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My previous interest in the methods of Aby Warburg has led me to consider the ‘Atlas’ as a strategy for mapping cultural practice as well as an artistic method in itself.

The use of atlases as a method of artistic enquiry could be said to have developed from early collections such as Cabinets of Curiosities which were intended to be encyclopaedic. As sociologist Kevin Hetherington explains, such collections “sought to bring together in one space all of the artefacts of the world and to order them so that the total order of the world might be revealed (see Hooper-Greenhill, 1992; Yates, 1992). In doing so, it began by still relying on the principles of similitude from the Renaissance, notably through constructing the cabinet of curiosities as a memory temple in line with contemporary thinking about the art of memory.” (Hetherington, “From Blindness to blindness: museums, heterogeneity and the subject”, in Actor Network Theory and After, 1999, p. 63)

These collections and their meanings were further disseminated through the use of reproduction and printing such as in the work of David Teniers, whose patron was the Hapsburg Archduke Leopold Wilhelm. Between 1651 and 1660, Teniers was to document the Archduke’s collection in a series of paintings, before continuing to reproduce the works as etchings to produce an illustrated catalogue.

Aby Warburg
Warburg’s work in this field is described in Ernst Gombrich’s ‘intellectual biography’, where Gombrich details how “Warburg had announced in December 1927 that he proposed to compose such a work in the form of a ‘picture atlas’, the title of which would be Mnemosyne… In practice that meant that he pinned the relevant photographs on [several] screens and frequently arranged their composition, as one or the other of the themes gained dominance in his mind.” (Gombrich, 1986, p. 283)

In this manner, he was able to form complex and mutable narrative networks, and it was from this that he developed the technique of showing two images side by side in his lectures in order to determine similarities and differences between object. He would term this dialectical method, the ‘Iconology of the Interval’. Warburg’s ideas of art history as cultural history were specifically derived from an interest in astrology as medieval similitude and the work of the ethnologist Adolf Bastian. (Gombrich, 1986, pp. 284-285)

Atlas exhibitions
In recent years curators have returned to Warburg’s scholarship in order to explore artistic applications of his methods. In 2011 Georges Didi-Huberman produced the exhibition ‘Atlas: How to Carry the World on One’s Back’ (Atlas ¿Cómo llevar el mundo a cuestas?), at Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid. As Didi-Huberman explains in the exhibition press release: “To make an atlas is to reconfigure space, to redistribute it, in short, to redirect it: to dismantle it where we thought it was continuous; to reunite it where we thought there were boundaries.”

Pedro de Llano’s article in Afterall explains how “the exhibition allows for a performative display of Warburg’s notion of a discontinuous and non-linear time [which] rejects history’s narrative as an ordered sequence of successive events [and] gives rise to a sophisticated reflection about the present status of the image.”

The exhibition began with reproductions of panels from the Mnemosyne Atlas, a sculpture of the Ancient Greek figure of Atlas, and documents from Warburg’s working process. These works were accompanied by a variety of interpretations of the Atlas format by artists including Paul Klee, ‘Pflanzen auf schwarz grundiertem Papier’ (Plants on Black-Primed Paper), On Kawara’s ongoing postcard atlas entitled ‘I GOT UP’, Marcel Broodthaers’ ‘La Conquête de l’espace’ (The Conquest of Space), John Baldessari’s video ‘Teaching a Plant the Alphabet’, Matt Mullican ‘Bulletin Board’, Walid Raad (The Atlas Group), ‘Missing Lebanese Wars, Notebook Volume 72 (1996–2002)’, and the 16mm film ‘Encyclopaedia Britannica’ by John Latham.

The artists shown in the exhibition aimed to challenge and investigate the need to collect and to archive, as well as to show potential ways for creating new narratives from the collected material. Other artists exploring the networked and fragmentary nature of the image archive included Annie MacDonell, Dina Kelberman, and most notably, Gerhard Richter.

Gerhard Richter’s ‘Atlas Micromega’
Since 1964 Gerhard Richter has been collecting images and arranging them onto panels. The images consist of found photographs and ones taken by the artist, sketches, illustrations and plans for public commissions. When they were exhibited in 1995 at the Dia Art Foundation, New York in 1995, the collection comprised of five thousand images amassed over six hundred panels.

Lynne Cooke, writing in the introduction to the New York exhibition describes how, after developing the work through public presentations in Krefeld (1976), Munich (1989) and Cologne (1990), the Atlas developed “a certain internal logic and dynamic peculiar to itself. [However, although the] album… metamorphosed into a potentially encyclopedic project… Atlas is not an archive: there is neither a coherent and systematic compilation of an identifiable body of material nor an archaeological exhaustion of a specific subject… Atlas hovers, therefore, between the promise of taxonomic order as divulged in the archive and the total devastation of that promise, which is implicit, for example, in the amorcellated, anti-relational potential of photomontage… In their sheer ordinariness, conventionality, and ubiquity, many of these photographs seem almost interchangeable or generic, and hence serve to underplay those staples of photographic discourse: the photo as icon and the photo as index.”

Further Info:
Gerhard Richter’s “Atlas”: The Anomic Archive Author(s): Benjamin H. D. Buchloh
Source: October, Vol. 88 (Spring, 1999), pp. 117-145 Published by: The MIT Press. Accessed: 18/02/2015 10:15