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Anthony Auerbach

‘Work’, statement by Anthony Auerbach on joining the Theory Department, Jan van Eyck Academie, 9 January 2007

I’ve got fifteen minutes to try to describe some aspects of my practice and my theoretical concerns, and to hint at how they are intertwined. [You are] going to read this to stop myself rambling. In any case I hope this is just the start of a two-year conversation.

I’m joining the Theory Department in the research group The Pensive Image. I understand The Pensive Image more as a metaphor than a hypothesis. It is a potentially provocative notion, but it isn’t a question of whether thinking images actually exist (as James Elkins pointed out —it’s not as if we were in search of weeping statues). The Pensive Image suggests to me an enquiry into the relationships between thoughts and images — or to be precise, because it would be difficult to maintain that seeing is independent of thinking — it is about the entanglement of images and thoughts and our relationships as thinking subjects with image-objects. From the title — The Pensive Image — spreads a potentially vast topic. It runs the risk of overwhelming the objects which prompted the study in the first place and of itself being overwhelmed by philosophical generalisations. In my work, I have tried to cultivate zones of resistance where concrete objects continually interrupt the free flow of theory.

The topic of my doctoral thesis — which I intend to develop during my tenancy at Jan van Eyck — was Structural Constellations, concretely: a series of graphic works by Josef Albers from the 1950s. In my thesis, I allowed Albers’s work to shape my attention to it in a series of digressions. Instead of an incursion on the work, it was an excursus on it.

My aim was to find a way of elucidating a body of work which has proven resistant to interpretation and has been largely neglected by art historians. The challenge Structural Constellations represent, I argue, stems from specific strategies of production deployed by the artist, which emerge as a lure: drawing the customary discourse of art history and criticism into the entanglements of its own inheritance. This forced me deal not only with the problem of locating such austerely abstract works in a credible historical context, but also of identifying the epistemological conditions of this undertaking and forming a critical assessment of the historiographic discourse in which it is embedded.

I traced the modalities of the term Konstellation in the works and personal writings of Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno. I examined how this concept was traded between the two writers and its role in their shared philosophical project, evolving from Benjamin’s early speculations on language to Adorno’s last work, Aesthetic Theory. Exploring the graphic forms of constellation, I undertook a semiotic ‘assay’ of star maps, that is: a test of their quality and purity as signs, which would explain how discrete data like the stars become star-signs and can thus be inscribed in the inventory of knowledge. The interpretation of Peirce’s semiotics I advanced in this study also helped me interpret mapping figures such as projections and grids which appear again in the context of art production, especially with the introduction of perspective. ‘Epistemological wish-images’ was the heading for a series of investigations highlighting the entanglement of art and geometry. Albers’s works turned up at the tail end of a series of episodes in which I assessed the rhetorics of geometry that supported the claims of Renaissance art theorists as well as the ambitions of the twentieth-century avant-gardes. My studies strayed from orthodox art-historical territory in order to show how shifting claims to truth, objectivity and representation are mediated by scientific, academic and polytechnic traditions, and furthermore how the migration of signs can preserve contradictory or archaic notions.

Josef Albers’s Structural Constellations are not, as contemporary critics suggested, the late products of a defunct European avant-garde, but, I argue, establish a reflective and critical relationship with the aspirations of the earlier Modernist movements as well as with Albers’s own cultural milieu in the United States in the 1950s. The aporetic character of the works suggests an approach to configuring a critical understanding of our Modernist inheritance and how it has been transmitted.

My historical and theoretical speculations were counterbalanced by an inventory of some 1,500 previously uncatalogued drawings by Josef Albers which formed the companion volume to my thesis.


There are two themes I would like to mention which emerge from this research and other aspects of my work, which I hope will also hint at an approach to interpreting the notion of The Pensive Image.

The first is the ‘dialectical image’, which is a term used by Walter Benjamin in his late reflections on the theory of knowledge. The idea is bound up with the notions of ‘constellation’ and ‘monad’ which he began to elaborate as early as 1916, but it is more than an attempt to align his ‘materialistic historiography’ with orthodox Marxism: [in his words] ‘to conjoin a heightened graphicness to the realisation of the Marxist method.’[note 1] It has a connection with a more extravagant, indeed paradoxical, ‘attempt [as he wrote] to procure a view of astrology from which the doctrine of magical “influences,” of “radiant energies,” and so on has been excluded.’[note 2] Or, as he wrote to Adorno, it belongs to the process which had ‘led the entire conceptual mass of this material [that is, his research for the so-called Arcades Project], originally motivated as it was by metaphysical concerns, towards a final shape in which the world of dialectical images is immune to all objections that can be raised by metaphysics.’[note 3]

The idea of the dialectical image poses the questions: Under what conditions is a thing a dialectical image? Under what conditions is a dialectical image a thing? What does the objectivity of the dialectical image demand of the subject? and What, in fact, does this objectivity owe to the subject?

The second theme I want to mention is what may be called ‘meta-praxis’. The meta-praxis of image-making is a development of method which introduces the kind of reflexivity which could easily prompt the thought that images are themselves thinking. Meta-praxis is a practice which reflects on its own conditions of production and reception. Within a particular discipline, it is both an internal affair and a transgression of the norm because it tends to highlight conventional aspects of the discipline, indeed to expose its ideological apparatus. Meta-praxis cannot be serious. It is no surprise that Josef Albers was an admirer of Saul Steinberg, the cartoonist. For what it shares with a joke — namely, the potential of unmasking, the subversion of expected roles — meta-praxis pays the same price. Meta-praxis by definition does not stand wholly within disciplinary boundaries. Addressing the subject across disciplinary boundaries, meta-praxis challenges the supposed autonomy and authority of disciplinary praxis.

The emblem of meta-praxis is the ‘mise en abîme’. Mise en abîme is a term supposedly derived from heraldry for a recursive figure in which the whole is repeated in a part. It is sometimes used in literary criticism to denote analogous figures such as, for example, the play-within-a-play in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It is also popularly associated in the Netherlands with the Droste brand of cocoa whose packaging features a picture of a nun holding a packet of cocoa which features a picture of nun holding a packet of cocoa ... It’s the same with the Vache qui rit and her earrings.


This is Enemy Contact, an installation by Uli Aigner at the Freud Museum, London. It was one of a group of interventions by Uli in the house where Sigmund Freud spent the last year of his life and where Anna Freud lived and worked until 1982. Uli paved the lobby of the house with mirrors, so visitors to the museum had no choice but to step on the mirrors and in doing so, most likely break them, thus adding to the tracery of cracks which evolved over the time the piece was installed.

I organised the exhibition, so I had to deal with it when the museum was threatened with closure if the installation was not removed. It was no use explaining to the health and safety inspectors that although it was designed to look scary, it was not really dangerous. I had the possibility of installing the work in another place, but that left me with the job of moving 20 square metres of broken mirrors without breaking them. The result was this. The same, but different.

It was in this state that I made it the site of my own work. I carried out an inspection of the surface of Enemy Contact in the form of an aerial survey. That is to say, I made a photographic record of the surface using a technique modelled on the kind of aerial survey used for military reconnaissance, cartography, geology, archaeology and so on. It consists of a series of overlapping, vertical photographs covering the target area in a systematic way.

Enemy Contact Surface was my second survey, a second reflection on identity and a second reflection on the apparatus of looking. My first was this, an aerial survey of the floor in my studio in about 400 photographs. Planet, as I called this piece, recorded every fold and wrinkle of my carpet under an evening light as if in a topographic survey of a landscape. This work closes and, arguably, recapitulates, a cycle of work — more than ten years of drawings — which I completed in that studio. In so far as this surface records the traces of my inhabitation — this is how a geographer or archaeologist would look at an aerial photograph — it’s the nearest I got to autobiography. Afterwards I got rid of the carpet.

Enemy Contact Surface is an appropriation, and in this respect touches on the cartographic functions of aerial photography. However, this treacherous surface is all but invisible, apart from the tracery of cracks where the rectangular mirror-panels were broken underfoot. The reflective surface moreover, returns the downward gaze of the camera and repeats it.

An aerial survey is not a picture. And it is not a map either. The systematic character of the recording lends the survey an order which the surface under inspection did not have. Fragmented and reassembled, the surface gets the semblance of coherence. An aerial survey suggests the possibility of ‘reading’ a material surface, of deciphering its marks and traces, but brings it only to the threshold of knowledge and calls for interpretation. In turn, interpretation requires an apparatus.

My Aerial Reconnaissance project for the International Necronautical Society Inspectorate Berlin brought this aspect to the fore. I used the same very-low-altitude aerial survey technique examine the erasure of traces in the city of Berlin, the World Capital of Death, as the International Necronautical Society (INS for short) designated it. My work was ‘focused [as the INS official communiqué put it] on the identification and surveillance of sites of erasure, specifically: locations where no trace can be found of incidents or persons of interest to the INS; where there is evidence of attempts to cover or erase the traces of incidents or persons; where there is evidence of attempts to conceal the erasure. Such sites may be recognised by the presence of monumental architecture, memorial plaques and the like.’

Outdoors, specular reflection off the surfaces under inspection returned not only the look of the camera, but also an image of the sky, making the aerial photograph a photograph of air; turning the sky into the abyssal depth of the surface, nonetheless marked.

Here is where I stop[ped] talking because fifteen minutes [was] up. If you are curious, then talk to me.

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  1. Walter Benjamin, Arcades Project, ed. by Rolf Tiedemann, trans. by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge, MA and London: Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 1999) p. 461. [back to text]
  2. ‘On Astrology’ in Selected Writings Volume II 1927–1934, ed. by Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland and Gary Smith, trans. by Rodney Livingstone et al (Cambridge, MA and London: Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 684. [back to text]
  3. Theodor W. Adorno and Walter Benjamin, Complete Correspondence 1928–1940, ed. by Henri Lonitz, trans. by Nicholas Walker (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1999), p. 89. [back to text]