By Johanna Burton
Published in A Journey in Two Directions, Revolver Publishing, 2010
I. A Different Idea
Perhaps the preeminent example (certainly the most oft-cited) of proto-postmodern, self-conscious methods of museological display is that of André Malraux as described in his 1951 The Voices of Silence.(1) In that text, Malraux formulates what has come to be known as the “museum without walls,” which is a curious translation of his original French, le musée imaginaire.(2) Malraux’s “museum” was, of course, hardly a museum as we know it, but rather a prescient exposition of a liminal moment in history; indeed, Malraux was performing an exposé of modes of modern display (those which were exemplified by 19th-century museum practices) while also taking into account the dissolution of aura, as predicted by Walter Benjamin. Malraux’s museum didn’t need walls because there were actually no objects to be housed. Every item included in his museum was included as photographic reproduction, a choice that immediately did away with differences in medium, dimension, provenance, and scale; even period incongruities (it didn’t matter if a 19th-century painting was alongside a 15th-century sculpture) and practical precautions (no worries about humidity or restoration here) were rendered obsolete. Malraux’s means of grouping operated by way of correspondences that occurred among objects rather than by chronological, geographical, or even stylistic affinities, a method that sounds strikingly like that of the Renaissance kunstkammer collector, though to radically different ends. Of course, because Malraux’s musée imaginaire was comprised only of photographic reproductions, it’s arguable as to whether this entity can be considered a museum at all, and, indeed, scholars have parted ways on this point, with some feeling Malraux was liberating objects from the museum’s hegemonic order and others believing he reduced all those same objects to the realm of homogeneous, indistinct images.(3)
But when we think carefully of the figure of “the museum” proper, with its attendant cultural practices—historical writing, cataloguing, curating, conserving—we see that it, at least in theory, poses a similar, if very differently presented, dilemma. The museum (as an idea, an entity, an institution, a historical and contemporary figure) is often taken to be a holistic representation of any given culture’s intellectual and artistic history, enacting a rise to the task (and the fantasy) of encyclopedic cohesion and coherence. While we are all quite familiar with the poststructuralist revisions to this notion of a singular, complete, or universal history (which, ironically, Malraux’s ideas serve both to bolster and undo), museums even today continue to be regarded as somewhat representative of cultural truths by much of the public who visits them.
For the purposes of this essay, there are three crucial points we can borrow from Malraux today when thinking museologically, bearing in mind that what we read in his treatise sprang initially from a humanist desire for conservation and preservation (sentiments not in line with my own inclinations). First, insisting on the correct translation of le musée imaginaire (“the imaginary museum”) might allow us to conceive of a museum that exhibits a pan-semiotic method of gathering through correspondence.(4) That is, while the etymology of “imaginary” obviously points to “image,” the image we are referring to can now be an internal or private one, hardly promising to uphold any kind of unified version of cultural history.(5) Moreover, an “imaginary” museum allows for correspondences that include magical, alchemical, even phantasmatic elements. Secondly, and perhaps risking oversimplification, Malraux allows for the possibility of grouping and comparing across time, medium, and style. This posits a kind of “imaginary” history that might, indeed, loosen notions of historical contingency and chronological imperative. Finally, I’d like to read Malraux’s notion of the museum as necessarily discursive—rather than rendering the “mechanically reproduced” artworks as stable images (or even stable texts), I’d like to posit that they provide a site around which dialectical, dialogic conversation revolves and evolves. Indeed, le musée imaginaire and its contents provided more an occasion upon which to speak than any (scientific or otherwise) revelation of discrete objects/images unto themselves. Here, it might be said that the web of associations spun by the individual objects became so many vehicles for a larger conception. Malraux exposed connections among objects as more important than the objects themselves—a crucial defining element of any “epistemological gathering,” particularly an unstable, shifting one. In fact, Malraux’s musée imaginaire relied on a mode of subjective/objective reception: where an object existed with one foot grounded in empirical reality and another engaged in the imaginative labor of calling into being the idea of something not immediately present for investigation.(6)
II. …Of the Museum
That last sentence, with which I ended the first part of this short essay on the artist Nanna Debois Buhl (whom I have not until now mentioned by name), implies that rethinking Malraux today (not, that is, in the context in which he was writing nor in the context of postmodernism for which he was most appropriated) perhaps gives license to consider something new about the musée imaginaire. Perhaps we can call it a supplement, but I would even go so far as to call it “poetry,” if we take such a word to point not only to a tradition, a history, a recognizable format in writing but also to modes of approaching events, people, and things, in which the words applied to them are necessarily understood to impart a mismatch: That is to say, language necessarily, in poetry, outruns its objects, circles them without tying them down. This is not an enacting of relativism but, rather, a way of acknowledging that some things can only be approached sideways, can only be described indirectly.
Buhl, for instance, whose work is often enough characterized using language that imparts a kind of ethnographic or archival rigor to it, can also be seen, I think, as pressing on the objects she chooses for her case studies not only to extract from them facts or analytic theses but also affective emphasis. Indeed, she has, in past works, spent ample time in archives only to constellate what she’s found in ways that distinctly lack fidelity to the look and feel of “research-based” artwork. There are many examples of this, but I’ll point to one that makes what I’m saying extremely self-evident: In a recent project (Incredible Creature, 2009), the artist traveled to Copenhagen to look for traces of Denmark’s colonial history in the architecture of the city; the end result of her piece incorporated information about the sugar and coffee trade but also accounted for the appearance in 1721 of a sea creature to a Christian missionary on his way to Greenland. That these kinds of evidence were presented as completely on par with one another (which is to say, treated equally) marks the way in which Buhl insists on taking seriously how the production of knowledge should not be limited to ostensibly (or at least recognizably) fact-based findings.
Perhaps this is why Buhl’s oeuvre—though it nods consistently toward modes of display and interpellation very much associated with the museum—should be discussed in relation to the travel journal or diary. In works of otherwise very different character (say The Mapmaker and From the Guidebook, both 2008), Buhl’s outright critiques of existing forms of knowledge gathering, dispersal, and control are executed by way of sneaking in personal meditations, ruminations, even out-and-out fictions. Indeed, experiencing her works is rather akin to encountering that hybrid—and longstanding—genre that we associate with epic travel: the diary that both accounts for the where, when, and how of a journey but is filled, too, with personal accounts, off-handed reminiscences, even deeply intimate secrets and passing fancies. Perhaps this is why Buhl, in a recent project for a museum in Roskilde, Denmark, rendered for that city a portrait of its town square assembled from postcards—70 of them, all produced and sent over the span of the last century.(7) The seemingly similar objects (for all the years they encompass, the postcards mostly repeat a few vantage points) were hung at eye level around a gallery space, giving an impression of order and restraint. Yet, what was hidden in their hanging—the backs of the cards upon which messages are written—was revealed in the most ephemeral aspect of the show: a soundtrack in which those notes, which range from practical to heartbreaking, were read aloud, reaching the ears of viewers if never their eyes.(8)
But perhaps, for me anyway, the most clear evocation of the travel journal in Buhl’s work comes in a piece from 2009, Looking for Donkeys. Traveling alone to St. John, the artist spent nearly two weeks hunting for the feral donkeys she had heard occupied the island. Living reminders of the island’s colonial past, the 400 or so donkeys wander the island, taking refuge where they can and eating what they find or what is given to them by empathetic locals and tourists. Buhl’s search for the donkeys was also a search for her own connection to a past she inherits but cannot fully grasp. Her short diary entries, detailing the days and nights she spent on St. John, are scripted as poems, and the thoughts recounted there take readers through a journey not merely physical. Here, we learn about the behavior of the donkeys (they are threatened by aggressive locals, lured by friendly ones; the females band together, traveling in packs, while the males are usually solitary, etc.) but also about the lonely meanderings of the artist who pursues the animals in the same manner that they themselves wander: circuitously.
Le Corbusier’s famous 1924 tract, The City of To-Morrow and its Planning (titled Urbanisme in the original French) contains a section titled “The Pack-Donkey’s Way and Man’s Way.”(9) The first sentence begins: “Man walks in a straight line because he has a goal and knows where he is going; he has made up his mind to reach some particular place, and he goes straight to it.” “The pack-donkey,” Le Corbusier continues, “meanders along, meditates a little in his scatterbrained and distracted fashion, he zigzags in order to avoid the larger stones, or to ease the climb, or to gain a little shade; he takes the line of least resistance.”(10) For Le Corbusier, who is arguing against the non-linear plan of pre-modern cities (which, much to his dismay, persist, anachronistic as they would seem—he points to Paris as a prime example), the donkey stands for all that disrupts reason, primarily instincts and brute desire. The route taken by this animal is all twists and turns, stalls and delays. Yet, for Buhl at least, the “pack-donkey’s way” is, ironically enough, the most effective route to get where it is she is going.
1. André Malraux, The Voices of Silence (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, Bollingen Series XXIV, 1978).
2. The mistranslation of Malraux’s le musée imaginaire is one that ought to be analyzed further, as I will do briefly later, especially with regard to the shift from imagination to site (however ephemerally defined) such a translation implies. Hal Foster makes note of this discrepancy in translation, though he doesn’t investigate its implications further, see Foster, “Archives of Modern Art,” in Design and Crime (London: Verso, 2002), 156, n. 28.
3. On this idea, see Douglas Crimp, “On the Museum’s Ruins,” in On the Museum’s Ruins (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1993), 44–64. Crimp compellingly points out that Malraux, in using photography as his “organizing device,” neglects to consider its implications as a particular kind of object, a very particular sort of medium. Indeed, for Crimp, this failure to account for photography per se disables Malraux’s goal of a “single perfect similitude” and ushers into the museum a whole new level of heterogeneity.
4. “Correspondence” can be helpfully read here as directly related to Baudelaire’s notion of the same name, whereby spontaneous constellations produce unexpected relationships that can’t be mapped in any linear fashion.
5. The etymology of “image” is the Latin imagin-, imago, akin to the imitari, to imitate. Thus, we can, of course, think of images as repetitions of prior forms. Yet, tied not only to older notions of mimesis, this also allows for modes of bringing alternate versions of images forward, which is to say that the close link between “image” and “imagine” complicates notions of what kind of images are reproduced, with what fidelity, and how.
6. Perhaps, then, without abandoning crucial ways of considering the boundaries of thought in a particular time and place (via Foucault’s idea of the episteme for instance), we might complicate them by considering the powerful—and disruptive—effect of the imaginary upon their contours.
7. Dearest. I’ll be there on Sunday (2009) is a site-specific sound and postcard installation made for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Roskilde, Denmark. Because this volume is focused on Buhl’s recent works related to Denmark’s colonial past, Dearest. I’ll be there on Sunday is not detailed in the index here.
8. Buhl has worked with the conceit, if not the actual material thing, of postcards before, in her 2006 film, Postcards – Tivoli. There she calls attention to how places are framed, and for whom. Another recent project, this by the photographer Zoe Leonard, should be mentioned here, as one could, I think, devote substantial thought to the role of postcards in recent art. Leonard’s You see I am here after all (2008), installed at Dia: Beacon, takes up the site of Niagara Falls as a place where collective and individual memories and desires might be mapped.
9. Le Corbusier, The City of To-Morrow and its Planning (New York: Dover, 1987).
10. Ibid., 5.