5. Okwui Enwezor and Archive Fever Exhibition 2008

5. Okwui Enwezor writing on the archive Fever Exhibition 2008

Okwui Enwezor is a Nigerian curator, art critic, writer, poet and educator, specializing in art history, living in New York City and Munich (where he is the director of the Haus der Kunst non-collecting art museum). The paper provided to read is the introduction in the catalogue of  an exhibition Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art   which he organized at the International Center of Photography (ICP) New York in May 2008.

This Exhibition presented works by contemporary artists (from the 1960s to the then present) who were using photographic images to ‘to rethink the meaning of identity, history, memory, and loss and, in doing so, utilising the concept of the archival influence as a means of structuring the meaning of images and the way we look at history. The Exhibition explored the ways in which artists ‘appropriated, interpreted, reconfigured and  interrogated archival structures and materials’, thus subverting the intention and structure of specific archives – albeit being invited to do so.  The site link provides access to a PDF of the media release which gives a useful overview of the aims and content of the Exhibition and I have also a full set of notes from my reading of the Enwezor’s essay.

What follows is my summary of what struck me as points to consider. My further thoughts are included in italics.

 Photography and the Archive

  • Photography is simultaneously the documentary evidence and the archival record of such transactions – Because the camera is literally an archiving machine, every photograph, every film is a priori an archival object. (p.12)
  • The making of a photograph is part of a construction of aide-memoires …. A mechanism of time travel through which we return to the past, compiling indexes of comparisons and tables of facts that generate their own public and private meanings (p.13)
  • As everyday users become distributors of archival content across an unregulated field of image sharing …. The photograph becomes the sovereign analogue of identity, memory, and history, joining past and present, virtual and real, thus giving the photographic document the aura of an anthropological artefact and the authority of a social instrument. I look at the photographs in my archive and, in remembering and recollecting, re-create different versions of my history
  • Beyond the realm of the snapshot is another empire … connected to a more regulative, bureaucratic, institutional order that invigilates and exercises control over bodies and identities. This links with Allan Sekula’ essay, e.g. Bertillon’s ‘criminals’ and Francis Galton’s ‘the racially inferior’.

Archive as Form





  • Marcel Duchamp and his “La boite-en-valise (1935-41) “not only a sly critique of the museum as institution and the artwork as artefact, it is fundamentally also about form and concept” (p.14). I didn’t know about this art form of a museum in a suitcase when I put my own photographs into boxes. It just seemed a natural thing to do. An example of the way in which artists structure artistic thinking.
  • Gerhard Richter and “Atlas”(1964-present) . Enwezor refers to Lynne Cooke’s view that this ‘collection’, arranged on loose sheets of paper, “… hovers between the promise of taxonomic order as divulged in the archive and the total devastation of that promise…” (p.19)In respect of the ‘archival impulse’  as identified by Hal Foster, artists interrogate the claims of the archive by reading it against the grain .
  • The concept of ‘archive’ depends on an innate (recognized?) structure If every archive is organised in a similar way, following particular rules then it is accessible by those who know the rules. There’s anarchy though in an ‘archive’ consisting of fragments, individual photographs and documents in no particular order.  There is a freedom in that though to make of it what you will, to de-construct received wisdom and look at it another way. I’m thinking here of GRAIN’s collaboration with Birmingham City Library Archives for instance or of Walker Evans “taking back” his images from the FAS archives.

Intelligence Failure/Archival Disappointment

  • Enwezor gives several examples here – one is how the principles of espionage were used in the British Empire’s search for knowledge and the mapping of unknown territory in Tibet. This to be conducted by ‘native explorers’ who were actually a network of Hindu pundit spies from the Indian Himalayas. Enwezor refers to Peter Hopkirk’s’s tracing of this story and how the survey may equal Google Maps for its pinpoint precision.
  • Mention of Google Maps – reminds me of how this has been used to discover that which is hidden/secret, e.g. the work of Mischa Henner, and how Google Earth suppresses some of its aspects ‘in the interest of national security’. I’m not going to write about Iraq and the WMD because it’ll make me feel to angry.

Documents into Monuments: Archives as Meditations on Time

  • How artists may undertake to “memorize’ the monuments of the past, transform them into ‘documents’ and so ‘lend speech to those traces which, in themselves, are often not verbal, or which say in silence something other than what they actually say’. For example, in the late 1970s Craigie Horsefield travelled in pre-Solidarity Polance with a large format camera and “worked as if he were bearing witness to the slow declension of an era, along with a whole category of people soon to be swept away by the forces of change” (p. 24). The captions indicate the date of the making of the photograph next to the year of its full realization as a work, “in doing so he calls our attention to the importance of archival time in the consideration of the image”. Here the time of making functions as a shadow archive next to the flat panel of the large-scale print. There is further information here .
  • I have previously referred to Walid Raad and his fictional Collective “The Atlas Group”  whose aim is to research and document Lebanon’s contemporary history.  The collection brings together both ‘found’  and and invented ‘documents’ of everyday life in Lebanon.Included are ‘documents’ from the estate of a fictional Lebanese historian, Dr Fadl Fakbouri who took a photograph in Beiurut everytime he thought the civil was was over. This includes a film that “….. testifies to the lasting hope for peace and normality and the will to capture these hopeful moments in pictures, in the awareness of their transience”
  • A more recent example is the work of photographer Keith Roberts who developed a response to commercial photographic portraits, shot in Liverpool by the photographer Edward Chambre Hardman between 1923 and 1963. The Collection is held at Liverpool Central Library  . There is a video on the OCA site here where Keith discusses this work – for those who can access it 

Archive and Public Memory

  • This concerns interrogation of the photographic archive, “as a historical site that exists between evidence and document, public memory and private history” eg Andy Warhol’s grids of images taken from media reports  and Hans-Peter Feldmann’s project “9/12 Front Page (2001) ” a collection of material from different media sources concerning one momentous event “implicitly asks the viewer whether it can be treated as a work of art or merely a kind of public testimony.” (p.30)


I have only referred to a few of the artists included in the Exhibition, all of whom are fascinating and I became very absorbed in their work, some of which I may come back to later in Part 2.