Undaunted by the 600 framed sheets of paper making up Hanne Darboven’s Card Index, Filing Cabinet, Part 1 (1975), hung edge to edge and taking up the entire wall space of Galerie Klosterfelde’s first room, I began, in a logical fashion, with the first sheet. On each sheet were two columns of ‘text’ (an abstract looping cursive script), small drawn squares relating to written numbers below more drawn squares and another larger number, and consecutive page numbers in the center. I proceeded to the next sheet: same script, squares increasing, numbers increasing, numbers decreasing, page numbers sequential. I took in the whole section: 10 rows across, 6 rows down. And the whole room: 10 sets of 60 pages. If the logic of Hanne Darboven’s work is systematic and impeccable, it could, you would think, be followed systematically and logically. But at some point in the process it breaks down: the enormity of the undertaking – of the several numerical systems concurrently increasing or decreasing, in synch or out of synch, the incessant doodling, the constant accumulation – becomes overwhelming. It becomes impossible, your head aches, you want to stop; the numbers, sheets, and fake writing beyond legibility swim before your eyes. I felt like I’d just read a Financial Times analysis of the sub-prime credit market. A similarly illusory mathematics, pinned down by precise but ludicrous formulaic principles, seemed to be at work. I found myself longing for the enumerative simplicity of a Martin Creed, content just to count from 1 to 100, or from 1 to 4, several times over.
But this posthumous exhibition of Hanne Darboven’s exhaustive, dizzily numerical chronicles is a powerful, heady confirmation of the ability of art to describe and locate a here and now in time and space. As my brain swam laps trying to make sense of the shifting numerical sequences, alternately accruing and depleting, overlapping while shifting along a diagonal axis, I became aware of the connections and unexpected symmetries occurring in several directions at once – horizontal, vertical and diagonal – until this monumental work appeared like a complex construction in space, consisting of finely calibrated units, constrained within the parameters of a continuous present. It became like a diagrammatic version of a Sol LeWitt open-spaced cube, like a three-dimensional panoramic entity. Although its systematic logic is impeccable, its enormous scale creates a gap in logic: the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts. Buzzing and thriving, it becomes too big to grasp and seems to break free of the tight grid that constrains it, to function outside itself as an allegorical phenomenon.
Apart from two years spent in New York between 1966 and 1968, where she met young conceptualists like Sol LeWitt and Lawrence Weiner, Hanne Darboven lived in her family home in Hamburg, where she died in March of this year. The physical stasis and isolation this implies is set against the continuous temporal flow recorded in her works, which function largely like calendars, marking the passing of time. This is literally the case in a number of early works in the back room. ‘Weltansichten’ (1990) is a series of 14 sheets, each notating a ‘Stundenplan’, ‘Tagebuch’ and ‘Wochenplan’, in which various accumulating marks physically document the passing of each hour, day, week. As numbers are her raw material (‘I only use numbers because it is a way of writing without describing… they are so constant, confined, and artistic’), so time is their frame, construed in endless notational systems and mathematical formulae.
The second large work in the main gallery space is Wunschkonzert (1984), a monumentally impressive orchestral piece consisting of 1008 pages, made up of 144 ‘poems’ (that’s 7 pages per poem, work it out), representing ‘opus 17a and b’ and ‘opus 18a and b’. Each sheet is divided into columns in which numbers are either written or represented by short horizontal arrows above one another that approximate musical staves, and each row is headed with a page incorporating a religious greeting card with an embossed, saccharine image. Don’t ask me to go into it its baroque arithmetic, but the effect of all these beautifully inked, smudge-free, logically progressive pages, all glittering behind the glass of their tight black frames, is magnificent. Hanne Darboven’s life’s work was majestic and ambitious. It seems an unlikely analogy, but I can’t help thinking of Fischli and Weiss, whose projects like the early pamphlet Ordnung & Reinlichkeit attempt to provide, in diagram form, an answer to life, the universe and everything; or ‘Visible World’, their never-ending archive of photographs documenting the world around us. What is art for if not to make grand claims to make sense of it all for us?
Hanne Darboven „Wunschkonzert“ (Ausschnitt), 1984, 8 files (opus 17 a and b, opus 18 a and b) (© Courtesy Galerie Klosterfelde)