Hanne Darboven @ Camden Arts Centre – REVIEW
The first UK solo exhibition of the late German artist Hanne Darboven is daunting, overwhelming, and completely monumental. Following an internal and deeply personal logic, the artist works with all forms of letters, numbers, graphs, musical scores and calendars to question the human construction and experience of time. Visually the work is somewhere between the mad scribbling of a Hollywood genius (think Aronofsky’s ‘Pi’ or ‘A Beautiful Mind’) and something that wouldn’t look out of place in a railway station waiting room – it is both sinister and familiar. A whole wall is filled with individually framed sheets of complex and indecipherable calculations based on specific years in the Gregorian calendar. Another room is filled with a dismantled diary, each day filled with a blank, empty cursive script. It is challenging and also the response to a very personal challenge the artist had set herself – that of ‘writing without describing’.
Darboven questioned the existing templates by which we apportion and record time, treating them as containers to be filled, but also stretched. Their systems clash with her personal, arbitrary one (creating complex sums using personally significant dates or the lifespans of famous personages) and are exposed to be equally arbitrary. In one room her mathematical calculations have been translated into music, performed on the organ, and played on a loop. The music is not atonal chaos, once again it starts with a basic container (the scale) and a pattern (usually an arpeggio). One is reminded of Italo Calvino’s reclusive inmate of a meteorological observatory, convinced that the universe is trying to send him messages. As he listens to a storm he muses ‘that universe, all crashes and leaps, was translatable into figures to be lined up in my ledger; a supreme calm presided over the texture of the cataclysms.’
Some of the only pieces in the exhibition not to use letters, numbers or some kind of writing are ones consisting in the puncture wounds left by a pencil stabbed through a pattern of points made on graph paper. It is the only non-linguistic piece exhibited, and the rawness of this new language of absence, displayed alongside its original graph, acts like a kind of silence in the visual noise of the exhibition.
Her work is sometimes like a numerical nonsense poetry, taking recognizable forms and twisting them into meaninglessness, but with a trace of meaning at the core. It is this appearance which tempts us to see her as a hero attempting to solve the ultimate riddle of life, cracking the code of the universe. However, she has never made any pretense to these grand claims, and if we read it in her work, it is our own desire, not hers. She does not pretend to analysis, but only systems which ‘work in terms of progressions and/or reductions akin to musical variations.’ Yet her work begs to be decoded, and it is almost impossible to take an indifferent view of her lists, scores, sums and symbols. If anything it is an object lesson in the attraction of a puzzle, and the irresistibility not just of writing, but of reading. Words: Isabel Seligman © 2011 ArtLyst