- Installation Art and the Practices of Archivalism by David Houston Jones
For anyone interested in the intersection of art and the archive, David Houston Jones’ Installation Art and the Practices of Archivalism presents a thoughtful and sober contribution to the discourse at the convergence of these two disciplines. As suggested by the title, the text provides in-depth analysis of installation art that falls under the banner of what Jones terms “archivalism” – that is, work made by artists for whom “archival practices guide their enquiry, whether through the instrumentalization of archival media or the appropriation of techniques derived from archival activity” (p. 3). Looking to artists who explicitly depict the archive or use archival materials, as well as those who engage with the archive on a conceptual level, Jones surveys a dizzying array of major works, including those by Atom Egoyan, Christian Boltanski, Arnold Dreyblatt, Silvia Kolbowski, Eija-Liisa Ahtila, Miroslaw Balka, Wafaa Bilal, and many others. He then situates this analysis within the discourses of philosophy, archival theory, art theory, and art criticism, weaving together insights from theorists like Jacques Derrida, Pierre Nora, Sir Hilary Jenkinson, and Michel Foucault with those of art critics and curators like Hal Foster and Okwui Enwezor.
In his examination of “archivalist” artistic practice, the author takes up a recent trend in scholarship, criticism, and curation, whose initiation is often attributed to Hal Foster’s 2004 identification of an “archival turn” in artistic practice. Describing this turn, Foster writes, “Archival artists seek to make historical information, often lost or displaced, physically present. To this end, they elaborate on the found image, object, and text, and favour the installation format as they do so.”1 Yet for all of the recent interest in “archivalist” art over the past decade, a serious, scholarly study of this primary instantiation of it – namely, [End Page 149] as installation art – has not been conducted. Indeed, similar analyses either survey the broad range of artistic responses to the archive or pay particular attention to alternative manifestations of this archivalist impulse – in the realms of film or photography, for instance.2 Relative to these works, Jones’ text is thus singular in its focus on the installation format. Yet it is also remarkable for its range of scholarly, philosophical, and artistic references, for the exhaustiveness of its research, and for the depth and gravity it brings to bear on interpretations of works of art.
This skillful handling of the subject is supported by Jones’ multidisciplinary expertise. Jones, an associate professor of French Literature and Visual Culture at the University of Exeter, conducts research touching on fields as diverse as Beckett studies, medical humanities, and archive studies, and on subjects like trauma, testimony, and the body. In Installation Art and the Practices of Archivalism, this interdisciplinary perspective manifests in Jones’ seamless exploration of artworks that deal with topics as varied as war, trauma, health and medicine, theatre, and technology. This diversity is reflected in the structure of the work, which is organized into five main chapters based on the author’s observation of five types of artistic responses to the archive: the intermedial, testimonial, relational, personal, and monumentalist. Incorporating artists that fall into each of these categories, Jones’ analysis brings together artistic projects concerned with concepts as divergent as biological data collection (in his chapter on the personal archive), archival technology and nostalgia (the intermedial), the archive as evidence (the testimonial), archival connections and dialogues (the relational), and the archival sublime (the monumentalist).
This adept and cohesive handling of such a broad and varied field of artistic endeavour constitutes one of the work’s major strengths. Yet it is also strong for the thoughtfulness it brings to bear upon specific concepts relevant to archival discourse. One such concept is the linguistic notion of deixis – an idea closely related to indexicality – in which a speech act depends on an external referent for its meaning. In his analysis of the concept, Jones takes up artworks, particularly those of artists like Miroslaw Balka and Silvia Kolbowski, that use...