The Trouble with Legacy

Originally published in (H)Art, July 2011

One of the few highlights in an otherwise disappointing 54th Venice Biennale is a group of intriguingly unspectacular photographs by Dayanita Singh. ‘File Room’ consists of a series of black and white images depicting shelves crammed to overflowing with stacks of paper, rickety old filing cabinets, tottering heaps of unidentified documents. In short, piles and piles of paper. Unruly and haphazard, these chaotic systems of categorisation go right to the heart of the preoccupations of many of the artists involved in the Biennale: simultaneously the importance, and the vulnerability, of contemporary notions of the archive.

A striking number of artists currently showing their work in Venice – in the national pavilions, in Bice Curiger’s patchily curated ILLUMInations or in one of the many affiliated exhibitions taking place across the city – is the focus on this idea of the archive. Certainly the 2011 Biennale is not the place to go if you’re looking for originality, as the majority of artists have chosen to focus instead upon the past, as well as a variety of ways in which it can be documented, organised, categorised and preserved. If the future is considered at all, it is only inasmuch as the place where the archive – and one’s legacy in it –lives on.

There’s a number of reasons why this might be the case, starting perhaps with the very system by which artists are chosen to represent their country. Artists are selected on the very reasonable basis on what they have done up until now; not so much on what they might be able to offer in the future. The problem with this is that brings not only a weight of expectation, but also the danger that any artist who has got this far might well have already said all that he has to say.

After all, the average age of artists given representative solo shows by nations with pavilions in the Giardini is a whopping 47.9 years old. That is the kind of age when most people are thinking about their family and their mortgage, so it’s hardly surprising to see Mike Nelson (b. 1967) taking a similar conceptual approach to that of work he’s already shown (twice) at the Camden Arts Centre. Or Dora Garcia’s contribution to the Spanish pavilion: an extended performance that explores ideas around what it means to be ‘inadequate’, utilising many of the standard techniques of the museum curator: glass-topped vitrines packed with letters, images and other ephemeral documentation. This is the age people begin to think about their legacy, and what houses legacy better than a museum?

Interestingly, the youngest solo exhibitor in the Giardini, by some distance, is Dominik Lang who represents the Czech Republic. Intriguingly, Lang (b. 1980) chooses to present an exhibition almost entirely devoted to the works of his father, a twentieth century figurative sculptor. It’s almost as if, intimidated or rendered insecure by the mass of middle age around him, he seeks confirmation in a past that is both national and personal. In that sense, the result is mixed – both revealing and limited – but in terms of the Biennale more generally it’s certainly instructive.

There’s also a larger sense in which Lang’s work is typical. The Biennale is based around a system – that of the national pavilion – that is not only ideologically moribund, but so much so as to no longer even be an issue worth confronting. Artists either embrace it – in the manner of the Serbian pavilion and its swastika-induced angst – or they ignore it altogether. In the age of the multinational corporation, the nation state is no longer a source of significant meaning, and the only response is to document what once was.

Alongside this more general point is the more cynical attempt – not so much by artists but by curators – to validate the work of contemporary artists through reference to the past. So Curiger’s ILLUMInations centres on three Tintorettos, whilst collateral exhibitions like Penelope’s Labour position sixteen century Persian carpets and a tapestry from 1480, entitled The Siege of Jerusalem, alongside a range of recent art works in an attempt, it seems, to validate contemporary practice.

And so the exploration of the idea of the personal archive, the legacy of the individual, is, in a sense hardly surprising. In recent years, technology has radically altered the way the concept of the archive is viewed today – with email replacing the hand-written letter, the Kindle threatening the printed book, and the life works of a new generation of critics held in a few giant internet servers, it’s hardly surprising that a generation of middle-aged artists would turn their attention to apparently more ‘reliable’ systems of ordering and retaining knowledge.

All of which makes works that challenge the very possibility of archival veracity so powerful. One of the highlights of the Biennale is Vesa-Pekka Rannikko’s apparently simple video piece for the Finnish pavilion. Shot in the pavilion itself, it consists of a two-screen video piece that depicts the artist painting over a series of found paintings. In some senses it’s a documentary of an exhibition that never took place – an exploration of what it means both to create and to erase. This video is all that’s left now; it is the exhibition, and to some extent it’s actually a work that doesn’t fully function outside of the Biennale and outside of the pavilion in which it was produced.

Similarly, RH Quaytman’s works in the ILLUMInations exhibition quietly hint at systems of meaning whose purpose has long been forgotten. A small room of strange, faded, abstract works hints at a language and a civilisation that is no more, an archive bereft of meaning. There’s a sense in these occultish mixed media images of knowledge fading, of learning irrevocably lost.

It’s the same force that makes Dayanita Singh’s works so relevant here. The current fear around the archive – due to the age of the individual, the decline in importance of the nation state, and the rise in new technologies and new systems of information storage and dissemination – is in some senses irrational. The archive, as Singh ironically documents, has always been unstable, particularly with reference to its own future.