Tacita Dean, Against the Grain of the Archive

By | September 23, 2014

     During our readings for this week I kept being reminded of our discussion from our last class, specifically the idea of understanding the archive by reading with and against its grain. This concept seems important to me in understanding the context of an archive or collection, its place within a culture, society or time period. If we acknowledge that some things are left out of archives, and often for very specific reasons, we are left with the specter of the missing information, which to me is incredibly interesting.

    I was especially struck with the work of Tacita Dean as discussed by Hal Foster in Archival Impulse. Her use of archival research to commemorate a particular human and their failures struck me as somehow anti-archival, or perhaps a hacked archive, in that it reversed the traditional rules of what gets remembered in an archive. If the information in the archive becomes what can be remembered and spoken of as history (A la Foucault), we know that what we are allowed to remember is actually also subjective. Bringing to mind the famous Winston Churchill quote “history is written by the victors”, What does not usually become a part of history, and arguably the archive, are the failures or unremarkable. Dean addresses these ideas through her works like Girl Stowaway that use archival technique to understand the history of a person whose journey and life may otherwise have not been considered something to remember. In the last paragraph of his paper, Foster concludes:

       “ The desire to turn belatedness into becomingness, to recoup failed visions in art, literature and philosophy, and everyday life into possible scenarios of     alternative kinds of social relations…”

    Here Foster articulates what I find important and interesting about Dean’s work. To archive these failures somehow allows us to correct the path of history for these people, using the idea of archiving as an active tool rather than a static container to hold information. Making these stories meaningful, through the simple act of remembrance, we acknowledge the romanticism of these failures and humanity within them. I think it’s important that Foster noted the lack of irony in the works of these archival artist, who are more earnestly interested in the application of archive as art then than the distance between traditional archives and the ones they produce.

Tacita Dean, Clovers from her personal collection

One thought on “Tacita Dean, Against the Grain of the Archive

  1. shannon Post author

    “using the idea of archiving as an active tool rather than a static container to hold information” — beautiful. This reminds me of another “archival aesthetic” concept I referred to in last week’s class: Allan Sekula’s counter-forensics through photography: using photography to recuperate erased lives in/for the archive.


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