The title of the International Center of Photography’s “Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art” is, pace Derrida, somewhat of a cheat and bespeaks a certain anxiety about the premise of the show itself. An archive is, my Webster’s tells me, a “place in which public records or historic documents are kept.” As the show’s introductory wall text admits, the term “evokes a dim, musty” locale. In contrast, a fever (Webster’s, again) is an “excessive excitement of the passions in consequence of strong emotion.” It’s as if the curator, Okwui Enwezor, felt the need, from the start, to sex up what he feared might be a less-than-enticing project.
He needn’t have worried. “Archive Fever” (on view through May 4) is a rambling, sometimes irritating, essentially incoherent show, and one in which the sum is decidedly less than its parts. It does not come to any sustained conclusions–or even introduce a sustained set of questions–about photography’s relationship to archival documents. But the exhibit’s individual elements are, often enough, moving, thought-provoking, unsettling–and even sometimes fascinating. “Archive Fever” is vastly imperfect yet well worth seeing.
The show encompasses an array of forms including installations, films, videos, silk-screens and photographs that range from high-art to documentary. (Surprisingly, though, there is nothing from the Internet, which is really one huge archive.) But what struck me, and surprised me, most about the show is its prevailing obsession: which is, quite simply, violence. Missing children, the Holocaust, gunshot victims, terrorism, jihadism, civil war: these are not the show’s only themes, but they constitute, at least to this viewer, its critical mass. One can’t come away from this show without concluding that we are, indeed, cursed to be living in interesting times.
Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that the show often weakens when it strays from news and history. Take, for instance, the twenty-two prints of Sherrie Levine’s “appropriations” (that is, copies) of Walker Evans’s Farm Security Administration photos. It may be, as Enwezor claims, that these photos, produced in 1981, were a “daring, seminal deconstruction of the modernist myths of originality.” But the point has been made, over and again, and the imagery–or, rather, Levine’s message–doesn’t have much punch almost three decades later. (In contrast, Thomas Ruff’s “Machines” C-prints–tinted, reworked photos from the brochure of a defunct German tool and machine company–are a true homage, though perhaps an unintended one, to Evans’s sober photographs of farm implements.) In fact, Levine’s work succeeds only in making me want to see a “real” Evans photo–though I realize that her triumph lies, precisely, in those quotation marks.
Another work of appropriation, Glenn Ligon’s “Notes on the Margin of the Black Book” (1991-93), has drawbacks similar to Levine’s. Taking up three whole walls, it consists of ninety-one photos in parallel double rows of sleek, muscular, sometimes naked black men that were originally shot by Robert Mapplethorpe; the photos are separated by short quotes from the likes of Roland Barthes, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Frantz Fanon, Henry Louis Gates Jr. and (surprisingly) Hilton Kramer. Gates argues that “race is the ultimate trope of difference,” while Fanon informs us that “the Negro is eclipsed. He is turned into a penis. He is a penis.” The problem here is immediately evident: these tendentious texts, though perhaps true, are powerless against the grace, eroticism and sheer impudence of Mapplethorpe’s pictures. (Talk about punch!) It’s hard to rob these images of their danger, their power and their brazen lookability; the words subvert the pictures as much as a mosquito subverts a lion. As the photography critic Vicki Goldberg once noted, “Any work of art that can be discussed primarily in terms of deconstruction will not have a strong political impact.”