Donation: The Archive (on Joseph Beuys) (2005)

I wrote this unpublished text at the time of meeting a prominent private collector of Beuys's work.

Donation: The Archive

When Joseph Beuys accepted the Wilhelm Lehmbruck prize in 1986, shortly before his death, he opened his speech with thanks to a man who had died before Beuys even was born. Beuys opened his speech with this thanks:

I would like to thank my teacher, Wilhelm Lehmbruck. How could a man cause me to decide, once and for all, to devote myself to sculpture after I came across just a fragment of his work in the form of a photograph? How could a dead man teach me something like that, establishing something decisive for my life, when I had already taken another direction in my own search and was already in the middle of studying the natural sciences? I picked up this little book, lying on some table between other fairly battered publications, completely by chance, opened it, and saw a sculpture by Wilhelm Lehmbruck, and there immediately arose the idea, the intuition: Sculpture—something can be done with sculpture. It was as if that picture were telling me—Everything is sculpture. And in the picture I saw a torch, I saw a flame, and I heard the words: “Protect the flame!”

         Everything that can be said about the archive, everything that an archive is, is, by chance, in this story, in this offering of thanks, whose very possibility derives from transmission and destruction. The fragment and the photograph: the fragment the photograph is—the document that is its physical photographic record, the fragmentary document it remains, half destroyed by an historical event—has intervened, by the chance of a decisive event of discovery, to be the transmission of a teaching. Thanks to a fire that half destroyed, this fragment became a flame, transmitting an inheritance: a teaching and a social ideal—“the renewal of the social totality, leading to social sculpture.” So says this teacher just days before his own death, “in the last moment of his life,” as he says of Lehmbruck, “when he had passed through the gate of the death of his own sculptures.”
        Expressing solidarity, Beuys concludes that he would “like to stand on the side where Wilhelm Lehmbruck lived and died, and where he entrusted every single person with this inner message: ‘Protect the flame.’” Expressing solidarity with a teacher and a teaching, how could Beuys stand on the side of life and death, on these two sides? In the book that fitfully housed the decisive, eventful photograph, Beuys noted (after saying that “Lehmbruck’s exceptional work touched a threshold situation within the concept of sculpture”) Lehmbruck’s “twice-over youth,” having lived for 19 years in the 19th century and 19 in our own.” Beuys says of the symmetry of this life-line, which is also the repetition of a renewal, that “I experienced all that in a concentrated form, like a double portrait of a young man or young woman, or of a young woman and a young man.” Standing there, on that side where his teacher lived and died, on that side, which is already double and already a portrait, Beuys would be standing where making would be, his making: the making of him and the making of his art, societal and artifactual. On that “side,” which is already double and already a portrait, Beuys would stand. This non-place would mark him, in life and death; it would account for him, accounting for his life, his art, and through the extension of his “social sculpture,” society. The non-place with which he sides, let me immediately wager my speculation, is an archive—an archive, which by chance, he was destined to. This null place, let me speculate again, this side of a both-and (life and death) that even accounts for the double (the either-or or both-and of man and woman), is the chora or chiasmus. The archive would be a crucible, but only through conflagration—the crucible of a conflagration. All this, Beuys “experienced” in a concentrated form. From fire to flame. In the violence of an archive.
       Conflagration was war. The conflagration was the Second World War. The decisive photograph was rescued from fire. If we can believe Beuys, he rescued this fragment from a National Socialist book-burning at his school around 1938 and then rediscovered the photograph in the Lehmbruck book he recounts while on military leave in 1940-41.
       The question of the archive passes through war, through the fires of war. Just as the event displaces, dislocates, and disjoints space and time, devastating the categories of spatiality and temporality with the same violence as war, so there can be no rescue and recovery through the archive. There is no before and after when it comes to the archive. The archive does not follow destruction from which we rescue the remains, the displaced fragments from a devastated life-world, to deposit them safe within newly consigned categories. There is no before and after the event of the archive (the archive after the event) because the archive is of this destruction. The archive does not derive but arises from conditions of destruction: it “destroys in advance.” The archive is its own violence. The archive passes through war and the war that it is. This is the donation of the archive of what it houses, the gift in advance of what it archives. Yes, devastation is also a gift, the gift of the archive.
       The archive passes through destruction, through the devastating wars of historical events. So we must go by way of Germany and the Second World War, by way of all the questions of that event. The archive: a German question? The archive will be a question of the folding of events in each other. The question: the archive—the Jewish Question?
        Jacques Derrida does not ask this question directly, but it must be implied when he asks the question whether psychoanalysis is a science and Jewish, a Jewish science. He raises this question where it arises, and asks the question of its consequence for a theory of the archive, science, or history in general. He asks this question within an archive, asking it of an archive, asking what is an archive, where it possibly begins or ends; he asks these questions while delivering a lecture, “The Concept of the Archive: A Freudian Impression,” in London’s Freud Museum. A future question, a question of the future, the question of the archive, the question of archival meaning, will transform all our notions of sciences as it has already formed them in the history of their events.
      Of the concept of the archive that in the future must be part of the concept of any science, likewise Beuys concludes: “Sculpture is a concept of the future per se—and woe to those conceptions that do not include this concept.” Beuys’s work was always destined to the archive it was.

To be continued….


And this is an email I sent around the same time to this collector, who also is involved with the founding of a prominent archive. The text deals with the gift, the archive, the event, and destruction--and touches on many of the themes developed in my book Disassembling the Archive: Fiona Tan.


So what is this writing I disclaim responsibility though I send it to you under my name? I can only intrigue myself and wonder if it was an event, another event, an event rupturing the first, not returning to it mirroring it, but folding in it so that before after is now only this rupturing together of what may bring the two of us together: the passion of sharing a gift of your passion, the gift that ruptured by being the insight that brought two things together, or many, no revelation or key, no meaning, but only the thing, the hinge, the articulation between two that folds one in the other, drawing one through the other, inhabiting in an uncanny moment, yet still dissembling one in the other, neither deluding the other but finding what each share in the other and only through which one was alive in this world, in thought, in society, in culture, and in themselves and the other somehow as an image of all they were alive in and to, without comprehension, and which itself shows no comprehension as a thing of knowledge other than what it is, a rupture of time that may show ruptures and devastations of the things of the world that were there and through that disruption no more—these images, photographs, that have no meaning but signifying the destruction of war. Yet what you revealed in this rupture that brought so many things to each other, so many things that I have no time to unfold in the immediate folding of the many in each other that happens immediately in the event of the gift of an insight given. Did you “know” you were doing this, giving me this gift, or was it the gift in you, the gift already in you that was also a passion, a delight to share, yes, but that passion, an obsession really, whereby in the cohesiveness of that unarticulated curiosity, which is yet the intelligent and expressed articulation of an interest, finds the articulation that is the hinge, the dissembling mirror of one in the other that in one togetherness that is a holding together for this moment in the giving of this gift to me, and that will immediately diverge into all those divergent paths that are yet together right now in this rupture, but yet will immediately diverge into all those paths which will take time for us to follow in an adventure that may be of two but is nothing but social, of society, of history, because the gift beyond us binds all that together through us and in us two? So what is the gift, the gift of this insight but the revealing of an interest that unites or unites us in an interest to be shared in the difference of what one brings the other? What is this gift but bringing out of myself of the not wanting to ask you anything except the sharing of a gift, which is nothing but a conversation we started but now becomes through this rupturing turning inside out that brings language forth out of me that is of this not wanting to ask anything of you, what is this articulation coming out through this gift of exposure of an insight but an articulation of a proposal, a project—some thing which is the want from the other that can be no demand? The gift here is merely the talk of a thing: an artifact that is both a social thing as the archival record of history/society and the index of a biography. What is brought together in this thing but many things: it is a thing that is a folding through of one thing in the other, though one may be an actual thing and the other an image, though one may be individual and the other society, though one may be a material artifact we call art and the other an image of time we call an archival photograph, unauthored and unintended because with no meaning intended or now attended, except that it is an “image” of intentionalities otherwise called social life, society and history, but yet rests here only a cipher in an archive. All these things are joined in this artifactual thing. Though how can one thing, sign, or image be a registration or index of two that yet folds the two together—history and individual, archive and art—except a folding through of one in the other through this articulating thing, the articulating hinge—the thing which you have found and of which you tell me? The articulating thing or the articulating hinge does not explain, point, or signify, but only, as all it is, which is all, by which I mean all, all that there is and all that has been, only brings them together in the way they belong together as this folding of one in the other, all folding one in the other, showing and revealing for an instant, but not explaining the way that these things are together which have been disrupted by the destructions of war, time, and categories of knowledge that now come together by this gift of articulating of the articulating hinge, as the dispersal of what has been destroyed and brought together to reside together only through an uncanny inhabitation, which has yet to be made familiar each to the other and to us, which have been brought together from within/without all these disjunctions and devastations to belong together divergently in the intelligence of a curiosity that brought them together. This is the gift you give, D., by bringing these devastating divergences together. Who do you give this gift to, to what thing, or to what time if not first to the past? You give it to the present as a gift that will unfold in the future of a bringing together of the divergent things divested from one another, though they always diverge returning folding to the other in a divergence, a folding together that yet has been disrupted by devastation where time and history work to the same ends of devastation as if war and the war that they are. This will be the gift for the future to itself of how these fold together in their belonging, which will also be a belonging destined to the future if they receive it as a gift. This insightful bringing together of the devastated and disrupted divergent is your gift, D.. You tracked these divergent things through a belonging that was your curiosity and obsession. This is gift enough for the future of these things belonging together in an archive (secure but still divested of their generative folds), but it will still not satisfy the curiosity of one, you, who followed these divergent paths as a need to find the similar within the dissimilar through the articulation of an obsession. Then you gave me the gift to bring them together for myself. That event—the gift is an event, the event is a gift—folded and unfolded so many things and joined things to a new belonging: that beginning articulation I then made of something of a project and path we might share.