Mnemosyne 42

Georges Didi-Huberman

Mnemosyne 42 is the experimental answer to Alain Fleischer’s April 2012 proposition to create a work on images in the context of Le Fresnoy Studio national des arts contemporains. The rules of this proposition were at once very open and very strict. Very open, because like everything that counts in Alain Fleischer’s eyes, it concerned a game of invention, with those very “serious” things that haunt us in history and in images: the general title that was eventually chosen for the game actually took up Aby Warburg’s phrase for defining his own object of study in the Mnemosyne atlas, or the history of images, as a “ghost story for adults”.1

It was nevertheless strict in that Alain Fleischer had directly set out the limits of space and visibility: first, it was a question of “doing something” with the space of the grand nave of Le Fresnoy Studio national des arts contemporains (approximately one thousand square metres). Second, Alain wanted everything on view to be seen exclusively from the gangway of the first floor where, moreover, we were to install Atlas, suite, a series of images by Arno Gisinger created from the Atlas exhibition2 (in its ultimate version, as it was exhibited in Hamburg at the Sammlung Falckenberg). Third, therefore, the “exhibition” to be invented had to be directly engaged with the discussion developed in Atlas and in Atlas, suite, namely, that the montages of images were specific forms of knowledge of the world and of its history. Fourth, everything had to be conceived of and created in just four or five months with relatively limited resources (Le Fresnoy being very different from a museum or a kunsthalle).

So what was to be done? What was to be shown? Were we to bring together a new ensemble of works by different artists who created atlases of images? There was neither enough time for that, nor was there the means; and besides, what was the pertinent choice after the 140 or so artists presented in Atlas? Choosing a single work? But why only one, however complex or monumental it might be? (It is true that for an instant I thought of Franz Erhard Walther.) Then the most interesting aspect—but also the most restrictive—of the initial proposition came into play: that everything would be visible from above, viewable only from the gangway in the Fresnoy. I initially thought of using large tables (a memory of Gabriel Orozco perhaps, and perhaps because I would have liked to have included him in the initial presentation of Atlas in Madrid)—large tables upon which images would be placed, arranged like tarot cards during a visit to a circus clairvoyant (albeit on an enormous table). Then, in a flash, the idea of a projection came to light (a recollection perhaps of the very first exhibition at Le Fresnoy which was indeed titled Projections). It was coherent with the aim of the work as was envisioned together with Arno Gisinger: an exhibition without any “original” works, an exhibition that would be light and easily adaptable anywhere; all in all, a part of a portable atlas, part of a one thousand square-meter “exhibition in the age of its mechanical reproduction”.
The idea was quite simple: to project onto the ground, vertically from the ceiling of the nave, a gigantic plate from an atlas; to take up—because I have frequently come back to this in my works-in- progress over the last few years—the forty-second Mnemosyne plate that Aby Warburg devoted to the Pietà motif and to the lamentations that the living murmur, utter, shout or sing before their dead;3 and to pay new homage to this plate,4 not only by projecting it in dimensions that Warburg would never have imagined, but by accompanying it, by commenting on it, by prolonging it, and by making it come out of itself, in order to create around it a whole constellation of new images. The images are in black and white (as in Warburg’s work), but also in colour. Still images (as in Warburg’s work), but moving as well. Silent images (again as in Warburg’s work), and ones with sound. Images that I know, that I have before me, in that part of my computer, which for a long time now, I have come to refer to as my atlas.
It would have been enough to choose, to arrange, and to make a montage of all these images or sequences of images. It would have been enough to experiment: to see what this might create, to play with the relationships between images, rhythms, scales, dimensions, or colours. Perhaps as Warburg had done with his black hessian screens and his little pincers with which he endlessly arranged and rearranged his great figurative puzzle of the “tragedy of Western culture” as he called it. And to the vertigo already aroused by the photographic montage of Plate 42 must be added, in vast proportions, the vertigo of other images whose coexistence, I imagine—since I write these lines before having seen or concluded anything whatsoever—could well produce something like a great kaleidoscope of the motions of the soul, from the perspective of, or according to, the cornerstone of mourning and lamentation. It would be worthwhile, one day, to attempt the same thing with joy.


Aby Warburg, Bilderatlas Mnemosyne (plate 42) 1929
©The Warburg Institute

 The images of Mnemosyne 42 arise to a certain extent from the memory—and even the citation which is central to the arrangement—of the Warburgian plate. As though by strata (for still images) or by successive waves (for moving images): archaic figures and ancient sarcophagi, medieval frescoes and Italian altarpieces (Duccio, Giotto, Lorenzetti, Boticelli, Bellini, Crivelli), reliefs by Donatello or Bertoldo di Giovanni, the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem and intensely sculpted groups by Guido Mazzoni or Niccolò dell’Arca, to name a few. Soon enough, however, the great moderns: first of all Goya, whose Disasters of War, unknown to Warburg, decline (to the point of nausea and infamy on the one hand and total dereliction on the other) the various gestures adopted by the survivors before the dead; and then of course Picasso, who prepared and prolonged Guernica through a whole series of studies on the cry, tears and pain in the face of history. Perhaps even Bertolt Brecht, who documented and collected in a montage several Pietà situations in his work journal and his War Primer.

Francisco de Goya, Los Desástres De La Guerra (Material Gráfico) 18th plate (out of series 50), 1863
Courtesy Biblioteca Nacional De España
Bertolt Brecht, Kriegsfibel, 1955
Courtesy Eulenspiegel Verlag.

One must then introduce movement, which is a more delicate operation to the extent that I did not seek a kaleidoscopic abyme or abyss effect, nor any chaotic confusion whatsoever, but instead the possibility for the spectator to compare certain images in movement and to take advantage of space—through intervals, the scales of figures, hazardous desynchronization, and the configuration of the ensemble—which this comparison beckons. First of all, there will be certain “monuments” of cinema in which scenes of lamentation intervene by way of narrative “hooks”, or crucial moments: Eisenstein’s Potemkin, Vangelo, Medea or Rabbia by Pier Paolo Pasolini, as well as, for example, Terra em transe by Glauber Rocha. The archival images will be collected in a montage by Artavazd Pelechian in Nous; the cinematographic documents of the public funerals of Buenaventura Durruti in 1936; Yasser Arafat in 2004; or Kim Jong-Il in 2011. Two extracts from Zhao Liang’s film Petition, The Court of Complaints will also be on view, in addition to ethnographic documents such as those collected by Ernesto De Martino in Italy in the 1950s, or by Filippo Bonini Baraldi who in 2004 filmed a lamentation of Rumanian Gypsies. Also part of the exhibition is a martinete funeral of a cante jondo sung by Manuel Agujetas near a photograph of Carmen Armaya on her deathbed. All of this unravels as but an indication, since the “Lamentations” folder of my own atlas of images, which contains some two thousand six hundred audio and visual documents, is far from closed.


Mnemosyne 42 is thus presented like an immense carpet of images projected onto the floor of the nave of Le Fresnoy. It is therefore an installation, as is commonly said. The question, however, is: Are the philosopher and the art historian—even the exhibition curator—not assuming the role of artists? Of course they aren’t.
The question should not be articulated in such terms. Mnemosyne 42 is not a work of art for the very trivial reasons that it will not be for sale, and it will not live on. Rather, it will give rise to other equally impermanent forms (except perhaps the book, which remains the fundamental element of my work). More profoundly, it is not a “work” per se, concluded, or “operated” (opus operatum); but a visual modus operandi that is at once historical and argumentative. It is intended to remain a site; the site of the construction of a “laborious” labour (opus operosum). I simply consider the nave at Le Fresnoy to be like the exhibition space inherent to that space of experimentation and work that the Studio national des arts contemporains is. A place for exhibition: it is not a place for saying “I-me” or “I-me- the-artist”. Nor is it a place for the self-fulfilling “there is the work”, as though the working were completed in work, and the work endowed with value. In this context, a place for exhibition is merely somewhere to lay out visual and reflective configurations, just as someone who seeks to arouse another’s reflection lays out an argument.

Film still from Terra em transe (1967) Directed by Glauber Rocha. All rights reserved.
Film still from Cimetières dans la falaise(1951) Directed by Jean Rouch.© Jean Rouch

The fact that Le Fresnoy is a place of research had considerable impact on my choice. The first dimension of Mnemosyne 42 is its heuristic dimension: what will be seen in the thousand horizontal square metres of the nave is, on the whole, just a particular extension of the organisation of images—the open organization—by which I do my historical and philosophical research every day. It is a projection of what happens on the thirty- three centimetres of my laptop computer screen. Albeit magnified, it is a working tool that is open to modification along the way, as opposed to being an aesthetic result. The spectacular “exhibition” of this tool is not necessarily something pinned to its own axioms (for otherwise its heuristic and experimental content would disappear) or on its visual choices.
On the other hand, the fact that Le Fresnoy is also a school engages the pedagogical dimension of Mnemosyne 42. Here too, it is simply a matter of the disproportioning of a visual arrangement that I develop—and modify—in my weekly lectures at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales. I have, however, learned from Warburg, as I have from Bertolt Brecht or Walter Benjamin, that pedagogy (the transmission of knowledge, not in the least of “the gay science”) is such a crucial question that it cannot be separated from a poetic dimension. There is no production of knowledge without problematization; that is, without questions posed at a new expense. Yet there are no new questions, not even new contents of knowledge, without an invention of forms; without a “form-making” that can draw our attention to the questions themselves. As such, Mnemosyne 42 comes under what we could quite modestly call a visual essay. This is why, once again, the “installation” is not to be seen as a work of art, but rather as a mere arrangement that instigates questions.
It is worth remembering how Theodor Adorno characterised what is at the same time the theoretical and poetical form of the essay: it is a form for “coordinating elements rather than subordinating them” to a causal explanation; a form for “constructing juxtapositions” outside of any hierarchical method; a form for producing arguments without renouncing their “affinity to the visual image”; a form for seeking “a greater intensity than discursive thought can offer”; a form for not fearing “discontinuity” and for seeing in it, on the contrary, a sort of dialectic at a standstill, a “conflict brought to a standstill”; a form for refusing to conclude and, yet, for “letting the totality light up in one of its chosen or haphazard features”.
It is a form which, consequently, always proceeds in an experimental way, essentially working on a “presentation”, which reveals a certain relation to the work of art, even though its aim is clearly non-artistic. It is an “open form”—neither teleologically closed, nor strictly inductive, nor strictly deductive—that agrees to present a contingent and fragmentary material in which what is lost in precision is gained in legibility. It is a form that is both “realistic” and “dream-like”, able to “suspend the traditional concept of method” by seeking its truth content in the transitions.5 All in all, it is a question of re-actualising this form of montage that inherited the paradoxical “method” assumed by Walter Benjamin in his Arcades Project: “Method of this project: literary montage. I needn’t say anything. Merely show. I shall purloin no valuables, appropriate no ingenious formulations. But the rags, the refuse— these I will not inventory but allow, in the only way possible, to come into their own: by making use of them.”6

The choice and arrangement of images in Mnemosyne 42 at last seeks to give clarity to the political dimension inherent in the way that the theme of lamentations is treated therein. First, through the de-prioritised coexistence of “documents” and of “works of art”, where an old Romany woman filmed by an ethnomusicologist can rightfully appear alongside the Virgin Mary of Giotto’s Pietà; and then, through the practice of citation—but not appropriation—with the aim of giving images back to everyone rather than “taking them” for oneself when “one” fancies oneself to be the author of everything. Finally, it is a question of making sensitive the dialectic established between lamentation (the emotion, the non-power, the pathos) and political demands. We will see here how peoples in tears eventually become peoples armed, or at least, people who are not satisfied with pitying themselves in the face of death, but who demand justice and who make a complaint against a certain state of the historical world.

(3 July 2012).

Georges Didi-Huberman, temporary draft for Mnemosyne 42, July 2012.

  • 1. “Vom Einfluss der Antike. Diese Geschichte ist märchenhaft—to [= zu] verstellen. Gespenstergeschichte f[ür] ganz Erwachsene.” (“On the influence of the ancient world. This history is magical—to be dissembled. A ghost story for adults.”). A. Warburg, Mnemosyne. Grundbegriffe, II (2 July 1929) (London: Warburg Institute Archive, III.102.3–4), 3. Cf. G. Didi-Huberman, L’Image survivante. Histoire de l’art et temps des fantômes selon Aby Warburg (Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 2002). Id., Atlas ¿Cómo llevar el mundo a cuestas?, trans. M. D. Aguilera (Madrid: Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, 2010). — Atlas. How to Carry the World on One’s Back?, trans. S. B. Lillis (Madrid: Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, 2010). Atlas ou le gai savoir inquiet. L’œil de l’histoire, (Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 2011), 3.
  • 2. G. Didi-Huberman and A. Gisinger, Atlas, suite (Zürich, Paris: JRP|Ringier, 2013).
  • 3. A. Warburg, Der Bilderatlas Mnemosyne (1927–1929), Gesammelte Schriften, II–1, ed. M. Warnke and C. Brink (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2000), 76–77.
  • 4. I had previously attempted something like this, but in the space of a catalogue rather than an exhibition, in “Esquisse d’atlas”, Pascal Convert : Lamento, 1998–2005 (Luxembourg: Musée d’art moderne Grand-Duc Jean, 2007), 199–261.
  • 5. T. W. Adorno, “The Essay as Form”, in The Adorno Reader, trans. Brian O’Connor (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2000), 99, 104, 109.
  • 6. W. Benjamin, The Arcades Project (N1a,8), trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2002), 460.