Against Canonisation – professional operations in the grey zone

Rachel Mader, zhdk

In 1963, only a few years after the first use of a fluorescent light tube as a piece of art (abb),

critics, curators and the artist himself, Dan Flavin, struggled to articulate the appropriate

meaning of this unconventional artistic statement. Whereas critics and curators tried to find

a vocabulary that links the bizarre but nevertheless sensual artistic gesture to any kind of

artistic tradition – even as a rejection of modernist narration – Dan Flavin was highly

displeased with all the propositions made toward interpreting his work. He not only rejected

with harsh words recent attempts to categorise his work as ‘sculpture’, ‘work’ or part of the

back then recent tendency labeled ‘minimal art’. Furthermore he declared : “Nevertheless, I

try never to acknowledge ‘isms’ in art because of their usual unanimous inaccuracy.” 1 He

suggested instead the term “proposal” and used a vocabulary that is striking for its scientific

and technical orientation: he defined his entire complex or works as a coherent “system,”

within whose framework he “diagramm[ed] designs for fluorescent light in situations.” These

diagrams were collected in a “file”; the artist called their realisation an “installation,” 2 a

term which at that time was not yet established in the art world.

Flavin’s strong resistance to early signs of his canonisation (which later set the cornerstone

of his worldwide and long‐standing success) reminds me of the scepticism heard today from

artists and scientists when it comes to the matter of art and research. The rapid, dense

establishment of a powerful network of forums, magazines, PhD and research programmes

etc. is accompanied by different critical voices from the various relevant fields of discourse.

Discussions of the subject are often characterised by legitimising or de‐legitimising

intentions: whereas some plead for equal treatments of artistic and scientific knowledge,

others insist on the unique character of artistic research, or else they question the validity of

1 Dan Flavin, “Some Other Comments … More Pages from a Spleenish Journal,” Artforum 6, no. 4 (December

1967): 20–25, esp. 21.

2 Flavin, “Some Other Comments” (note 1), 21; Flavin, “Some Remarks … Excerpts from a Spleenish Journal,”

Artforum 5, no. 4 (December 1966): 27–29, esp. 27.


scientific terms in art studies, and even of fundamental dependence on research, based as it

is on recent scientific‐historical tendencies. Like the Flavin case, our own situation generally

is complex and antagonistic. Every position taken toward content enters into constantly

changing power configurations where the notion of canonisation – especially in an art

historical perspective – immediately generates debate.

Starting from the work of London‐based Swiss artist Uriel Orlow, I shall try to delineate the

complex setting of the current debate on art and research between artistic practice,

educational policy, and engagement of the art institutional establishment and its trends so

as to frame a rough thesis on how canonisation might be used strategically.

Pictures – Deposits

Deposits is the title for a group of four works which Uriel Orlow first showed together in an

Exhibition 2002 in Brighton’s Media Centre Gallery. All four works address the current

Western interest in how the Holocaust might be represented. Orlow examines this theme by

following the widely differing ties of the catastrophe to four different locations. In 1942

(Poznan) – the first part of Deposits – a camera loop shows an ambiguous interior: a

swimming pool in current use that reveals itself to have been a Synagogue, reconstructed for

sport during the Nazi occupation. We make this discovery only slowly; the gradual disclosure

evokes more than could the recognition of either purpose alone, whether Synagogue or

swimming pool. This perception of fusion challenges our understanding by subjecting it to

gradual processing. Some time is required, as we slowly track with the camera, before we

are able to identify the architecture at all, and only then do we perceive its weird

rearrangement. Even the cantor’s voice, which fades in at the moment the water becomes

visible, does not account for the situation, but supplies another layer of the ambiguous

constellation. Yet even when we have deciphered these incompatible ingredients in the

building’s current state, it requires another step to localise the fragments in time, space and

culture. And exactly that process seems to open a wide range of possible readings for the

engaged observer. This does not mean that interpretation is nothing more than personal


opinion, because the process proves that an image contains much more than one can

identify in its single components. I shall return to this thought in a moment.

While holding an artist residency at the Wiener Library in London in 2000, Uriel Orlow

commenced his Inside the Archive, a work completed only in 2006. This slide show tours

storage and office spaces of the library usually not accessible to visitors. Soon one notices

that the pictures do not limit themselves to a fixed point of view. Quite ordinary images of a

depository for books are followed by precise focus on astonishing details. All in all, a huge

array of insights reveals an area normally closed off and which would seem not to offer the

thrill of secrets.

Also in 2000, Uriel Orlow began two other projects forming the cycle called Deposits,

which are closely linked with Inside the Archive. The Wiener Library video shows the library’s

exterior, scrolling across it with the archive’s alphabetical thesaurus for nearly 90 minutes,

from beginning to end of the alphabet. Critical here is the system of cross‐references within

the thesaurus, which not only structures the vast collection but also interconnects keywords

and therefore opens up the linear organisation of the archive. Housed Memory, the other

such project, finished in 2005, comprises a nine‐hour tracking shot of every shelf in the

library, registering the complete holdings. The slowly moving portrait of this collection is

overlayed by personal narrations of staff members, touching on both the Holocaust itself

and their work within this institution.

These images are presented in a documentary style, with the outtakes remaining

unedited and the cinematic flow staying rather slow and displaying no special effects. The

voice‐overs are not fictional narrations but instead are informative additions. Nevertheless,

the way in which these two pictures have been produced deprives them of an authentic

documentary style, thereby foregoing any sort of plea for demanding views of painful

representations of crime, as in the work of Artur Zmijewski, for example. Orlow deliberately

chooses to establish a mode of treating images of unspeakable and omnipresent pain in an

oblique fashion, consciously stepping around attention to how posterity manages to

commemorate catastrophe in daily life. This approach instead situates the two films

between their offer of archival potential and the subjectively driven interest which they

display in the fact of a personal collection. Both films position themselves between neutral


elatively cinematics and the collector’s perspective. It is exactly this medial attitude toward

the status of the image’s power that Orlow developing in some of his essays, written during

his work on Deposits.


In approaching Uriel Orlow’s writings, my intention is twofold. Not only do I wish to discuss

the work as a whole, treating his own reading of theoretical texts, his essays, and his recent

lecture‐performances as integral parts of his artistic practice and intellectual approach. I also

wish to situate his work in the educational landscape which in the last year has shown a

growing interest in theory‐based artistic procedures.

After taking a Master’s Degree in Philosophy, Aesthetics and Literature at the University of

Geneva in 2002, Orlow completed a PhD at the University of the Arts in London. Part of this

doctoral work was a theoretical reflection on Chris Marker’s film ‘La Jetée,’ whose content

has no direct link with Deposits. In his analysis, Orlow was interested in “the critical power of

a work of art. This critical power is seen to be produced by paradoxes which are particular to

it and have the potential to infiltrate theoretical debates in the form of contradictions.” 3

The same attitude underlies his reflections about the function of visual resources, again by

having recourse to films by Chris Marker and situating them between archive and collection.

This interest in contradiction is marked not only by the different functions of the films but

also by their diverse claims. Whereas an archive stands for an accumulation of culturally

valuable material, a collection is always strongly shaped by the collector’s singular

perspective. In his text, Orlow pleads for equal presences of both aspects, both in Marker’s

work and his own. With respect to the Deposit group, this means that images are not only

meant to be deciphered but also to productively foster various kinds of reception, a process

the art historian William Mitchell suggested in his concept of the dynamic image. Within

such a concept, the notion of visual production remains open regardless of the

interpretation brought to it.

3 Uriel Orlow, referring to his PhD on his personal website: http://www.urielorlow.net/publications/books/time_again.html


This plea for a different understanding of images must be read as a critique of traditional

and even recent cinematic theory. Orlow’s contribution to this highly topical issue offers its

argument on different levels. Not only is he aware of current theoretical debates on visual

memory culture; he also develops artistic strategies for intervening in them. Therefore, a

work like Housed Memory, which for nine hours surveys the spines of books in the Wiener

Library, not only reminds us of the “impossible totality of which the archive and its collection

are a metaphor” 4 but also of the choice facing us as observers, whether to sit through the

whole thing or not: an effect the philosopher Günther Amendt called the “prometheisches

Gefälle” or Promethean gradient, alluding to the fact that human beings are more and more

inclined to do things which completely escape their emotional comprehension. 5


Dan Flavin’s use of a scientific vocabulary to describe what his intentions were with his

fluorescent light installation was part of the rejection of the art system in the 1960s, that is

essentially of modernist tradition. The quick and all‐embracing adoption of his artistic

gesture as an individual style nicely exemplifies the process of canonisation in the current art

world, where avant‐garde tendencies achieve firm integration with the help of gallery

owners, critics, art historians, curators and artists themselves. Flavin’s attempt to escape this

profitable, claustrophobic embrace with an reach outward toward science at the very outset

of his work could – with Rancière – be understood as an “escape” and even “breaking” of the

“division between disciplines.” 6 My guess is that the same thing is at stake today in the field

of artistic research and its process of acceptance: by canonising methodologies, questions,

approaches or other possible aspects we risk creating a style – not comparable merely to

handwriting but rather as mechanisms of reception activated by special pleading for a

specific perspective. Therefore, I advocate a strategy of intervention where cooperation

among shared interests builds a point of departure. This strategy follows Rancière’s concept

4 Uriel Orlow in conversation with Eric Jacobson, in: Deposits 2006, p. 28.

5 On the so‐called Promethean gradient, see Günther Anders, Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen, 1956 (Vol. 1) and 1980 (Vol.


6 Rancière quoted in: Jacques Rancière and the (Re)Distribution of the Sensible: Five Lessons in Artistic Research, in: Art &

Research, Vol. 2, No. 1, Summer 2008, Editorial, p. 4.


of an ‘interdisciplinary’ approach, where fundamental questioning greets the territories and

their actors, all those who define who is “qualified to think about form and those regarded

as unqualified, those who do the science and those who are regarded as its objects”. 7 In my

view, Orlow and his work exemplify this strategy. Besides presenting his work in an artistic

context, he also took part in scientific conferences where he discussed his analysis of Chris

Marker. According to oral reports, he showed only mild interest in that kind of exchange, I

suppose because he was invited not as an artist‐colleague of Marker’s but as a specialist on

Marker’s s films in a limited disciplinary setting.

I strongly sympathise with this strategy and the attitude that supports it. In line with their

direction, I would like to conclude with a plea for a form of canonisation which focuses on

conditions and shared interest rather than on stylistic definitions. By asserting claims for

adequate grants, for example – which in terms of rough parity would assure a research

process like that enjoyed by scientists – we also ask for egalitarian treatment of this research

which I think is still necessary to do.

7 Rancière cit. op.


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