept of dreams being composites of the hidden and the manifest, and likens it to the relationship between the story-teller and the way the story is perceived. Hiller explains that, as the author, she:
“present[s] the viewer with a word (…title), a thing or object, and an image or text or chart, a representation. And the three aspects hang together (or not) in some kind of very close relationship which might be metaphoric or metonymic…” (Hiller, p.42)
Added to that is also her placement of the box, within which the collected object is contained, in the series of boxes. She maintains that her objects are collected first, “things that are very, very disturbing to me…” (Hiller, p.46) and the images and text (based on associations the objects inspire) are added later. The gesture somewhat mimics that of the “real collector” (Hiller, p.48) but serves to open up the possibilities of interpretation and not limit them.
My fascination with Hiller’s work is fundamentally the scale, organization and display of it. Museums, which I frequent as often as I can, always provide me with an experience that is a dramatic combination of reverence, fantasy and a sense of loss. The quiet environment, one’s absorption with scrutinizing the objects on show and the scant information on placards are perfect prompts for the viewer to enter their private reverie. The objects are removed from their banal utility and perpetually exotic because of their remote context. Their historical/geographical/physical displacement provokes compassion and sadness, after all, how can you not feel horror for a detached, mummified head trapped under a bell jar and shut up in a glass cabinet? Hiller finds that collected objects “are constant evocations of mortality and death” (Hiller, p.43). She implies that by placing his collection in the work space, Freud purposely created an ‘atmosphere’ by having objects connected to a dead body or a civilsation (Hiller, 1994).
In his article, Carrie Lambert-Beatty describes the term Parafiction:
“…in parafiction real and/or imaginary personages and stories intersect with the world as it is being lived. Post-simulacral, parafictional strategies are oriented less toward the disappearance of the real than the pragmatics of trust … parafiction is a deception” (Lamber-Beatty, p.54, 56)
He goes on to explore the strategies of Parafiction employed by artists such as Michael Blum, 01.ORG in collaboration with Public Netbase, the Yes Men, Aliza Shvarts and The Atlas Group, in detail.
Blum, trained as a historian at the Sorbonne, created an elaborate art installation entitled ‘A tribute to Safiye Behar’. Under the guise of a campaign to save the home of this historically eminent Turkish “teacher, translator, communist, and feminist” (Lambert-Beatty, p.51) from demolition, he displayed an archive of her letters to Attatürk (the founder of the Turkish Republic), photographs of her addressing audiences, books featuring her as translator and videos of her descendants’ interviews. Subtle clues of her fictitiousness (such as imperfectly pasted book covers and overacting in video) may have been planted, however, the multi-dimensional facets of Safiye’s character such as her ethnic minority profile, progressive political beliefs and her romantic link with Attatürk took full advantage of the social/political/historical context in which the exhibition was set. The bilingual audience at the Turkish Biennial of 2005 was targeted by the information being both in English and Turkish. Turkey, stereotyped as a ‘backward’ country, was on the verge of joining the EU, a hotly debated topic at the time, and for Turkish nationals, Safiye defied these notions. Her mixed heritage as an Armenian Jew not only referenced the suppressed Turkish history of perpetrated genocide as well, but was relevant to the discourse of identity and hybridity (Lambert-Beatty, 2009).
Lambert-Beatty comments on Blum’s various tactics of deception affecting the audience in ways that made it question the claims of truth made in the exhibition. Implicitly, parallels are drawn with all of us being part of an audience that may be fed an amalgamation of truths, part-truths and lies by politics, the media, institutions and so on. Lambert-Beatty goes on to say that between 1998 and 2008, a wide array of artists explored modes of ‘parafiction’ predominantly to facilitate the deconstruction of the notion of truth as an ultimate and universal certainty (Lambert-Beatty, 2009).
Personally, I am drawn to using a version of ‘Parafiction’ in my work by perhaps experimenting with the installation of a fictional archive of a fictional character. I am currently working on a much smaller scale than I am used to, in order to create a collection of objects, which may have some ambiguous references to artifacts one finds in a museum. The idea is, by having historical connotations, to visually evoke a sense of the collection’s integrity, as a starting point from which the viewer is hopefully inspired to create a narrative. I have always been interested in authors like Erich Von Däniken and Graham Hancock, who challenge the conventional account of the historical evolution of humankind. With the recent discovery of a new humanoid species in a Chinese cave dating between 14,500 and 11,500 years ago (Cohen, 2011) it is interesting to witness firsthand, something seemingly fictitious defy something one learns to accept as ‘scientific’ fact. Working on a small-scale collection, which would ideally be presented in a way where it is remote and inaccessible (like in a museum), creates a sense of mystery, opening up the possibilities of interpreting its narrative.
Susan Hiller commented on choosing between being an anthropologist and an artist:
“I decided I would become … an artist: I would relinquish factuality for fantasy.” (Hiller, ‘The Myth of Primitivism: Perspectives on Art’, New York 1991, p.2)
I am very interested in fantasy but do not feel that one has to choose between it and reality. The two are inextricably linked and it is within that complex bond that their individual potency is enhanced.
Einzig B., ‘Working Through Objects”, The Archive (Whitechapel: Documents of Contemporary Art), MIT Press, 2006, pp.41 - 48
Gallagher A., ‘Susan Hiller’, Tate Publishing, 2011
Lambert-Beatty C., ‘Make-Believe: Parafiction and Plausibility’, October Summer 2009, No. 129, pp. 51 – 84
‘Did a New Human Species Thrive in Stone Age China?’ 2012, Jennie Cohen, online article, accessed 28 August 2012, http://www.history.com/news/did-a-new-human-species-thrive-in-stone-age-china