Hanne Darboven at Camden Arts Centre: The Wire, March 2012

Hanne Darboven
Camden A
rts Centre,
London, UK

You wait ages for a Hanne Darboven exhibition to arrive and then two come at once. Well, kind of. This severest of German conceptual artists (Darboven died in 2009) has her first British solo show at Camden Arts Centre and – strangely unrelated in time – March’s AV Festival is staging the British premier of Darboven’s Requiem (2009), an organ work based on the transcription of dates from the start to finish of the 20th century, and with some quotations from Ligeti, Brahms and Bach to sweeten the path.

Where to start with Darboven’s work? Series of framed sheets of writing paper covered with grids of numbers, cursive handwritings – a kind of not-writing – fill its walls. The sepulchral tones and repetitive figures of the artist’s work for organ, 24 Gesänge, Opus 15, 15, A, B (1984), seep in from an adjacent gallery. In all things, there is a sense of the unfinished (where, after all, do the sequences end?), which is another way of highlighting the infinite. The relentlessness of her serial systemisation – and the presentation of her systemisation – is virtually unbroken except for a drawing table placed at the centre of a gallery. Darboven used the table for her two years in New York in the mid-60s; on it lies a sheet of paper where she had scribbled phone numbers, tried out pencils and noted the death dates of her pet goats (all, seemingly, named Mickey) to whom she sometimes co-credited her work.

It’s not an understatement to say that the first impression of Darboven’s work is overwhelming. But then it is meant to be and Camden’s excellent show doesn’t baulk at the difficulty here. Darboven, a conceptualist in the way that On Kawara or Sol Le Witt were conceptualists, produced work in which a manifest laboriousness was important. It is work – like music – that exists in time, and all the more brave for it.

Although she is better known as a visual artist, music – its notation system, its scores, its performance – are an integral part of her work. While Darboven trained first as a pianist and organist before moving into visual work, music was never far from her production. Numbers, notes and letters were codes subject to transcriptions. That is why ten drawings on paper, a music stand and a hand-held fan has an equivalence to a happy birthday tune to her New York gallerist Leo Castelli or why the grids of Wende 80 (1980/81) – very much the turning point in her translation process that its title suggests – can be recorded on CDs. (Wende was in fact her debut performance at Castelli’s gallery.)

Yet the link between sight and sound in Darboven’s work has often been minimised. Not here. There is a pleasing focus on Darboven’s music: 24 Gesänge is accompanied by its visual component – multiples of framed sheets, postcards and vintage greetings cards, many commemorating first communions. Listening stations play her Requiem and – from Wende 80Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht (1980/81) – each work 11 CDS in length. Often, Darboven helps us make links ourselves. Another massive work – Vier Jahreszeiten (1981/82) – appears in the form of a silent film on a large monitor: rows and rows of numbers scroll across the screen. The patterns they make are incidental, but the reference to Vivaldi is apparent in the title.

It would be mistake to think of Darboven’s work as reductive in any way: if anything, it is extraordinary expansive. She sees, in the codes of everyday life, a way of harmonising art and work – and making an infinite point about our very finite existences.

Hanne Darboven 9 x 11 = 99 (detail) 1972 Courtesy Konrad Fischer Galerie, © Hanne Darboven Stiftung Photo: Angus Mill

© Louise Gray

Hanne Darboven: No time like the Schreibzeit

Hanne Darboven finally gets her first UK exhibition at the Camden Arts Centre, London, this month (20 January to 18 March 2012). Too bad it’s posthumous. Full details can be found at: www.camdenartscentre.org/exhibitions

Left: Hanne Darboven in 1994
(© dpa/ddp)

 What follows below is a text I wrote on my original blog site – http://whenthathelicoptercomes.blogspot.com – marking the occasion of Darboven’s death.

I am indebted to Elisabeth Lebovici at Le Beau Vice – http://le-beau-vice.blogspot.com –  for alerting me to the death on 9 March of Hanne Darboven (1941-2009), the Hamburg-based conceptual artist known best known for her visual work. Neither Darboven’s foundation nor a lengthy obituary in the Süddeutsche Zeitung (14 March) mention the cause of death. She was 67. Although Darboven’s work has been taken into collections worldwide, there’s has also been a corresponding neglect, at least in the English-speaking world, of the significance and range – in all its historic, aesthetic and political manifestations – of her work. Certainly there are honourable exceptions – one being Dan Adler’s volume on Darboven’s vast installation, Cultural History 1880-1983, that has recently been published by Afterall Books – but these are few. Why should this be? Can it simply be because, with the exception of a handful of years amongst the New York minimalists in the late 1960s, that her output was in Germany, that her language (in as much as she stuck to conventional language) was German? Surely not. If only for the benefit of the prurient interest of the British, the state of being German (and a German artist at that) in the late 20th century is synonymous with fascination. (Susan Sontag got that right.) More likely the reason for Darboven’s comparative neglect lies in the two aspects of her work: its vastness (warehouses were filled to their rafters with writings, pictures, found objects) and also its interdisciplinary nature. She did too much. Darboven, who had originally considered a career as a pianist before entering art school in Hamburg, was an artist for whom the production, the creation of that-which-was-outside-of-her, was both akin to living as well as a defence against a state of non-creation, that is, death. “We write so we are,” she once said – this in reference to the graphic works produced during her Schreibzeit (1975-80), a period of literally (pun intended) writing. There is something overwhelming about her work, and something also quite heroic. And in amongst all her assemblages, it’s Darboven’s work as a composer that been missed. Certainly while living New York in between 1966-68, she experienced the work of the minimalists as work that cut across disciplines with formidable élan. The collaborations of the period are well known – Philip Glass was at once time Richard Serra’s welder, for example. Charlemagne Palestine was known more for performance than performing. If it was this milieu that helped shape Darboven’s sense of how art could be manifest, it is possible that it was also an atmosphere that proposed systematic art. Although what’s come to be understood as minimalist music was, in many ways, a reaction against the limitations of twelve-tone composition, they had a discursive shape – one thinks of the inversions of form that characterises Glass’ early works. For Darboven, whose work was to develop its own way of devising systems – in a way that both played with order and hinted at its polar opposite – to involve herself in music was an obvious route. Just as she translated dates into numbers, so she turned numbers into music. The musicologist Wolfgang Marx, for many years Darboven’s orchestrator, told me: “What I always found interesting was that she translates her numbers into pitches, but does not plan for the organisation of other parameters like rhythm orchestration, dynamics, tempo, etc. She virtually always accepted my proposals regarding these parameters as long as the pitch structure was kept intact.” In other words (numbers? notes?) it’s the web of relationships that she was working on. (And the number of the possible relationships could be huge: Opus 60, for example, contains 120 separate parts.) Marx continued: “The repetitiveness of her scores lets one think of minimalism, but in my view this is rather deceiving. Unlike most minimalist pieces, hers are clearly teleological in that they ‘run their course’ through a given set of numbers and finish once it is completed.” Neglect is nothing new in the art world, but Darboven’s death is sad not least because it comes just at the point when younger artists, such as the Irish composer Jennifer Walshe, are discovering the German artist’s offer of freedom for themselves. In her recent Grúpat show at the Project Arts Centre in Dublin, Walshe staged a group show for nine artists – actually aspects of herself – and let them run riot. They created votaries, their own instruments, garden sheds and always musical scores – made from stones, string, drawings – and soundworks. In Grúpat’s over-determined universe, there was much that was playful, but there was also a deadly serious attempt to describe the world and the networks it throws up. And that is straight out of Hanne Darboven. Listeners can hear an excerpt from Hanne Darboven’s Requiem Opus 19 at: