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.