Fortunes of the Archive
From the First Decade of the Twenty-First Century to Today

Angel Moya Garcia

One of the trends that dominated the art scene in Italy, but also the foreign one, at the end of the 1990s, was the use of the archive as a poetic device. The wave was almost totalising at the time, later it weakened, leaving only works and lines of research capable of achieving a true aesthetic synthesis between the sources of this research and artistic outcomes. This fact raises a series of questions and opens up perspectives on the use of archives. Without analysing in depth art history and the numerous examples it provides, we may say that the use of archives has recently been one of the pivotal elements in shaping the research of many artists. Looking into the past, gathering, collecting, compiling inventories, accumulating, classifying, cataloguing, as well as appropriating, re-presenting or assembling, have defined much of contemporary art practice. The need to focus on the recovery of memory, to (re)write personal and collective history, to practise an art of repetition in the Lacanian sense and construct new narratives, has become intertwined with desperate attempts to systematise the world, with the search for identity as a political action and with the need to “question the role of technology in the formation and management of archives and information in general”[1].Among the best known examples are Hanne Darboven’s album (1880-1983), Gerhard Richter’s Atlas (1962-2013), Marcel Broodthaers’ fictitious museum (1968), Hans Haacke’s filing cabinet (1971). The same archival urgency took possession of artists such as Joseph Cornell, Hans-Peter Feldmann, Claes Oldenburg and, later, Christian Boltanski, Dan Graham, On Kawara, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Thomas Hirschhorn, Kader Attia, Sam Durant, Tacita Dean, to name but a few of the most relevant and coherent examples on the international scene. On the same level, theoretical analysis has followed this urgency to work with the archive, trying to define, frame or interpret it as a critical and poetic tool. On the same level, theoretical analysis has followed this urgency to work with the archive, trying to define, frame or interpret it as a critical and poetic tool. An Archival Impulse [2], is in this sense a fundamental essay, in which Hal Foster highlights how, since the 1970s, art has experienced a renewed interest in the archive as a methodology and means of exploration of the stratified dimension of History and memory. In the Italian context, in his book La collezione come forma d’arte[3], Elio Grazioli analyses the dynamics and mechanisms of collecting, collating, classifying, accumulating, arranging and reassembling, while Cristina Baldacci, in Archivi impossibili. Un’ossessione dell’arte contemporanea[4], turns her gaze towards the political nature of archiving as an action and of the archive as a device. This “obsession” with the archive can also be seen in the construction and conception of a whole series of exhibitions: When Attitudes Become Form di Harald Szeemann alla Kunsthalle Bern (1969), Kynaston McShine’s Information at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (1970), Nicolas Bourriaud’s Playlist at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris (2004), Okwui Enwezor’s Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art at the International Center of Photography in New York (2008), Atlas. ¿Cómo llevar el mundo a cuestas? by Georges Didi-Huberman at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid (2010) [5]. Let us also recall, among the exhibitions that have explored the archive as an element of investigation, Disobedience Archive, designed in 2005 by Marco Scotini and held in various European and American venues, Interrupted Histories , curated by Zdenka Badovinac in Ljubljana (2006), Ground Lost by the WHW collective in Graz (2007), Massimiliano Gioni’s Gwangju (2010) and Venice (2013) biennials or Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s Documenta (2013).

Remaining within the framework of exhibitions, with a closer look at specific instances in the Italian artistic contexts, we must necessarily go back to what was happening ten years ago. In 2012, a fundamental exhibition entitled La storia che non ho vissuto (testimone indiretto), curated by Marcella Beccaria at the Castello di Rivoli, reviewed the work of a generation of Italian artists who used Italian history as an essential object of analysis. The works by Francesco Arena, Rossella Biscotti, Patrizio Di Massimo, Flavio Favelli, Eva Frapiccini, goldiechiari and Seb Patane focused on some of the turning points of Italian 20th century history. The colonialist ambitions, the Years of Lead, the massacres, the power plays that took place behind the scenes, the troubled relationship between past and present and the process of reconstructing and interpreting the former, emerged in the documents and traces left behind, and could be used to reconstruct a period that none of these artists had personally experienced. In this case, the archive became an instrument of visual and bibliographical research, also of excavation in newspaper libraries, aimed at rewriting the collective memory and identity of recent history. The same intentions were already visible in the works The Inauguration of the Empire (2005), in which Rossella Biscotti reviewed Italy’s expansionist utopias[6], in the textual and photographic reportage Narciso nelle colonie (2013)[7]by Vincenzo Latronico and Armin Linke, or in the project Ritorno al futuro (2010-2011) by Alessandro Ceresoli.

This archaeological approach has generally weakened in the course of these ten years, in some circumstances it has completely disappeared, having been exhausted, with rare exceptions, as in the case of anti-colonial and memory studies, or of Alessandra Ferrini’s historiographic and archival practices.. The risk of being trapped in the “so far”, in a historical perspective unable to see the present, to distance the ghosts from the traditions of the past, the real possibility that what we believed to be documents and proofs of actual events were only artefactual materials, or the hazards entailed by a hermeneutical practice in which formal presentation often took precedence over the interpretation of contents, gave rise to an ambiguity that has still not been completely resolved. In this regard, Lucrezia Longobardi’s reflection is interesting, as she states that “all in all, the art of this period will mainly represent a work on the past destined to remain in the past, a purely archaeological review of its own public corpus, not yet concerned with the real repercussions in the present. The only real (very important) outcome will be the one the phenomenon has as a whole, its value that of having cleansed the roots, allowing them to oxygenate the thoughts taking shape that would lead Italian art towards the present”[8].

However, on the Italian scene, the archive as a device does not end with the archaeological reconstruction of collective identity, but often looks at those micro-stories of individuals who have decided to use their own autobiography as a tool and field of reference. In this sense, the research developed through family albums, diaries, one’s own experience or with personal belongings, has become fundamental; an example can be found in Moira Ricci’s work. Particularly emblematic is her series 20.12.53 – 10.08.04 20.12.53 – 10.08.04, created between 2004 and 2009, in which the artist inserted herself into the photographs from the past in search of her mother, whose birth and death dates give the work its title and indicate the time period covered by the images. The artist digitally reworked old photographs of her mother, inserting herself and looking towards her mother, while remaining an external character. rder to re-elaborate a collective experience. An autobiographical aspect was also emphasised in Cesare Pietroiusti’s Un certo numero di cose / A Certain Number of Things project at MAMbo in Bologna (2019), where he invited the public to share a symbolic cultural horizon and called on the spectators to see themselves reflected in a specific year in order to re-elaborate a collective experience. The link with lived tradition is present in Elisa Giardina Papa’s research, for instance in the work “U Scantu”: A Disorderly Tale (2022) presented at the Venice Biennale, in which the main story is interspersed with textual and visual motifs drawn from a collection of 19th century Sicilian fairy tales, and from the artist’s fragmentary childhood memories of songs and stories her grandmother used to tell her. In this vein, Dario Picariello, in the series Cicli, started in 2020 and strongly linked to autobiographical experiences, inspired by traditional southern folk songs, tells of a childhood spent with his paternal grandparents, farm labourers their whole life. It is a visual and sound legacy made up of labour in the fields, both loved and hated, whispered songs, tales of a world that only apparently no longer exists.

The archive is further articulated as a narrative and design pretext, or as an element of aggregation, in the works on places as archives of memory by Rosa Barba and, in particular, in the film From Source to Poem (2016), a densely stratified audio-visual narration, made in the audio-visual preservation centre of the Library of Congress in Culpeper, Virginia, the largest multimedia archive in the world. In Contemporary Naturalism (2006) Mauro Ceolin attempts to trace the boundary of the concept of Nature, thus attempting to measure its applications and value within a society increasingly composed of virtual dimensions, through the study and use of new media and their potential. Gian Maria Tosatti, in the work 2_Estate (2014), the second stage of Sette stagioni dello spirito (2013-2016), uses the archive by resemantising the first Italian registry office, which was abandoned at the time but still housed all the documents of citizens born in Naples from 1809 to the present day; a real and metaphorical connection that focuses on the uncertain and restless archaeology of the future. In Architetture dell’isolamento (2021) Eugenio Tibaldi questions and investigates the accumulation of objects, of all types and provenance, covered in dust inside a house, obsessively collected by the person who spent the last ten years of their life confined in that space. With Atlas Italiae (2016) Silvia Camporesi presents a journey through abandoned and disappearing Italy, photographed as a phantasmal reality, representing the traces of a past that is struggling to disappear definitively. In the case of Sergio Racanati, on the other hand, there is an interest in social sciences, historical events, popular culture and mass culture, which he observes through an almost ethnographic lens. This approach has led him to collect an organic group of works, aimed at representing a model of archive that negotiates, challenges and validates social power. A concrete example can be found in the film made for ruruHaus at Documenta 15 (2022), composed of hybrid situations through a complex matrix of appropriation, discovery of places, fragments and human subjectivities. In And We Thought (2022) Roberto Fassone experiments with the unexpected in machine learning, in analogy with psychedelic hallucinations, to explore the mechanisms of creativity and consciousness through the training of AI, using a dataset of thousands of “trip reports” from the Shroomery.org archive.

If in the last two decades we see, once again in the history of art, an exponential growth of interest in the archive, it remains to be seen whether in the coming years the archive will still be an instrument of analysis and whether it will be able to meet new needs, lines of research and problems that are emerging at present. The economic, cultural, social, ecological and gender aspects, ethnic minorities, the peripheries of the West, community processes, together with a tendency to look at the present and investigate the future, could mean a clear break with the past – which is systematically blamed or even rejected – and therefore a move away from the archive as we have known it until now. At the same time, the vast amount of information, real and virtual, that surrounds us will have to be systematised, investigating ways in which data is recorded, accumulated or archived in “digital databases and computer networks capable of accounting for a reticular, heterogeneous and dispersed multiplicity, in open loops, with variable durations” [9]. This could be yet another way of renewing the archive as a device, which does not seem to have exhausted its capacity to intrigue, attract or draw the attention of artists.


[1] B. Niessen, L’archivio nell’arte contemporanea: una conversazione con Valentina Tanni, in cheFare, 4 novembre 2019, <https://www.che-fare.com/almanacco/politiche/archivi/archivio-arte-valentina-tanni/>.

[2] H. Foster, An Archival Impulse, «October», The MIT Press, 2004, 110, pp. 3-22.

[3] E. Grazioli, La collezione come forma d’arte, Johan & Levi, 2012.

[4] C. Baldacci, Archivi impossibili. Un’ossessione dell’arte contemporanea, Johan & Levi, 2016.

[5] S. Taccone, L’archivio come koinè. L’ossessione dell’arte contemporanea, «OperaViva Magazine», 24 August 2017, <https://operavivamagazine.org/larchivio-come-koine/>.

[6] A. Ferrini, S. Frangi, La responsabilità di un impero, «Flash Art», 1 Novrmber 2017, <https://flash—art.it/article/la-responsabilita-di-un-impero/>.

[7] V. Latronico, A. Linke, Narciso nelle colonie: un altro viaggio in Etiopia, Quodlibet, Humboldt, 2013.

[8] L. Longobardi, A Finite History. The First Two Decades of Twenty-First Century Italian Artin «Quaderni d’arte italiana», Treccani, 2022, 1.

[9] D. Amico, Intervista a Marco Scotini: l’archivio come dispositivo tra estetica e pedagogia, in «MyTemplArt»,25 June 2014, <http://news.mytemplart.com/it/intervista-marco-scotini-larchivio-come-dispositivo-tra-estetica-e-pedagogia/>.