The Seductiveness of Archives

By Brian Dillon, 2010

Among the many ancillary enigmas and citations that make The Concise Dictionary of Dress such a richly conceived and executed installation, there is hidden in plain sight a reference that tells us much about the seductiveness of archives and their tendency to undo their own ordering principles. Under the rubric ‘Essential’, a constellation of images deliberately recalls the Mnemosyne Atlas: an idiosyncratic archive amassed by the art historian Aby Warburg between 1924 and 1929, the year of his death. Warburg’s ‘atlas’ was composed of 79 wooden panels covered with black fabric, on which were pinned some 2,000 photographs from the scholar’s collection. These amounted to an anatomy of human gesture as recorded in the history of western art: a ‘ghost story for adults’ (as Warburg put it) that showed not so much static imagery as a kind of cinematic frieze – art history in motion.

The Mnemosyne Atlas no longer exists as such; the structure was dismantled on the removal of Warburg’s Library from Hamburg to London in 1933 and its images dispersed into the present archive of the Warburg Institute. It seems today a precursor of certain artistic, literary and scholarly works of the twentieth century: projects that discovered in the collection, atlas and dictionary a principle of accident or serendipity that is only seemingly at odds with the rational order of the archive. We might think, for example, of Walter Benjamin’s unfinished history of Parisian modernity, The Arcades Project; the countless photographs collected and exhibited by Gerhard Richter as Atlas; the tireless library-bound researches of the protagonists in the novels of W. G. Sebald; archival works by diverse artists such as Christian Boltanski, Susan Hiller and Tacita Dean. It seems that Warburg’s insight – that knowledge arises precisely out of the fugitive and unpredictable relations between images – still animates artists, writers and thinkers today.

And yet, The Concise Dictionary of Dress surely tests this archival fascination to its limit, because the twin poles around which it is organized are apparently so far apart – the dictionary seems to allow for little in the way of happenstance or intuition, the vagaries of fashion to escape rigid definition in a headlong rush to novelty and invention. But what they share is precisely a shuttling between rigour and accident. The real pleasures of the dictionary are to be found in the unlikely or obsolete etymology at the end of an entry, or in the sidelong glance that draws us to a new word. Fashion (as Charles Baudelaire knew when he made it the veritable credo of ‘The Painter of Modern Life’) is both law and liberty; its pleasures consist in knowing the right degree of departure from existing rules. A dictionary of fashion, an archive of sartorial history, must of necessity be oblique, mysterious and surprising. It has taken just the most subtle (if also meticulously contrived) adjustment to the archive by Judith Clark and Adam Phillips to make that strangeness visible, to construct what Warburg called ‘an iconology of the interval’.

Brian Dillon is UK editor of Cabinet magazine and an AHRC Research Fellow in the Creative and Performing Arts at the University of Kent. He is the author of Tormented Hope: Nine Hypochondriac Lives (Penguin, 2009) and a memoir, In the Dark Room (Penguin, 2005).