The camera, looking toward the skylights, pans down to follow the slow cascade of light (one hears a soft murmur of voices) and reveals an open room filled with tables and shelves. People are hunched over books, quiet and oblivious to two men—rather, angels—who move through the aisles. They are here to assemble, to testify, and to preserve. “My heroes are no longer warriors and kings, but the things of peace,” thinks an old poet named Homer. Only the angels can hear him. “But no one has thus far succeeded in singing an epic of peace.”
On ViewPeter Freeman, Inc.
January 9 – February 15, 2020
I thought of this scene from Wings of Desire (1987) when I saw Archive (2019), one of two films by Fiona Tan exhibited at Peter Freeman. Her works here feature neither humans nor spirits, but like the fallen guardians in Wim Wenders’s film, Tan uncovers something sensual and human contained within the indices, testimonials, and records that purport to map the world with sober order. Her films quiver with the quiet pulse of life.
Archive is a cinematic tour of an empty library with aisles radiating out from a central opening covered by a vast glass dome. We roam in black and white. The camera is positioned at eye level and moves at walking speed. It shakes as if handheld and occasionally stutters as it sweeps by filing cabinets identified by a numerical system.
The library, though rendered in extraordinary detail, is theoretical rather than real. Tan modeled it entirely in CGI (even the camera is virtual) based on drawings by Paul Otlet, a Belgian librarian known as the founder of bibliographic science. Otlet and Henri La Fontaine founded the Mundaneum, an institute dedicated to the rational classification of all human knowledge. Housed in the Palais du Cinquantenaire and later a government building in Brussels, this “machine to think the world” contained a register Otlet developed to articulate connections between knowledge, ideas, and images, in an effort to encourage international cooperation and peace. At its peak, it contained 16 million index cards and it’s sometimes, contentiously, considered a precursor to the internet. (Today it’s sponsored by Google.)
The Mundaneum’s permanent home was designed several times but never completed. Le Corbusier conceived a version in Geneva, next to the League of Nations, whose development Otlet supported. Tan draws from Otlet’s sketches and an extensive history of utopian diagrams, rendering the library in concentric circles. In an essay on her film, she cites Giordano Bruno’s De Umbris Idearum (1582) (“Are not, I ask myself, all works of art in some way the shadows of ideas?”), Sir Thomas Browne’s Bibliotheca abscondita (1684), and Frances A. Yates’s The Art of Memory (1966), which model knowledge as a series of circles centered by the individual. Tan excerpts from a long history: she notes the idea is contained in the word “encyclopedia,” from the ancient Greek, training in a circle.
Though Tan’s film is silent, it is paired brilliantly with her audio work Hydriotaphia (2016), a recitation of a 1658 text by Browne on sepulchral urns then-recently discovered in Norfolk:
Circles and right lines limit and close all bodies, and the mortal right-lined circle must conclude and shut up all. There is no antidote against the opium of time, which temporally considereth all things; our fathers find their graves in our short memories, and sadly tell us how we may be buried in our survivors.
Otlet may be remembered through his project, but Tan’s archive is a desolate one. There are no people there, and light fixtures are cracked, the windows gray with mold. A threadbare carpet encircles the aisles and shafts of light fall upon books abandoned on tables. The camera’s stutters and shakes underscore the location’s physical remove, as if it is we who stand at the center of this lonely, derelict circle. Tan’s portentous reconstruction suggests the impotent authority of such a mind machine. Otlet, after all, failed. The League of Nations proved an incapable interbellum mediator, and the Mundaneum was occupied by the Nazis in 1940 until Otlet’s death during Belgium’s liberation. “To my disappointment,” Tan writes of Otlet’s classifications, “I note that the categories ‘fool’ or ‘folly,’ I cannot find listed.”
Archive is the kind of mature work that attracts jurists of national awards and curators of retrospectives—it is a masterpiece by an artist who has spent her career mining archives and probing their authority. Its significance is akin to Jane and Louise Wilson’s Stasi City (1997), which depicts the annals of another catalogue of human activity, but whose empty and ordinary character reflects the cruelty and apathy of East German surveillance. The Wilsons found the secret-police archives to be a mechanical place, a bureaucratic slaughterhouse, but Tan decodes the archive itself as an index of social structure. She suggests all archives reflect the texture of thought—the egalité, the hubris, the paranoia—of the individuals at their center.
Paired with Archive are photogravures transferred from the film. They’re so fine and delicate as to be as mesmerizing as the moving image. Moreover, in their conflation of traditional printing and digital imaging, they connect Archive to the second film in the exhibition. Elegantly installed as floating screens in the rear gallery, Ruins (2020) comprises two documentaries of the machine room at Grand-Hornu, a planned coal-mining town ten kilometers from Mons, the current site of the Mundaneum. Tan shot both channels simultaneously, one on 16-mm film and the other in digital high definition. The texture of the film running through the projector—only so many times before it is also ruined—plays against the fidelity of the digital image, which is also continuously compressed, degraded, and outdated.
Ruins is at once a record of ruin and a ruined record; it preserves the site as a picture of decay, and at that moment, the history of the record departs from the history of the ruin. Here one also glimpses the futility of Otlet’s project. A catalogue of knowledge is itself a part of knowledge, and so this sum of knowledge contains more than itself within its circumference. This paradox may be what attracted Jorge Luis Borges to Otlet, and it is, not coincidentally, the mathematics of black holes. Google may claim the Mundaneum as its predecessor, but Tan sees the network as a noble vision, corrupted as a system.
“The images these media give us are different than how our human eyes perceive things,” Tan writes in A Walk Among Ruins (2020), published by the gallery. “And I want to pause and reflect upon this while it is still possible.” The very possibility of reflecting on perception is part of what Tan’s films accomplish. Otlet’s Mundaneum laid the groundwork for an information panopticon, but Tan presages the fall of this tower.