Surface Structures

Memory, Mimicry, and the Non-Archive



Memory, especially when it belongs to a community, always has a material aspect. Mediated records or documents and their collections are what we usually refer to as archives. Documents are by no means univocal objects; they testify to the medium in which they were recorded, to the technological progress, and other processes specific to their time. Records are always records of an event and of their own medium and material. The double visibility of documents occupies a central place in many of Sascha Pohle’s works. Re-photographing images with archival weight, which is an operation he uses in many of his works, results in reanimating, re-presenting, or giving them another visibility, but also is a meditation on the material and conceptual infrastructure of the archive. The image is no longer an evidence, or an index of a time past, but a document in motion, an emphatically contemporary object.1 Ornaments of Property (2013 – 2015), Statues Also Die (2012), Attachments (2015) challenge traditional ideas of chronology and visual economies of interpretation to perform a visual archaeology, in which contradictions and iconic resonances become productive principles. This folding of the past within the present-day artwork is a reflection on the material conditions of memory, the impossibility of a total archive, but also is a symptom of a desire to speculate about future modes of circulating and perceiving images.

Visual interpretation, materiality of the image, non-place, non-archive, medium of photography, not a fixed place, Passage (2017-ongoing) employs pattern and mimicry as material and visual surface modulations, which define the image as a place itself and oscillates between a memory of inhabiting it, being situated, or literally being enveloped in a place, and an abstract map that does not chart or capture a territory. The work consists of a series of textile pieces based on photographs of the artist’s work and living places, the ground of the campus road to the Anseong University, where Pohle teaches and the oldest market in Seoul. The photographs are rendered in a grey scale transferred into a machine knitted woollen pieces. The ground is made soft and flowing and this transformation results into an object between a map and a carpet. The artist treats them as performative objects, which can become gestural pieces animated by movements of repeated folding, unfolding and careful laying out on a table. This defines the photo-textile pieces as horizontal images to be contemplated from above. The network of cracks, crevices form irregular patterns and suggest multiple possible folds without resolving into a representation or recognisable image. They form strange interpretation of the oriental carpet, which according to Michel Foucault belongs to the category of heterotopias or spaces simultaneously within and outside culture, counter-sites, spaces of crisis and transition.2 Passage defines the outlines of a surface which could possibly be a ground, or could possibly chart a territory from above, very much like a satellite view of an unpopulated area. And still it remains unresolved image-object, which resists to being interpreted as a photographic image, or a map. Its medium is textile and weaves in together a photograph and a scarf, or a carpet. Scarves are usually animated through touch, while carpets are designed to be viewed from above thus defining a horizontal view, in which the -micro becomes -macro. Digital photographs are malleable, and in a sense liquid. In this case a photograph is redefined as a surface structure characterised by what one could call a soft indexicality, and invites us to think and to experience the intimate distance between touch and touch screens.

Attachments (2015) takes André Malraux’s Imaginary Museum as a site of interpretation and intervention. Malraux’s museum-publication and its way of historicising implicit in its mode of presentation of artworks and historical objects, has been subject to critical comparison with an earlier project, which had a perhaps similarly ambitious desire to write history of culture entirely in images – Aby Warburg’s unfinished last project the Mnemosyne atlas (1924-9). Georges Didi-Huberman has argued that Malraux, working much later than Warburg , created not an atlas, or an image-network based on resemblances and contrasts between artworks, but an album whose main purpose was to establishing family resemblances.3 A portrait of Malraux taken by photographer Maurice Jantoux for Paris-Match, 1953 shows him at work on the second volume of the Museum without Walls looking at a neatly arranged grid of reproductions. This portrait subtly betrays his desire for establishing a universal narrative and retracing resemblances between artworks belonging to disparate contexts. Malraux did extensive work with photographic reproductions by rearranging, cropping, re-touching, and ordering new versions to be made, thus staging, or perhaps even inventing, the unfolding logic of family resemblance. He was well aware that history of art is intimately related to strategic use of photography and its formal and rhetorical aspects, as Didi-Huberman argues Malraux transformed “…its nature as document, collection or record into a genuine tool for revelation, persuasion or certainty.”4

Malraux’s selection and juxtaposition of objects was determined by his desire of “stylistic or spiritual synthesis.”5 Pohle’s intervention in the Museum Without Walls consists in an emphatically visual operation of counterpointing and juxtaposition, which creates tensions and precisely not formal unities. A selection of photographic reproductions is overlaid with a selection of clothes hangers from the personal collection of the artist and then re-photographed. The juxtapositions are made according to series of operations, which establish resonance between the formal vocabulary of pattern, shape, orientation of the sculptural figures in and the shape of the clothes hangers. In many cases the attachments continue the figure, as if to supplement a missing part. This operation, which tries to humorously repair the artworks, in fact establishes a strange disjunctive synthesis between an object and the flat surface of the photographic reproduction The attachments, or perhaps more precisely the supplements, are delivered through a series, or several types of careful overlays. Curled fingers of a hand suspended in making its eternal gesture correspond to the curved edge of the hanger. In other cases the hanger functions as a prosthetic object, which completes a missing part of the sculpture or is added as a layer over which covers up, and highlights parts of its sculptural interlocutor. Pohle’s way of supplementing is loosely based on the same principle of finding formal and structural resonances, but it results in subverting Malraux’s claim of establishing the visibility of a universal language of forms and styles across cultures. Attachments make us aware that we can find iconic resonances and analogies everywhere if we were to look, but that is hardly a ground for establishing universal visual types. The subversive gesture, inserts a question at the heart of art historical methods based on the implicit premise of legibility if images.

In this juxtaposition the flatness of the photograph allows it to become a presentational surface for the clothes hanger. Still, it cannot be interpreted as being simply a background. If the photograph is the presentational device of the historical object, its juxtaposition with an object destabilises the implicit hierarchy between figure and its background. The figure becomes quite literally the background, and yet retains its identity as a figure. As a result the historical object with its claim to represent a family resemblance, or create a figure, is questioned by its contemporary prosthesis. Foregrounds and backgrounds oscillate in their roles, each gaining strange visibility. The series of family resemblances create a tension, which on a visual level interrogates the role of the photographic image as a document. The document, then, is set in motion and thus displaced from its function as a record of an object or event.  The contrast between a set of contemporary objects photographed strategically in volume and in color, defines the flatness of their documentary counterparts and establishes them as material objects, as prints. The image liberated from its function as an illustration is redefined as a document-fragment. A historical object, its documentary image, and a contemporary object are staged together in an in an image of another register, a critical image, in which they interact so as to pose questions concerning materiality, looking and photographing as operations which assign identities of objects and thus include them in different economies of looking and interpretation.

Ornaments of Property is an eight-minute film produced in a digital medium and transferred to 16mm film. The work consists both of the film shown on a 16mm projector and a sculpture made out of discarded CD and DVD computer drives collected by the artist. The film registers a variety of sculptural constellations filmed floating in the void of a dark space. The CD drives are used as a generic unit out of which Pohle assembles variety of sculptural constellations, always installed in situ, and which continue, or could continue, in endless variations. They resemble ancient ruins, parts of large walls, or fragments, and their surfaces carry variety of repetitive patterns suggesting architectural ornaments. This work presents a constellation of conceptual questions central to many of Pohle’s works – memory and its material medium, anachronicity and obsolescence. Memory is not explored as question of a cultural or historical memory, a memory of an event, or the intimate texture of personal memory. The CD device is used as a generic object with its characteristic materiality and formal visual qualities. It is a data processing device, a technical object, which lacks the warmth and the cultural saturation of historical objects. Therefore the question of memory, at least initially, is posed in a technical sense – as a question of storage and of the materiality of its medium. On another level, and precisely because of what I would like to call an infrastructural logic, memory is addressed as related to obsolescence. And besides its strictly technical sense of technologies passing out of use, it is a question of how do we memorialise such objects, inscribe them into the cultural archive or memory? The redefinition of the device as a visual object, a generic unit that grows into complex ruin-like constellations, presents it as a historical object. It is no longer a technical object for data storage and retrieval, which when it functions, we barely notice, but a visual object in its own right. Memory, then, becomes a recursive question of transition or of transformation of the technical device into a memory object.

The transformation of the status of objects and their transition between being functional objects, into fetishes, ethnographic objects, commodities, artworks, and their inclusion within different economies of interpretation and display is central to Pohle’s work. Ornaments of Property addresses the logic of obsolescence (which often fetishizes past objects) by staging a technical object, which became obsolete only recently, as a historical ruin or an object of the distant past. The DVD drives are staged and presented as fragments of walls, decorated by repetitive ornamental patterns composed of their open lids or by their use as bricks positioned at different depths. The ornamentation resembles ancient geometric architectural ornaments (zigzag, meander, rhomboid shape) of the Mesopotamian, Greek or Chinese cultures. The resemblance remains open and suggests variety of ancient objects, but also sends us into another direction of time, which is the future. The sculptures float freely and slowly in the dark void and suggest spaceships on a science fiction film set. One another level, transferring the digitally produced video onto 16 mm, which is then shown as a film installation, complicates the question of time and obsolescence.

The central gesture Ornaments of Property can be interpreted as an operation of mimicry. One object is rendered as to resemble the appearance of another, which is different from establishing mimetic resemblances by finding analogies between objects. The operation of mimicry consists in imitating one’s environment, becoming indistinct, erasing oneself, being there and not there at the same time. It implies an erosion of the distinction of the distinction between figure and ground.6 In an extended sense, when applied to images in their different mediated instantiations, it also implies the return to flatness, and ultimately dissolves the image into the ornament. Mimicry is not erasure or removing of an object which leaves a trace, but an act of masking, covering over. Erasure has its own complexity, insofar as it enacts the logic of the trace. A trace is a visual outline of something missing, a distinction, a negative image. Mimicry on the contrary, implies de-saturation and (self-)erasure, erosion of subjectivity. On another level, mimicry implies a critique of the conditions of visual knowledge, or of a subject who places himself in the position of an observer to claims a visual mastery over an object, or an environment. Mimicry involves the act of hiding in plain sight, which in turn questions certainties and invites a fluctuating, oscillating, ever uncertain look trying to find the outlines of the figure that is allegedly embedded in the background. When applied to objects, and especially objects with historical claims, the act of mimicry questions the implicit certainties of the economies of interpretation of a variety of artefacts.

Through the visual operation of mimicry the sculptural constellations of Ornaments of Property generate shifting, unstable resemblances and invites us to look at a set of objects as a double image. They are both as recently obsolete objects and a strange set of ruins that cannot be easily identified. This poses two sets of questions. First, how we ascribe value to material objects, what becomes residue, an object to be discarded, and what becomes a museum object fetishized by scientists and audiences? Can a humble technical object gain the visibility of a treasured artefact that belongs to the broader archive of culture? On another level the film poses the question of time through the unstable resemblance to both past and future objects. And time within the sciences that deal with the past – archaeology, art history, history is a question of chronologies often associated with a linear narrative of some form of progression, and of the visual reading of sets of objects to that they are correctly situated within such chronologies. On one level Ornaments asks how we include objects of the past into the present by preserving them into an archive, and on another it questions its possible chronology and its linearity. Past and future coincide onto the surface of a relatively humble, recently obsolete object. Ornaments enacts, but I would add enacts in reverse, the transformation of the status of objects into memory objects, ruins, obsolete objects, entropic objects. This is posited on a meta-level through the operation of resemblance of the visual strategy and vocabulary of ethnographic film with its implicit visual strategy of fetishising objects (which are already fetishes), and perhaps also advertising of technical gadgets. On this level this is a critique of visual economies of historical sciences and museum display.

Ruins are temporally saturated objects. They are both a result of the passing of time, and they visually signify its passing. The object that has lost its function acquires the status of a generic object, its visual qualities become prominent - structure, composition, ornamentality. Ruins are remnants of the past, and at the same time they probably will “outlive us.” They remind that our material environment will become a ruin one day.7 Ruins are object of distinct interest for many artists. Andreas Huyssen argues that “Real ruins of different kinds function as screens on which modernity projects its asynchronous temporalities and its fear of and obsession with the passing of time.”8 Ruins are past monuments, and screens for projection of ideological narratives and identity claims, they are fragments of a past that we have to recover to claim our identity as a community. They are both affirmation of an origin and testify to its loss. The authenticity claimed in the case of the ruin is present only as an absence.9 As much as they are screens for projection of the fiction of origins, they are critical objects posing questions about the way history constructs its narrative. Their temporal complexity and allegorical force, as well as the fact that they are material entropic objects, make them a site, a material, and trope in the work of many artists who are engaging in an archaeology of modernity, of the recent past. Why having this obsession with materiality today, with objects that have lost their function or completeness, with fragments and ruins? On one level they signify the past and re-enact memory as a figure, but on another level they are an expression of an ongoing concern with the redefinition of experience and of the materiality of objects in the digital space.

Many of Pohle’s works engage in performing an archival gesture, and simultaneously in mimicry or erasure of distinctions, of flipping the foreground and the background. They look at the very infrastructure of the archive, but they also make statements about erosion and time. The archive holds promise of futurity and but it also harbours processes of destruction.10 In order to form a memory, we must be able to forget. The act of a total memory, of making a total record, would equal the destruction of the experience and result in an amplified present captured into an obsession with recording itself. If everything is recorded, we would re-live, but not experience a memory, there will be no narrative, we will be stuck in re-living, one could say in a traumatic, compulsive mode our past experience. On another level, archiving something  implies a choice, an overwriting, in a sense a destruction of the event that is being recorded. So archives are precisely not total memory, neither they are transparent recordings. Precisely the missing pieces constitute the archive, the very possibility of memory.
Determined by the logic of the trace, ruins and trash speak of the “broken utopian promise of the commodity.” The obsolete technical object shares to some extent both of these meanings - the unfulfilled promise of the commodity, and the entanglement between death, image production and memory. Pohle’s work gives another visibility to fragments and obsolete media. At its heart is a recursive gesture, which questions documents and archives as positive traces of the past and highlights entropy and the dissolution of distinctions as important aspect of  the process of history.
 Amsterdam, January 2018

Image: Sascha Pohle, Passage, 2016-ongoing


1 For Giorgio Agamben being truly contemporary entails by necessity preserving a fragment of another time in one’s experience: “Contemporariness is, then, a singular relationship with time that adheres to it through a disjunction and anachronism. Those who coincide too well with the epoch, those who are perfectly tied to it in every respect, are not contemporaries, precisely because they do not manage to see it; they are not able to firmly hold their gaze on it.” What is an Apparatus, trans. David Kishik (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009), 41

2The oriental carpet exemplifies the third principle of what Michel Foucault calls heterotopias: “The heterotopia is capable of juxtaposing in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible...The traditional garden of the Persians was a sacred space that was supposed to bring together inside its rectangle four parts representing the four parts of the world, with a space still more sacred than the others that were like an umbilicus, the navel of the world at its center... As for carpets, they were originally reproductions of gardens (the garden is a rug onto which the whole world comes to enact its symbolic perfection, and the rug is a sort of garden that can move across space).” emphasis mine, Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces” Diacritics, Vol.16, No.1, 1986, 25-26

3 “Museum Without Walls hence marks the birth of a new type of album: an album of the “extended family” of art. It is a family the size of the world itself, a gigantic family marked by countless differences, which converge but do not merge despite their number. They never amount to formlessness or to chaos, being joined by the grace of their common unity, by their ‘family trait’, which is art itself.” Georges Didi-Huberman, “The Album of Images According to André Malraux” Journal of Visual Culture, Vol. 14, No.1, 2015, 4

4 Ibid, 7

5 “But, in juxtaposing objects far removed in space and time, Malraux will not allow differences to remain inassimilable or disparate. He must always – unlike Georges Bataille, for example – have recourse to a higher unity, The stark contrasts either fade or harmonize in order to reveal a family resemblance, of which the album is the model of presentation.” Ibid, 13

6 Roger Caillois in his key essay “Mimicry and Legendary Psychastenia,” first published in 1935, addresses mimicry in insects as a behaviour of extreme mimesis. However, the act of imitation of the surrounding environment and of disappearing in plain sight, serves the purpose of survival only to some extent. Many insects that engage in mimicry are eaten or die anyway. Instead, Caillois argues we can see mimicry also as a “dangerous luxury” and pursuit of pleasure and exuberance, a behaviour of excess that does not serve particular purpose but can be seen as a moment when “Life takes a step backwards.” An entropic moment. In a broader sense mimicry means that one becomes the place that one occupies. This entropic erosion of the distinction between figure and ground is also characteristic to the state of psychosis when the subject loses its boundaries and distinction from the world and becomes one with it. “Mimicry and Legendary Psychastenia” October, Vol. 31, 1984

7 Brian Dillon, “Introduction” Ruins, ed. Brian Dillon (MIT Press, 2011), 13

8 Andreas Huyssen, “Authentic Ruins” In: Ruins, ed. Brian Dillon (MIT Press, 2011), 52  

9 Ibid, 52

10 As Jacques Derrida argues in “Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression” Diacritics, Vol. 25, No.2, 1995