‘Work’, statement by Anthony Auerbach on joining the Theory Department, Jan van Eyck Academie, 9 January 2007
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
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
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,
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
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.
return: On theory
return: Jan van Eyck Academie
- 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
Astrology’ in Selected Writings Volume
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]
- Theodor W. Adorno
and Walter Benjamin, Complete Correspondence
ed. by Henri Lonitz, trans. by Nicholas Walker (Cambridge: Polity
Press, 1999), p. 89. [back to text]