WHAT IS HISTORICALLY INTERVENTIONAL ART? / UDI EDELMAN
*An earlier version of this text was originally published as part of “Histories” exhibition at the Center for Digital Art, Holon, Israel, 2014.
Artworks have always been closely linked to history and historical events – whether as representations, references or reactions to a moment of the past, regarding the political, religious or artistic story. Nevertheless, a cautious distance was maintained from historical events themselves. Art, it seems, stood apart from the very event it sought to portray, even when aspiring to present a particular and very specific depiction. Thus a persistent line was drawn with two distinct and different points upon it, connecting between the event’s past and art’s present.
This is not to say there have no cases in which art has sought to intervene in history, only that these attempts were never so explicitly intentioned, and for the most part were motivated by a temporal perception very different from contemporary approaches. Yet for these past two decades different artists around the world created a far more complex, explicit, and self-aware handling of history and historiography.
These artworks constitute a new form of art intervention, an approach focused on actively intervening in the process of history production. The methods open to such artists are far ranging and varied: variations on the historical moment being portrayed, a combination of personal and public histories, the merge of truth with fiction, use of archival materials, reconstructions of singular events or event sequences, examination of the past and its representations, and many others. These myriad methods, so diverse one from the other, present an altogether different view of the relationship between the past and the artworks’ present. These artists do not address history as a remote and discrete source, but as the actual tangible materials for the piece – much as a sculptor manipulates clay or marble to achieve the desired result. This new arena has blurred the boundaries delineating between art and history, and opened up headway to create new meanings in history, in art, and in the perception of the present. This is art that unhinges history, art that goes back in time and reveals new implications and hidden meanings. This is art that consciously makes its presence within history – and brings the viewer along with it.
Fiction and forgery are unique forms of historical intervention, and their roots are as ancient as those of history itself. Their appearance is inherently related to the basic nature of history as a system for organizing and entrenching power relations. Fiction and forgery seek to exploit history for economic or political gain, whether on behalf of the powers that be, or to stand against them, or to work through them. The most perfect dissimulations are those completely submerged into the sequence of history, appearing as historical truths in their own right. This integration is at its best when fiction and forgery are tied to a constellation of well-known historical facts – places, people, events – providing credibility and validity. When these elements are exposed as non-truths, the significance attributed to the "truth" is also damaged.
Art that chooses to intervene in history makes use of this very ploy. Use of fiction in art allows it to reform the historical narrative and reveal within it a renewed inner sense. The infiltration of fiction into history is the factor that drives the various elements and events to reemerge in relation to this fiction. However, such close association to historical facts also makes it difficult for viewers to pinpoint the seam where accepted truth ends and fiction begins. This embarrassment motivates viewers to deepen their emotional involvement in the events and their meaning. Such fabricated history produces anti-common knowledge, and anti-common sense.
The work process involved in producing Historically Interventional Art also raises questions regarding historians’ methodologies, as well as the possibility of artistic research. Artists that use history as a material for their art often employ learning and research strategies essentially similar to those of research historians – whether by undergoing the sisyphean task of rummaging through archive materials, interviews, and comprehensive and wide-ranging reading of texts. Therefore, the key difference setting apart artists and historians is apparent in what they do after completing the methodological stage: in the way they tie arguments together, use and create images, and in the way they construct a story anew. The artist-historian is liberated from the bonds of scientific research as it is understood by many contemporary historians. This does not mean the artist-historian’s world is ruled by chaos, but that order is set in motion. Here, order is not dictated from on high, stemming from accepted academic methods, but emerges and arranges its own sense within history. In the artist’s research journey, movement to and fro between various information sources is not decided by theses or key questions, which lay out clearly-defined highways and byways. For artists, movement is nomadic, moving hither and yon by what catches the eye, by what accelerates, detains or obstructs progress. Thus, artistic research is a nomadic science.
The emergence of art that intrudes into history is not incidental, not in this time or in this place. Hollywood films and relevant literature have been utilizing similar gestures since the second half of the 20th century. Still, there is a claim to be made that efforts at historical delving in films and books has mostly led to the creation of alternative historical narratives, and subsequently to a form of complete fantasy – and not a local intervention or a merge with known history and accepted narratives. Another central difference lies in the context of this emergence. One could argue that this recent phenomenon of artistic intervention in art is uniquely linked to the attempt to implement political relations and create political acts in their broadest sense – in attempts to reach out from art and to touch social life and power relations. This kind of intervention is always a double play on reality. It exposes a possible sense of the historical moment, and along with it the relation of history to the present world of artists and their audience. It testifies on the constellation of life and power in which we live, and despite which we live, presenting their roles, and our own, in an ongoing story. In this sense, entrance into the halls of history and stretching out its scope allows us to re-experience and rethink our stance regarding the story and our place in it.
What does history document? Firstly, the winners. This is clear. It provides accounts of wars, countries, and rulers. And, since the development of structuralism during the latter half of the 20th century, is also tells of the marginalized, about daily life, and primarily about language. Very little, is anything, is written about matters outside the bounds of familiar economic-political-social dimensions. Of things for which there is no reasonable explanation. And if some is written, its literature is generally considered to be a bizarre end product, a laughable subject. Efforts to include in history miracles, superstitions and magic as factual research topics, and not merely issues of anthropological interest, immediately raise concerns regarding the validity of mainstream history and its chosen topics – what events are worthy of historical documentation? In what history do we believe?
The examination of the relation between history and art, the question of representation and display arise as central factors. How are we fed historical information and directed by it? Historically Interventional Art also investigates the ways in which history is portrayed and the apparatuses for producing historical imagery as a means for self-preservation in the hands of power. This reveals not only history’s meaning, but also the methods to manipulate it to establish and strengthen power, and often also use it to hide the actual use of power. Historical representations serve to create the contextual arena in which great powers function, and where obedience to force is considered to be free choice. Exposure of such representations for what they are, meaning unveiling the mechanism by which history is constructed as an organizing and beneficial system, is an unequivocally political act.