The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 11-JAN 12

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DEC 11-JAN 12 Issue


On View
Whitney Museum of American Art
November 10, 2011 – January 29, 2012
New York
The Past carries a secret index with it, by which it is referred to its resurrection. Are we not touched by the same breath of air which was among that which came before?

 —Walter Benjamin

The pictures I make are really ghosts of ghosts.

—Sherrie Levine

Sherrie Levine: Mayhem is anything but chaotic. The work is meticulously ordered: four artistic billiard tables, each supporting three identically placed balls; six pristine crystal skulls enclosed in glass cases; 30 identical matted and framed postcards; two minimalist sculptures atop two pianos; one tidy row of black-and-white photographs of plants. The order of the show is practically fascist. But this isn’t necessarily bad; repression always returns something worth noting.

Sherrie Levine, “Gottscho-Schleisner Orchids: 2,” 1964–1997. Chromogenic print, 20 x 16”. Private collection. Image courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York. © Sherrie Levine.

The word mayhem hasn’t always meant disorder. It comes from the word maim, and until the late 19th century was used to denote the “infliction of physical injury on a person, so as to impair or destroy that person’s capacity for self-defense.” Its usage changed slightly around 1870 but it continued to refer to “violent behaviour, esp. physical assault” until quite recently; according to the Oxford English Dictionary its usage did not designate “rowdy confusion, chaos, disorder” until as late as 1976.

So in 1981, when Levine began photographing photographs, the word mayhem was not so far removed from its association with bodily harm. And while photographing photographs means that actual bodies are nowhere in sight, the show has far more to do with destruction than may at first be evident.

Discourse surrounding Levine’s practice has tended to focus on the problem of authorship and the subversion of the unique art object. Levine’s re-photography and her re-productions of Duchamp’s ready-mades have provided important critiques of artistic institutions and practices. But by 2011, appropriation itself has become so thoroughly appropriated that it is difficult to view Levine’s work as critical. Not only have the ideas put forth by appropriation been thoroughly diluted by time and repetition, the idea that appropriation subverts the author’s function was a questionable one from the start.

If, as Foucault argues, the name of the author performs a “classificatory function [that] permits one to group together a certain number of texts, define them, differentiate them from and contrast them to others,” then the assignation of Levine’s name to a disparate group of works performs a reifying function rather than a critical one. The Author or Painter does not die here but is rather detached from the text and re-installed as the most important element of the work.

The significance of Mayhem is not its alleged challenge to the classificatory order provided by an author, or the cultural or monetary value that the author/painter’s name bestows on an object. Nor is it a simple matter of order imposed on disorder—Duchamp, Evans, and Courbet are thoroughly circumscribed entities that do not need to be explained or contained by Levine. Mayhem’s function, therefore, is not so much critical as it is evidentiary. The repetition of objects and images, their sterile and catalogue-like organization, provides proof of an illness particular to contemporary society—a society overwhelmed by images and reproductive technology and consequently obsessed with the preservation and organization of surrogate records. To survey Levine’s work now is to reflect on a cultural malady that Jacques Derrida diagnosed as le mal d’archive, a sickness of the archive or archive fever.

Any retrospective is a sort of archive, but in Levine’s work the archival impulse, the “gathering together of signs” into a “single corpus…in which all the elements articulate the unity of an ideal configuration” is particularly apparent. Mayhem is not simply organized, it is neurotic—evidence of a deep-seated cultural anxiety of which the copy, the archive, and the list are both symptom and cause. “Repetition itself,” writes Derrida, “the logic of repetition, indeed the repetition compulsion, remains…indissociable from the death drive.”

Sherrie Levine, “Fountain (Madonna),” 1991. Cast bronze, 14 1/2 x 14 x 26”. Private collection. Image courtesy Simon Lee Gallery, London, and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York. © Sherrie Levine.

Mayhem is not disorderly, but its order belies the violence buried in the word’s definition. It traces the increasing impairment of information’s ability to defend itself in spite of, indeed because of, its expansion through reproduction and preservation. Repetition and reproduction are in fact a means of maiming the object at hand. The doppelganger almost always kills the protagonist.

Photography has always been linked to death and repression—from its early “scientific” use to study the insane or illustrate the physiognomy of criminal types and its immediate inclusion in Victorian funerary rituals, to 20th century theories of photography such as those put forth by Roland Barthes. But what is seen here, in the progression from photographs of photographs in the 1980s to the recent series “Crystal Skull” (2010), is not the associative, death-mask quality attributed to photographs, but rather an acknowledgement of the logical conclusion of repetition; not the aural depletion that Walter Benjamin attributes to mechanically reproduced art, but the destructive element in reproduction and collection, regardless of the apparatus used or the form of the copy produced.

In Archive Fever (1996), Derrida reconsiders Freud’s thesis in Civilization and its Discontents (1930) that within the libido—the psychic drive that builds civilization through a desire to bring people together into cohesive units (the family, the city, the global community)—is a destructive impulse that he names the “death drive.” Because the latter is linked to the former, as society advances and is increasingly able to fulfill human needs, it also becomes more violent and destructive. The archive, argues Derrida, is the ultimate example of this libidinal desire to bring things together and, because of this, is also the death drive’s most powerful expression. This makes the archive an extremely problematic paradigm for institutional and cultural memory. The archive, he states, is not a guarantor of memory but rather, “takes place at the place of originary and structural breakdown of said memory.”

As the archive assumes an increasingly central role in individual memory formation, the process by which civilization destroys itself is condensed and reproduced on an individual level. Everything written on a computer is saved; everything written on the Internet is categorized and searchable. In this environment, images and writing are copies before they are originals and the death drive threatens to outpace the libido on the level of basic psychic formation. We need to ask “whether the psychic apparatus is better represented or…affected differently by all the technical mechanisms for archivization.”1 Levine’s work seems to indicate that the technology of archivization is indeed formative rather than reflective and that, furthermore, its effects are dangerous—that photographs will eventually lead to bones.

As denizens of the information age, we labor under the illusion that all thoughts, if recorded, will be kept forever. The Internet, in its limitless capacity for information storage allows us to entertain dreams of universal libraries that can never burn down, to maintain relationships with people that our brains alone would have forgotten, in short, to believe in perfect memory and limitless posterity. But these are false gods and there is a very real danger in our unquestioning dedication to the idol of perpetual, externalized memory. As Levine’s later work shows, our record-keeping is increasingly morbid: our golden calf a mere skeleton (“False God,” 2008), our memories so many memento mori (“Crystal Skulls, 2010), our statements already made (“After Marcel Duchamp,” 1991). 

  1. Derrida, Jacques, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression. Translated by Eric Prenowitz. Chicago: University of Chicago Press,1996.

The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 11-JAN 12

All Issues