Archives: Materiality and Corporeality

Post by Alessandra Ferrini

Candida Höfer’s photographs portray the architecture of knowledge and power. Archives, libraries, banks and government’s buildings, are all part of her repertoire. The way she frames these spaces, stresses their temple-like structures and cultural value. The large-format and monumental images also evoke a presence: their size, medium and subject draw attention on their physical existence, their sheer materiality. They demand the viewer to focus on the space itself – the way it is organized and the material it contains. Höfer records the architecture of libraries together with its furniture (not just shelves, but also tables and chairs). Although her photographs are usually devoid of people, this furniture reminds us of its users and calls into question the absence of the body. On the other hand, when Höfer includes people in her photographs, their figures are blurred, a ghostly presence prone to dematerialization. This is because of the need of shooting with long exposures in order to capture as much detail and definition. However, the result is intentional: nothing is accidental in Höfer’s simple but carefully constructed images. She thus mimics the control that these sites exercise on the body, reminding us of the constraint that the archive imposes on corporeality.

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The regulation of institutional space that surfaces in Höfer’s work, was extensively studied by Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish (1975), an examination of the prison system and of the discipline inflicted on bodies. Foucault argues that all institutional spaces are controlled in similar ways that facilitate the disciplining of the body. These strategies dictate the spatial organization of prisons, schools, hospital and archives. They can be summarized as follow:

enclosing: the creation of a site that is different and that is characteristic of its function
partitioning: the separation of bodies in order to decrease interaction and facilitate the imposing of discipline
functioning: the establishment of a useful, but supervised, space
ranking: the administration of space through a hierarchical organization

By evoking the body’s presence through its absence, Höfer records the way the archive acts as a site for the enforcement and negotiation of power and discipline over knowledge production and the body. Her photographs portray a site that is not neutral. Here, power relations dictate the organization of space and thus make us aware of the presence of this apparatus and the way, as bodies, we are embedded into it.

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