TEXTS REMEMBRANCE AND REPRESSION. DISPLACEMENTS IN ELSEBETH JØRGENSEN'S ARCHIVAL-AESTHETIC PRACTICE
SANNE KOFOD OLSEN
Remembrance and repression. Displacements in Elsebeth Jørgensen's archival-aesthetic practice by Sanne Kofod Olsen accompanies the exhibition Ways of Losing Oneself in an Image by Elsebeth Jørgensen.
As an archive, the psychical apparatus is not a monolithic, unified site for storage but the interface between two distinct sets of data, one manifest and subject to observation, the other latent and visible only to the extent that it is imperceptibly woven into the first.
In his book, The Big Archive (2008), the American theoretician, Sven Spieker, compares the archive to the disclosure of the human psyche by psychoanalysis.
Thus, in every archive, the interpretation of items is a condition that opens up a number of possibilities. Its construction and composition is filled with those hidden meanings, which arise through the connections and incidental juxtaposition of the archived material. Searching through an archive is like surfing the Net. One piece of information leads to another, and if you search long enough, a chain of meaning arises which can be the starting point for further searches for meaning in the archived material.
Searching through the archive for links can also be compared to the process of dérive. The concept of dérive was defined by the situationists and Guy Debord, and has been described as an unplanned tour of a cityscape, guided by the emotions that the surroundings create in the individual, whose primary aim is to map and investigate the psychogeography of the neighbourhoods. The investigation of an archive will remain just as incomplete as the mapping carried out by an individual moving about the town. Moving about in the archive is a sort of haphazard walkabout where the information discovered is made up of fragments from a great number of stories. The archive is the psychogeographical landscape of history, where the possibilities seem unlimited.
The archive is Elsebeth Jørgensen's choice of material. Often, her projects are an examination of fragmented connections in a certain archive, resulting in stories, images and information that is the focus of the archive and those who have collected the materials in the archive. Jørgensen's method has become one of "walking" through the archive for weeks, months, even years, finding information and new perspectives in factual materials that only appear as pictures and stories when the material becomes part of the combination of fact and fiction and artistic documentation.
This method is reminiscent of the method used by the German art historian Aby Warburg (1866-1929) when he built his famous Mnemosyne Atlas in 1924-29. In contrast to the common history of style as adopted by his contemporaries, Warburg used a method that was both academic and associative, producing a spatial historical story, which was both chaotic and disciplined. Mnemosyne Atlas was an art historical "atlas," a mapping of motifs collected as a series of charts consisting of collages of classical motives, the way they were repeated and altered at different times, such as the Renaissance and Warburg's own time. Mnemosyne refers to the Greek goddess of the same name, the goddess of memory and the art of remembrance. She was the mother of the muses, who between them were the protectors of music, poetry, and later of art and science.
Mnemosyne Atlas, which was supposed to consist of some 60 or 70 charts, was never completed, but would, according to Warburg himself, be a visual presentation of the "iconology of the interval". As Warburg was concerned with inherited values of expression in his Atlas, it may be considered a visual archive of the history of culture, as mediated through art.
In contrast to many other art historians of his time, Warburg's image archive focused on the expression of emotions and iconography. His interests embraced artefacts of antiquity, as well as the art of the Renaissance, the visual representations of primitive cultures, contemporary advertising shots, and astrological images. Mnemosyne Atlas was a visual telling of the history of art that, from a present day perspective, might be considered to have more in common with an art project. From a scientific point of view, it introduced something as uncommon as associative methods, intuition and feelings. So there was a non-conformist expressivity to it, being a more equivocal remembrance of art.
Unpacking My Library
The simultaneously scientific, intuitive, associative and personal approach to the data of the archive is a starting point for Elsebeth Jørgensen, who, since 2001, has been involved in the archival aesthetic praxis, and thus also with remembrance and the interpretation of memory.
Still, in her first real unfolding of an archival project, Unpacking My Library, begun in 2000, the artist's starting point is a different one. In her almost programmatic text from 2003, after Unpacking My Library, Elsebeth Jørgensen writes that the examination of how memory is produced "as a constant flow between cultural an personal processes," is an important focus of her artistic production. In her work, she focuses in particular on the idea of how cultural memory and the archival room are constructions that contain potential fictions. Thus, she establishes a presentation of the story that is at once both spatial and subjective, aligning herself with Warburg's reproof to the writing of linear history (of style) and the predominance of textual language, which remains a dominant principle of historical presentations.
In its form, Unpacking My Library is an art project in several passages, reflecting on libraries and book collections as cultural spaces of meaning while also viewing the collector as a character. There are 11 chapters in all, most of them presented as photographs, video, digitally created images, printed matter, etc. These are 11 different works subsumed under the same project title, which have been created for different exhibitions. All the projects deal with the motive force of the collection, often taking as its point of departure the context in which the artist will be exhibiting or happens to be present. This is most clearly reflected in Unpacking My Library # III: Love Affairs of a Bibliomaniac, which juxtaposes images from the artist's own photo archive (of inaccessible libraries and private book collections) and a revised version of the American author Eugene Field's autobiographical novel Love Affairs of a Bibliomaniac from 1895.
Here, the personal and factual story (the literary autobiography and the photographing of rooms with book collections), along with the artist's own visual documentation, is introduced, becoming motives and themes to be revisited in later works. The photographs of libraries and book collections trace a factual course, being a matter of matter-of-fact recording without an interpretative layer. The interpretation emerges in the interval and the juxtaposition of the images and the audible personal story. The biographically, literary, perspective (with Eugene Field) and the book's explicit reference to the book lover, point to the personal nerve and structure, and the subjectivity and enjoyment of collecting books, as well as to the collecting and organisation of knowledge. This may, like Warburgs Mnemosyne Atlas, also be understood as a reaction to the idea of an objective historiography in museal and archival collections, as the archivist/collector/bibliophile bases his collecting on personal motives.
The focus on the interchange of cultural and personal processes is even reflected in the title Unpacking My Library, which is a direct allusion to the title of an article by Walter Benjamin, with that same title. The article Unpacking My Library is from 1931, dealing with the subject of book collecting, taking as its point of departure Benjamin's own library. The text is a story in the first person, emphasising the subjective influences on the structure of a collection; just like Jørgensen uses her own photo collection of books and book collections as the starting point of her installation.
In his article, Benjamin compares the collecting of books with the renewal of existence. However, collecting is just one of many processes of renewal. Another might be that of painting things, cutting out or copying, Benjamin writes. A method characteristic of the collage, montage and reproduction, which Benjamin is preoccupied with in other contexts. He compares these practices to the activities of children, but here the point is not the childish aspect. Rather, it is the artistic method of collage and montage, used by contemporaries of Benjamin, the Dadaists John Heartfield, Hannah Höch and Raoul Haussman, around 1920.
Collage/montage is a formal, content-based method and conceptual aesthetic of presentation that is central to Elsebeth Jørgensen's artistic practice. Her method is also a process, which may be characterised as a renewal of existence, as she makes use of fragments that, when placed in new contexts, create new meanings. While montage is often connected with film, collage, which in a sense is the same, is connected with two-dimensional images, consisting of picture fragments. Both methods have been commonly used in visual culture; in visual art they have been instrumental to the definition of a new concept of work – aesthetics of production (rooted in the avant-garde movements of the 1910's and 1920's).
In today's artistic practice, the concept of montage is typically applied to video- or installation art, which makes use of fragmentary story telling. An installation can contain all forms of visual fragments from film and photos to text and objects, to speech and sound. Elsebeth Jørgensen's works are spatial montages, where the story fragments together create the more or less coherent narrative. Montage as form describes precisely Jørgensen's approach to the archive and her artistic presentations, which both in form and contents primarily make use of spatial juxtapositions of fragments of varying kinds, photography, film, sound and text being the main devices.
The renewal of existence is also very much the fulcrum of the next serial project, Cinemagic Tour, which was begun in 2003. The project thematizes the disappearance of film architecture relative to the collective memory of the cinema and its social and aesthetic significance. The project is based on the artist's visual documentation of cinemas and research into archives in Germany, Finland, Denmark, the US, Latvia, England, Lithuania and Scotland.
The focus of Cinemagic Tour is the photographing of these either abandoned or converted cinemas. The cinemas are ruins which until recently shaped our production of memory and consumption of moving images. They can serve as signposts to a lost time, a vanished culture and a new sort of iconoclastic situation, which is now being renegotiated through Elsebeth Jørgensen's optics. These closed down cinemas direct our attention to cultural changes in Western culture, and is the social and cultural structure of change, which becomes the starting point for Jørgensen's investigations.
Cinemagic Tour started as a project of photo documentation, but it quickly turned into a sort of assembling and registration of a missing documentation of cultural historical change. Jørgensen used archives and dialogue to find out how people felt about having lost the cinema, as well as the cultural significance that had been attached to the local cinema, now closed. This story becomes a fulcrum of the work Cinemagic Tour # II: Scenes from an Imaginary Place.
Situated in Huntly in North Scotland, this project is much more than just a photo documentation of the closed cinema from another time. Investigating the structures of change, and taking as its point of departure the personal and collective experience and understanding of loss, oblivion and change, the project is both documentary and based on archives. It consists of photographs of the cinema, which Jørgensen, as the first person in 20 years, was allowed to photograph, as well as sound pieces consisting of a large number of testimonies, among others that from Gordon McTavish, the film operator at the cinema. Also included are video works, paper cuttings and archival documents in the form of letters, taped conversations, museum registrants of the presentation as a kind of trace of the negotiation between the artist and the Aberdeenshire board of cultural heritage. The presentation of the work documents the well-nigh activistically delayed reaction to the closure of the cinema, which occurred during the artist's research on site. The exhibition of Cinemagic Tour # II: Scenes from an Imaginary Place took place in three parts: partly at the local town museum, where Jørgensen exhibited video- and audio works, archival documentation and artefacts, partly a performative event where the photographs of the interior of the cinema were shown to the public, and partly a film of the inner room of the old cinema, projected onto the outer facade of the cinema.
The ruinous mood of the closed cinemas becomes an active element in Jørgensen's research into the cinemas of the past. The way they appear in the landscape, as remnants of old buildings – temples, castles, towers, theatres – ruins often testify to past greatness and decay. They are testimonies about lost times and civilizations, about power and money, about faith, illusion and entertainment. Closed and disused cinemas are the ruins of the recent past. Like Greek theatres, cinemas testify to places that have been cultural and social meeting places. The local cinema was a place where people met the world, as well as phantasies, harvesting common experiences impacting their relationship with the world. As such the local cinema was a strong social and cultural marker that in many ways helped create a common local identity. The closure and sealing up of the cinema, as the case was in Huntly, contains a wealth of importance relative to local rootedness and common identity. The reaction simultaneously is one of a nostalgic clinging to the past as well as the visualisation of the loss of a shared identity as this social and cultural space, and hence community, is no longer accessible. The work Cinemagic Tour # II: Scenes from an Imaginary Place, as presented in Scotland in 2006, and later at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Roskilde, 2010, served as a sort of hypothetical archaeology of the larger, collective landscape of film ruins, of which Jørgensen has been an observer for a long time. A cultural landscape whose geography is no longer locally defined, and where the social sphere of places have this pronounced change in common.
Cinemagic Tour is very much the story of a world in transition and the identity crisis between the local and the global that has arisen in many places. The paradigm shift of late capitalism, where a new economic, political and global order is transforming cultures and communities, has forced the local community into a process where it must redefine itself and create new conventions.
Crystal Palace: Notes from the Archive
An altogether different poetic tone is found in the project Crystal Palace: Notes from the Archive, begun in 2009. Like Cinemagic Tour, it also takes as its starting point a period of cultural paradigm shifts, but this one happened at the threshold to modern capitalist society in the mid-19th century. In her work, Jørgensen focuses on the Danish brewer and founder of Carlsberg, J.C. Jacobsen (1811-1887), and his fascination with greenhouses of which London's Crystal Palace, designed by Joseph Paxton, was the prototype. Crystal Palace was a palace of glass, built in London's Hyde Park for the Great Exhibition of 1851. The purpose of the world fair was to present the newest technological advances of the industrial revolution; as such it was a tribute to progress. J.C. Jacobsen's interest in glass architecture, resulted in the building of The Palm House – a Crystal Palace in miniature – in Copenhagen's Botanical Garden in 1874, thanks to the brewer's political and financial support. Besides, he built several smaller, private greenhouses on the Carlsberg property. In Crystal Palace: Notes from the Archive, the artist takes a general look at the interest in growth in the time of Jacobsen, both in a real and symbolic sense. The Palm House as well as those other greenhouses symbolise the interest one individual had in social growth, but it is also the centre of the scientific research that was carried out at Carlsberg.
Thus the Palm House becomes a symbol of the driving force that was Carlsberg, as a part of the industrial revolution in Denmark. The Brewer was interested in both forms of growth, expressed through fragments of texts and pictures from the Carlsberg archive. The imagery of Crystal Palace: Notes from the Archive consists of the artist's own photographic documentation of private parts of the garden at Carlsberg, which was once the brewer's personal botanical garden. Here she has focused on those places, which will be altered, demolished or preserved due to the physical nature of the place, the structure of the firm, and economic changes. There are also photographs of the physical archive as well as collected visual and textual archive documents and historical records about the garden and research at Carlsberg.
The archive is presented as the historical space from which knowledge is mined. The anecdotal presence of the place as far as images are concerned, is important, as it points to a spatial, not linear telling of history, hidden in the drawers and cupboards of the archive. A spatial logic, reminiscent of the Web's potential for finding information, albeit with physical presence, movement and extension in time as decisive factors.
The audio part consists of montage readings of letters and reports from the archive, supplemented by fragments of texts from Notes from Underground (1864) by Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881). In Notes from Underground, a person, who in many ways must be considered J.C. Jacobsen's opposite, is portrayed. The first-person narrator of the book is described as bitter about the naive faith in reason, progress and individualism, displayed by his contemporaries. He thinks man is basically irrational, his actions based on emotions, whims and boredom. Through the introduction of Dostoyevsky's fictional character, the otherwise documentary project is supplied with a layer of fiction, thus adding a dimension of meaning that arises through the juxtaposing of fact and fiction. The main character in Notes from Underground creates a break with the optimistic belief in science, industrial development and future, which is otherwise implicit in the documentary archival story of J.C. Jacobsen. The misanthropic character (Underground Man) is opposed to the spirit of the times, but he represents the contemporary voice of criticism, or the sceptic, who doesn't dream about progress or celebrate it. Dostoyevsky's story has been given this function in view of the present day optics of the work, contrasting with the celebration of the belief in progress so typical of the capitalist project and the industrially progressive character as exclusively positive. The work's sceptical character illustrates the reverse side of faith in progress, then and now.
Crystal Palace: Notes from the Archive is neither an attempt to celebrate the brewer's huge contribution to Danish society, science and culture, nor the opposite. Rather, the work is an aesthetic investigation into the nature of opposites and opposite tendencies in man, illustrating the complexity of every society: The positive faith in change as something progressive and scepticism to change in our society as a threat. Rationality, faith in the future and in progress, is contrasted with irrationality, pessimism, self-hate or apathy, which delays or renders a realisation of the positive dream impossible. In more than one sense, the two figures represent respectively remembrance (official historiography) and repression (suppressed historiography), producing between them an associative and knowledge-based analysis of society, which, as with Warburg, balances sense and emotion.
Crystal Palace: Notes from the Archive is a poetic reflection on cultural and personal processes from a time when progress and change were central tendencies in society, but where the opposites to these values existed as the antithesis to progress and change. This paradox becomes manifest in the description of the two persons, one documentary, the other fictional, who together make up a complex story of cultural and human development, of wishes and conflicts, preservation and change in a society during a time of fermentation.
Conditions that cannot be exposed sufficiently through the historical documentation of archives, but which must be supplied through the aesthetic and poetic layers of fiction in order to establish an open and equivocal reflection and interpretation on a period.
The archive as remembrance and displacement
In Elsebeth Jørgensen's works, the open possibilities of interpretation arise at this interface of fact and fiction. Her works are built on clear, factual observations, as found in the archive, but through the juxtaposition of fact and fiction they disclose those hidden data, which no representation can visualise as anything other than abstract meanings. Hence we are talking of memories that are pushed into the space of abstraction, in a story that always balances on the borderline between the real and the unreal. Elsebeth Jørgensen's works are an attempt at an investigation of aesthetic and existential paradoxes past and present, which cannot register as facts. The extreme factuality of the archive is displayed in juxtaposition to fiction and the artist's own visual mapping, allowing for new interpretations of times, places and people. She liberates both remembrance and displacement through the artist's observations and selection of archive material and the instrumental interpretation of historical documents through montage stories and fiction. Like psychogeographers, psychoanalysts and archaeologists, the artist discloses the unseen or what has so far not been known.
Memory and repression are ways in which the human psyche can work through experiences or repressions. If both are dealt with, this may create an understanding of the processes of change that we are faced with at any given time, in society as well as in our individual development. An archive contains the memories and repressions of individuals as well as society. Working with the archive, one may find both. Written and unwritten stories exist here, mutually dependant aspects, like in a room of remembrance. Existing as order and chaos, they may be retrieved through rational as well as intuitive and associative practices by whoever searches the archive.
Elsebeth Jørgensen's search through the archive is characterized both by the rational and the irrational in an inquisitive walk of the senses. She searches, both with the methodical level-headedness of the researcher and with the artist's eye and intuition, through a long-drawn and very complex process of selection. The works appear as fragmentary stories in montages of space, reflecting the room of remembrance as well as the archival room. The works present new ways of looking at history, and new questions arise through the artist's aesthetic perspective. New perspectives and new stories contribute to a renewal of existence where the interface between two different data sets, the manifest and the equivocal, in some sense or other is made visible in a new spatial format and may be observed in a way that is different from that of the historical archive.
 Sven Spieker, The Big Archive – Art from Bureaucracy, MIT Press, 2008, p. 36.
Quoted in Matthew Rampley, "Archives of Memory: Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project and Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas", in ed. Alex Coles; The Optic of Walter Benjamin, de-, dis-, ex-, vol. 3, Black Dog Publishing Limited, London, 1999, s. 99.
 Walter Benjamin, “Unpacking My Library”, in Walter Benjamin, One Way Street and Other Writings, Penguin Classics, London 2009.
 Peter Bürger, Theory of the Avant-Garde, xx 1984
Translated from the Danish by Egil Fredheim.
Sanne Kofod Olsen is an art historian and director at Museum of Contemporary Art, Roskilde, Denmark. She has been dean of Funen Art Academy (2005-2009) and curator at Danish Contemporary Art Foundation/Danish Arts Agency (1999-2005). Since the mid-90s, she has been an art writer, lecturer and occasional freelance curator. She is a member of Danish Arts Council (2011-2014) and other boards.