Ute Vorkoeper, Intersecting Mementoes - Anna Oppermann's Ensemble Art, Report from the Archive,

in: META 3 (Archive und Atlanten), Stuttgart, 1994, S. 106-112
in deutscher Sprache ebd., S. 99-106

I Report from the Archive

II Archive, museum, search or memory?

I Report from the Archive

'But if in a notebook full of aphorisms someone finds a reference, a note about an arrangement or an address or a laundry bill: a work or not a work? But why not? And so on ad infinitum. How can a work be defined among the million traces that someone leaves behind when he dies? The work theory does not exist, and people who naively begin to publish a work are lacking such a theory, so that their empirical work very rapidly comes to a halt.'(1)

What Michel Foucault thought about literary estates is shown to be all the more relevant, overcomes us(2) with even greater naïveté, prevents almost all generally justifiable decisions about a work that has taken up, processed and worked with a large number, but by no means all, of these traces of presence. One becomes a master of differentiation, of the search for new categories, the addition of categories that are still open that could take up the unplaceable, the puzzling, the isolated, alongside the Ensemblewerke that even in Anna Oppermann's lifetime were only provisional and verified in forms that could be changed.

The estate is to be found in three places: three unclassified archives of her life's work in Hamburg and Celle that are separated spatially but not in terms of content. Almost everything is preserved here, and it would seem that Anna Oppermann saw this 'almost everything' as (re-)usable, applicable, ascribable to new meaning functions in new sequences and arrangements, and therefore worth keeping. We are faced with countless larger and smaller piles of material, accumulations in corners of the flat and showcases, dusty collections by walls and on large and small tables, in specially prepared niches, rudimentary ensembles thrown together in cardboard boxes and plastic bags. Spread around us in this way is an unmanageable artistic product archive and its resources, put together from finds, everyday relics and collected notes, huge numbers of photographic documents, an almost unknown early oeuvre without precise chronological boundaries, written and drawn associations and analyses on method, mountains of old newspapers and newspaper cuttings as possible sources, unplaceable photographic support material, a photographic collection of people in and in front of ensembles that is strewn around everywhere, as well as several notebooks, sketch-books and diaries. Comic desperation spreads as soon as one of us rescues a new and puzzling bundle from the utterly inexhaustible masses of material. Even restricting our attention to the ensembles and their components does not make the attempts to secure and classify any easier. Because as well as the ensembles (re)presented in museums(3), after the death of Anna Oppermann only in Celle, her second home and workplace, was another work arranged spatially. And even these fixed installations do not include anything like all the material collected and arranged around her subjects at any particular time. The remains of these are distributed with 61 other ensembles in the three work archives, many of them only crudely and provisionally separated from each other and the general stock of resources. It was possible to discover and list the number given and the subject designation, the title on each occasion, by reference to the 1984 retrospective catalogue, in which the artist presented her incomplete and uncompletable work chronologically in terms of beginning and separated by subject, with lavish illustrations, and the lists of her post 1984 work complexes, prepared with me, and all available photographic documentation of public presentations and current states of work.(4) Only the photographs and pictorial canvases, the enlarged copies of the temporary arrangements, can be attributed almost in their entirety on the basis of documentation from the various states in exhibitions and during assembly of the individual ensembles. Otherwise the points of contact, the fields of intersection in terms of form and content between the work units - constant problems with the vocabulary of art history - are marked by 'migrating' drawings, texts, all-embracing pictorial or textual associations. To the same extent we frequently come across particles that cannot be found in the photographic documentation, curious little everyday objects, absurd photographs, telephone drawings, even pieces of paper with notes and shopping lists on them, relics of everyday life, smoothed out and packed in the plastic bags or cardboard boxes on which Anna Oppermann wrote the title of one ensemble. It is not possible to decide whether these have simply gone astray or are fragments from other complex thought processes newly ascribed to the subject complex, whether an element has ended up in the box randomly or as rubbish, as suggested by various spent matches, cellophane packaging from cigarette packets, yellowing bills and now and again an exhibition invitation or a left-over piece of cake suggest.

How do we tackle this? I call it an approach archive system, a survey of the items that can be constantly continued, expanded and modified, that feels its ways from ensemble to ensemble, encircling the fields ever more closely to investigate and list them.

Certainly our central aim is to secure and preserve the artistic production, but we cannot concern ourselves with conclusively analysing and recording the tangled, intersecting and overlapping items and banish them into 'work units'. The basis of our work is a multilayered survey programme of our own design that is able to record the links between the work complexes throughout the Ëuvre as a whole.(5) All entries in the catalogue are provided with notes and thus open in terms of direction as we find them, leaving what is questionable until it is explained or not explained at a later date. Certainly there are measures to be taken and we are faced with manifestations, but the items deposited in the archives are not the work, as the parts take on their actual artistic form only in the spatial arrangements. Our cataloguing is always a step in the direction of new publication, the preparatory work, reflection about the individual traces and structures of the ensembles. Both do not need just zealous protectors, i.e. traditional conservatorial efforts that make the work retrievable, available, preserved and prepared for the museum, but prudent interpreters who confront the open material, the gaps and breaks and who see reconstruction as a new interpretation, as a translation into a new space, a changed situation, certainly in part also into the language and vocabulary of the interpreters. Thus reflection always leads to a rethinking of the intersecting mementoes that Anna Oppermann has left behind, and shows that the concluded work, which is no longer growing, is a living archive of experience whose work particles are lying ready to be recalled. As in Anna Oppermann's lifetime, every decision still needs to be taken again today - and never in a way that is objectively unambiguously justifiable.

II Archive, museum, search or memory?

'It begins at the very moment of delivery. It doesn't matter, what comes, everything is recorded down to the last brass screw. Every item is given a catalogue card. Imprecise descriptions like 'several', 'various', or 'some', do not crop up in the vocabulary of the card-index writer. Every item is allotted its fixed place. Whether it is a broken lath from a fence, a complete stereo system or a murder victim's fingernails...'

This textual fragment, a newspaper cutting in the middle of the detailed flood of pictures and writing in the Pathos-Geste MGSMO ensemble in Altona town hall in Hamburg, takes us into a police exhibits' room, a storeroom for items of evidence, secured clues, meticulously indexed and neatly stored on shelves, without comment, without reference (except by chance), but constantly growing. The police exhibits from solved and unsolved cases shows key features of the archive: archives hold (and hide) their stock, are systematic or chronologically linear collections of documents, files or evidence that permit controlled access by calling up fixed codes. Thus the principal criteria are security and retrievability. With a view to the abundance of pictures and texts, the enmeshed and heterogeneous structure and the fragile and provisional character of a spatially arranged ensemble, the conceptual description archive seems a long way away. On the contrary, the installations practically fling open their information, shower the viewer with it, not as a series, as a collection in a prescribed order, not systematically or schematically structured, but as a complex, woven arrangement of views, copies, finds and writings.

And yet the metaphor archive has often been applied to the ensembles, but always in association with its diametric concepts like thought archive, process archive or memory archive. Is thought not immaterial, are processes not ephemeral, the memory active or activated, but the archive always a hoard of collected, passive material? So what aspects are in favour of the archive metaphor for the ensemble? Firstly, in the artist's lifetime, the constantly increasing abundance of material exhibited, linked together within a rich texture of motif, subject and form, i.e. a collection, an accumulation of materials. Further, the materiality of the components of the works of art themselves: the finds, whether from nature or the realm of human production, are leftovers, fragments from previous contexts, thus showing parallels with the pieces of evidence from the exhibits room. In comparison with this there is a preponderance of paper, photographic paper or (photographic) canvas, associatively linked with files and documentary letters, writing down and preserving the course and results of procedures. The masses of photographs in particular, whether on paper or canvas, showing the finds in constantly new contexts increased by new views, seem to capture the conditions and situations of the artistic process as documents. Quotations written down on boards and pieces of paper are reminiscent of the recording of witnesses' statements, and the written annotations on drawings, newspaper cuttings, on canvases and pictures seem like notes at a trial, commentaries on what has appeared, references and remarks in the margin. If the ensemble components are considered as collected documentations of events - waste products or minutes of sequences of events - then the concept of papers and documents from the archives, or better still exhibits (as at a trial) could be adopted for them in a limited fashion. Limited because the ensemble 'archive' is never at rest in any of its component parts, no part ever stands for itself and thus as representative of an event, but always remains a (significant) part of all events in which it was involved. Furthermore and this is visible on close examination of all the ensembles - each individual part can become a starting-point for new and vivid considerations, a trigger for further associations and analyses. But limited above all because the artist's activity as an archivist is always linked with production. The hearing of the evidence is not complete with the listing of items found, but only starts with this. They are triggers for the growing anthologies of experience, which could potentially be continued ad infinitum, in which the immaterial elements of the thought and perception processes that are happening around them materialize and accumulate in images and writing, not to be stored away but to be used and changed as reminders within the changeable overall image of an ensemble. Thus none of the items of archive material(6) has a fixed place in the structure, but with each new arrangement acquires a different place within the context, becomes a fragment of a multipartite, compiled overall image. The published ensemble, open to view and meaningfully arranged, is not directed at security and retrievability of information, but at its changing meaning, interplay of references and contrasting, contextualization and reference.

An unavoidable contradiction has slipped into this last sentence, which refers the description metaphor of the archive to the museum, whose (present and historical) form, meaning and function converges with that of the ensemble to a strange extent. It is not just the fact of exposure to the public view, the exhibition as a bringing to a standstill, always in museums or galleries, in supposedly neutral places, the spaces set aside by society for art, the standstill itself is in contrast with the collection's openness as a process, the changing arrangement of the archive objects at different times. Both the conservational element, the collection and preservation of information and constellations of information, and also the principle of exhibition in an arrangement, a created order, correspond with the basic strategies of museums. But the fact that, despite the obvious parallel with museums, no-one has so far defined Oppermann's work as a 'thought museum' - although some interpreters did try to grasp the presentation and being presented of the material complexes as a gesture of offering, and compared them with altars - is justified by their unmistakable, oppositional attack on the institution. The 20th century art museum is in fact being shaken out of its composure by the flood of pictures teeming framelessiy into the space, by total occupation of the white walls, on or in front of which the consecrated works otherwise lead their monadic life at a fitting distance from each other.(7) And differently again from encapsulated rooms pushed into the museum - many spatial installations, environments -, Anna Oppermann encapsulates the room itself with her object-viewings, illusions with many perspectives, fragmentary but spatial. The ensemble does not create the illusion of a new and different space, but an illusion of breaking through the given space, a disturbance of the clearly structured system of order that is a museum.

Within the ensemble as a presented collection, fundamentally different strategies for handling time, preservation and passing manifest themselves, for handling the viewing and displaying of objects. Although they are wrenched out of their previous functional contexts, the ensemble finds and their copies, the produced archive items, are not subject to the detemporalization which is the usual fate of most museum exhibits, which are always cared for and looked after by an invisible hand and with invisible sticking-plaster, in an unchangeable permanent condition. The ensemble particles show traces of wear and natural decay, as a result of their movements in time and space, and they are also excerpts from, snapshots of this very movement, whose simultaneous arrangement, brought to a standstill, demonstrates precisely the processuality and temporal nature of an emergent ensemble. The movement-time, the change in the artist's position and sequences and breaks in the working process are all shown between the objects, drawn objects, photographed object drawings, pictorial and textual notes, new photographs and drawings etc., which are arranged in all their detail in the ensembles or illustrated in their linkage on the picture canvases. Anna Oppermann's interplay of collection, preservation, arrangement and constant extension, modification and rearrangement produces a synchronous and unordered time structure instead of a chronological or chronographic one, in unstable layers rather than historically ordered, with visible gaps rather than continuous, dynamic and variable rather than fixed.

Certainly even ensembles cannot escape the pull of the museum, even the most open, process-oriented production and collection of experiences becomes prestigious cultural goods on entering the museum space, becomes an accredited artistic object to be observed, and thus subject to its interpretations and conventions.

'Usually the activity of placing something in a museum is an act of declaration, which fundamentally changes the nature of an object from one moment to the next. The metamorphosis, undergone by the object as a result of entering the museum shows in the changed relationship of subject to object. The object placed in a museum is approached with the respect due to it, in a viewing posture.'(8)

This is how Eva Sturm defines the transformed situation between museum object and viewing subject. But within themselves the ensembles as copies of diverse, contradictory seeing-movements, run counter to the museum's viewing rite. They show attitudes of seeing that are otherwise banished from the museum space, actions and activities about which Eva Sturm remarks:

'... movements, emotional statements, lack of understanding, things that are uncontrolled and chaotic have to be suppressed in this context, one has to learn to control oneself. The official view takes over from the unofficial ones.'(9)

Viewers of an ensemble are immediately confronted with a mosaic of such 'unofficial views' which not infrequently provoke unusual seeing behaviour. They bend down, twist around, sit down, lie down or crane their necks to investigate every aspect of the interwoven images from as many viewpoints as possible.

Precisely because in both the public structure and the creation process inspection is central to the search for the subject of an ensemble and the exhibiting of a thing central to viewing, Anna Oppermann infiltrates the representational function, based on detemporalization, of the objects placed in a museum for a past period of time, a fixed historical place. Her artistic activity also begins with isolation and with a ritual. The finds, triggers for the process of thought and perception, are isolated in an act of initiation, torn from their original contexts, placed on a plinth (or something similar) and thus particularly exposed to artistic consideration. This is followed by a meditation phase, immersion in the visual structure of the object within the new context, the concentrated exercise of inner perception, usually made material in naturalistic drawings which in the next phase, called catharsis, are extended by notes on the first re-actions about the object, subconscious and arbitrarily associative comments. Anna Oppermann sees both these as a 'subconscious' primary process, followed in the 'conscious' secondary process by analyses and feedback from the distance.(10) Here all the re-actions are de- and reconstructed, by assessments from the outside, complemented and thwarted by alien comments, and the first constellations of meaning fixed in a summarizing photograph. Subsequently, the sequence is not a straitjacket, the process is set off again by the additional material.

Anna Oppermann counters the unfulfillable wish to possess a thing entirely, to bring it under control by purging it of its disturbing contexts, emphasizing it, preserving, caring for and presenting it as a representative authority that has lost all relation to 'reality', with a procedure that makes the ambiguity and elusiveness of objects in language and image productive by inspecting them in changing complex contexts, using them to test an enormous variety of rational and emotional experience-operations. In a way that is diametrically opposed to any historicizing interest, the artist prevents her everyday finds from disappearing in order to allow them to continue to live in artificial, imaginary, illusory, symbolic com-positions. Sought representation disappears in this search, which presents synchronously as many dimensions and layers of meaning as possible, the searcher's estimations, her process notes and observations, continually new reference points and information, all the shifts and revaluations of the case in the process and a series of statements by witnesses. And yet it is not the case that everything is equally valid to the point of being a matter of equanimity, that all experiences are equally important or true, or that there is no division of what is evaluated positively or negatively: the artistic search relating to the ensemble subject in question neither runs purposefully from a point A to a point of solution B, nor does it attempt a systematic or structural exploration of the subject-field. It is always interpretative, formulating tendentious problems and critical in its direction, as can already be detected in the thematic key words that the artist has written down about almost all her arrangements.(11) The investigations spring between the poles marked in this way, starting from the searcher's psycho-social situation, her selective recourse to the archives of cultural knowledge and daily floods of information. Personal and general, current and past excerpts from experience are (re)produced in the images and constantly rearranged, become remembered layers that also trigger memory in the Memory ensemble.

One is spontaneously inclined to see Oppermann's image conglomerates as materialized memory images, capturing the ephemeral, storehouses for sight. This is especially the case if one reads, in parallel with the photographed momentary constellations, for example, Henri Bergson's metaphor of the 'spiritual photographs'(12) explaining how the engrams, supposedly seamless and recorded automatically, not open to controlled intervention, appeared to him. But the ensembles are always both statement and memory. The process is mutually dependent: external, objective, found, selected fragments of the general/everyday environment are constantly internalized and thus remembered, and the subject's internal re-actions, his thoughts, emotions and visions around this external material are externalized and thus expressed. But that is not all. Expression and memory constantly take over from each other, what is expressed is recalled again in new juxtapositions, remembered material is re-externalized as the artist undertakes further confrontations. The ensemble is the place of reconciliation, the sight and thought structure of these otherwise invisible process movements.

And so it is a storehouse for the ephemeral after all? Certainly, but one that lets what is stored remain ephemeral: its archive material comes into being only as a result of physical movement in space, visual feeling of objects and surrounding spaces, a mental walk through the everyday, cultural self-compiled archives and collections of objects. It is not a place of security and recognition, in other words systematized memories that could be purposefully redirected towards actions. Anna Oppermann dissolves orientation and purposefulness, the ephemeral images are not placed mnemo-technically. All the layers of images simply list remains of places that do not localize the illustrated objects in concrete spatial situations or allot them defined places within a spatial structure. The recording lists have gaps - just like a memory, forgetting is inherent to it, being the necessary condition for a possible memory. Also the artist's sight can capture only excerpts, but behind these other conditions that can be thought and visually experienced remain in rudimentary form or disappear altogether. Others again, almost lost in the process or set aside in a quite different corner of the intersecting complete work, turn up from the image-historical depths or are brought up from distant thought-contexts and again allotted a space and arranged in the pictorial space. In this way the process documents lose their concrete past, one that can be dated, which dissolves in an artful network of references, a synthetic arrangement and order of associatively linked material, in complex presentations offering the prospect of future changes and extensions.

In this sense the Memory ensemble that is being exhibited is something utterly and completely current, which synchronizes invented and found pasts and potential futures. Although it is discontinuous and inconsistent, a time-field comes into being, a field of observations and imaginations, with no division lines between the time-stages. According to this a presented ensemble would be the span (of sometimes 15 to 20 years) and the space in which layered presents can move, a moment brought to a standstill in its own transformation, in transition to an immediate future. For Anna Oppermann the signs captured in the ensembles, the encapsulated image-thought mo(nu)ments were not documents (evidence), just as much signs of past-present reflection as signs that triggered memories and associations; they are also a double warning for current receptions copies of the sensual-abstract experience of both the perception and the thought movement, arabesques of intersecting search-results and stimuli for thought, meandering motive for further (unpredictable) experiences.

(1) Michel Foucault. Was ist ein Autor? in: same author: Schriften zur Literatur. Frankfurt am Main, 1988, p. 13
(2) Karolina Breindl, a Munich art historian, and the author have been officially securing and cataloguing the artistic estate in Hamburg and Celle since 1993, under the direction of Herbert Hossmann, who is responsible for the project; he was Anna Oppermann's lifecompanion for many years.
(3) The ensembles Pathosgeste - MGSMO (Pathos-Gesture MGSMO) in Altona town hall, Hamburg, Öl auf Leinwand (Oil on canvas) and MKÜVO - Mach kleine, überschaubare, verkäufliche Objekte (Make small manageable saleable objects) in the Hamburg Kunsthalle were installed under the artist's direction. Two more, the ensemble Umarmungen, Unerklärliches und eine Gedichtzeile von R.M.R. (Embraces, inexplicable things and a line from a poem by R.M.R.) in the Sprengelmuseurn in Hannover and the ensemble Cotoneaster horizontalis (Antikommunikationsdesign) (Cotoneaster horizontalis (anticommunication design) in the Wuppertal Von der Heydt-Museum, were installed from 1993 by the estate team to her artistic standards, as interpreted new installations, adapted to the different spatial situations. The above-mentioned team has also installed ensembles for temporary exhibitions in Odense, Denmark and Sydney, Australia.
(4) see Anna Oppermann Ensembles 1967 - 1984. Hamburg/Brussels, 1984. (With essays by U. Schneede, B. Brock, M. Schneckenburger and H.-P. Althaus.) As the estate has not yet been completely examined, the number of ensembles remains fixed at 61 for the time being.
(5) Later publication of the catalogue on CD-ROM is planned, which will make the mass of data available for specific access by research interests of the most diverse kinds. Carmen Wedemeyer of the University of Lüneburg has submitted a first computer-supported version as a pilot project, which (still with limitations) presents all the pictorial and textual version as a data surrounding the Umarmungen ensemble (see note3) in a hyper-media archive, making it accessible and open to the establishment of connections.
(6) The verbal combination of archive material and exhibits sees the documents as searchtriggers and results of an activity, selection or Production.
(7) However unusual the presentation form may be, even for the 20th century eye, it would possibly appear familiar to previous centuries it one considers the structural similarities with picture hanging in a l9th century salon, with the arrangement of collections in chambers of art and curiosities, and especially late Renaissance cabinets of rarities. It is unfortunately not possible here to show the parallels and divergences in historical thought. Simply examining changed motivations for collecting and presentation, the cultural and historical perspective and Anna Oppermann's ensemble works is interesting.
(8) Eva Sturm. Konservierte Welt. Museum und Musealisierung, Berlin, 1991, p. 9
(9) ibid. p. 109
(10) Anna Oppermann published many essays on her work; see in particular: Das, was ich mache, nenne ich Ensemble. In: Anna Oppermann, Ensembles 1968-1984, Hamburg/Brussels, 1984, p. 28f.
(11) Example: Thema/Stichworte der Pathosgeste (see note3): Pathos, hohles Pathos, Suggestion, Manipulation, Geld-Macht-Beziehung, Werbe- und Verkaufsstrategien, Zeitgeist, Postmoderne, Verpackung, der Mensch und das 'Mehr'. In: Anna Oppermann, Pathosgeste, Hamburg/Brussels 1987, p. 4. Karolina Breindl also identifies precisely this 'problematic tendency' in her analysis of the Umarmungen ensemble (see note3). In: same author: Umarmungen... Eine exemplarische Untersuchung. Unpublished master's degree, University of Munich, 1990, p. 28
(12) see Henri Bergson. Materie und Gedächtnis. Hamburg, 1991, p. 66 ff., quotation p. 77

[Übersetzung: Michael Robinson]