Excavating and remembering

In his book "Sculpting in Time", [i] the filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky discusses that the visual uniformity of an artist lies in that he/she actually undertakes his/her work: an autonomous and consistent discourse that is directed at personal, human and artistic ethics. Having inherited a revolutionary legacy, he defended that the true artist has an ethical obligation and a responsible task, and that each one of us is personally responsible for acknowledging our past in the collective. This is the ultimate example of an artist that transformed aesthetics into human ethics; as proposed by Gabo, Pevesner, Rodchenko and all Russian artists of the first half of the 20th century, Tarkovsky compared the work of a film director to that of a sculptor who, guided by the inner logic of his future work, excludes everything that isn’t part of it.

The commitment towards individual truth – which, in the end, is always collective – supported the work of many thinkers in the 20th century, from Walter Benjamin to Primo Levi, Hannah Arendt and Stefan Zweig, Albert Camus and Samuel Beckett, from Piero Manzoni to Yves Klein and Joseph Beuys. Currently, it directs the work of artists that use their art like a voice of our conscience: Hans Haacke, Christian Boltanski, Francis Alys, Thomas Hirschhorn, Costa Vece and Daniel Blaufuks. The advocacy against forgetfulness is central to the work of these artists and it impregnates actuality. Their works stir the ashes of the past in order to warn the present that it is impossible to forget. Daniel Blaufuks works with the ruins of power, and uses memory as the ultimate weapon, creating a narrative built on other narratives, some of them anonymous, others from his own family.

Thinking of Daniel Blaufuks’s oeuvre takes me to Walter Benjamin’s intellectual omnipresence. The attachment to memory shown both by the philosopher and by the artist clearly expose the pain and the pleasure of knowing ourselves for what we are. Be it because both of them teach us, through their works, the value of memory, of affection or of despair, while fighting lack of memory, the gap of time, clinging to facts so they will not slip away like water down a drain. Both of them demiurges, warning us: yes, memory must be cultivated, for the good of health and to avoid the disease of ennui, which corrodes the soul. Wandering in the oeuvre of Daniel Blaufuks always leads me to Walter Benjamin’s memorable writings. Like Benjamin, I think that to write is to digress on the history of what is written, that which the philosopher called “faire de la flannerie.” My interest in the true and sensible mark of the philosopher in maximizing the mnemonic capacity brings me directly to the short, but precious and intense text titled "Excavation and Memory". Ipso facto, for those who don’t know it, I exalt its eloquence by transcribing it here:

Language has unmistakably made plain that memory is not an instrument for exploring the past, but rather a medium. It is the medium of that which is experienced, just as the earth is the medium in which ancient cities lie buried. He who seeks to approach his own buried past must conduct himself like a man digging.... He must not be afraid to return again and again to the same matter; to scatter it as one scatters earth, to turn it over as one turns over soil. For the matter itself is only a deposit, a stratum, which yields only to the most meticulous examination what constitutes the real treasure hidden within the earth: the images, severed from all earlier associations, that stand—like precious fragments or torsos in a collector’s gallery—in the prosaic rooms of our later understanding. It is undoubtedly useful to plan excavations methodically. Yet no less indispensable is the cautious probing of the spade in the dark loam. The man who merely makes an inventory of his findings, while failing to establish the exact location of where in today's ground the ancient treasures have been stored up, cheats himself of his richest prize.  In this sense, for authentic memories, it is far less important that the investigator report on them than that he mark, quite precisely, the site where he gained possession of them. Epic and rhapsodic in the strictest sense, genuine memory must therefore yield an image of the person who remembers, in the same way that a good archaeological report not only informs us about the strata from which its findings originate, but also gives an account of the strata which first had to be broken through .[ii]

This short text fits like a glove to Daniel Blaufuks’s image archaeology. Maybe because both are Jews with histories that cross in our time’s space and time, they both tell us it is not possible to forget, that forgetting is immoral! Benjamin, like Primo (Levi), Herbert (August, the artist’s grandfather), and Wladyslaw (Szpilman) are characters in histories that exist not only in books, films and photographs, their characters are part of a collective history, they belong to the layers of time that lie on top of other layers that were crossed before. The emptiness left by the vanishing of beings in the name of an arbitrary ideology are facts that pierce through the philosopher, that pierced through Daniel Blaufuks, and that pierced through us all historically. This spectre still insists is piercing through us thanks to the current recrudescence of some socio-political systems and increasing nostalgia for Nazi fascism in some European nations. The serpent’s egg is about to hatch again.   

Just like Walter Benjamin, the artist Daniel Blaufuks thinks in a time-based scale, and one sees that in his oeuvre there is an inclination to stop time, functioning like a Medusa: his look freezes the movement in order to reveal new angles, new interpretations of the real, which were unsuspected until that moment. That is why photography and film become this gaze that is negotiated between the real and its interpretation. His close-ups of little details like fading letters, molding wallpaper, broken glass, dust and dirt in a scene or the slow motion used to investigate and reveal the unexposed (the video work "Traum"). The theory of the allegory and melancholy unfolds a tense dialectics between the verbal and the visual, between silence and tautology. Just like Benjamin, who created an oeuvre fluctuating between the phonetic and the imagery, Blaufuks produces images of timely chiasmus, seeing each picture as a sort of fossil, a personal, but also a collective history. The artist, just like the philosopher, fights against a kind of "natural history of destruction."

As a man, Benjamin accumulated desolation in his passage through this world, and had to choose a lucid form of death by his own hands in order not let himself be taken by the greedy eagerness of the executioner; but as a thinker, he left a unique existential, biographic and philosophic testimony, in which his personal history correlates to the ruin of our history, to that architecture of destruction. Benjamin’s “Mein Kampf” was to write that History is not to quote history, but to live it, because the notion of quoting implies that the historical object being summoned is torn away from its context. In a very important text, "Passages", Walter Benjamin constructs a painful death of utopia through known pictures; after all, the image is crystallized dialectics. For, while the relationship of the present with the past is purely time-based, the relationship of what has occurred with the now is dialectic – not with a time-based character, but of imagery. Both for Benjamin and for Blaufuks, writing history means to bestow the dates with their own physiognomy. Blaufuks invites us to contemplate a vast socio-cultural fabric, which reflects and shapes our relationships with the environment at the same time as we weave the tissue of our own creation - a representation of ourselves. The world turns out to be always seen and known in the light of the projection we are making of our own inter-subjective condition. This profound desire, to know, is beautifully hidden in a series of strategies in which the most banal experience elicits a descriptionregarding how it is to live on earth by telling us exactly the opposite, how it is not..[iii]

Daniel Blaufuks’s characters wear the myth of the little hero, the man without qualities, the fallen angel, the wrong man; many are the film or literary accounts that could explain who these beings are, but the Blaufulksian narrative is based on the real, it is based on histories that were lived, the daily trifles. Blaufuks takes the stand of the historian handling familiar biographic materials, and so he acts as an agent and negotiator of history. Sophie Calle, herself an artist that acts as agent and negotiator of history, asks the viewer: Draw attention / Divert attention. Are you watching? Did you see me? Did you catch me by surprise? It didn’t escape your attention? That to which all answers are, to a certain degree, equivocal. And there it is, all subject matter. If we could answer with a “yes”, without ambiguity, without ambivalence, that would be the end of the game, and that wouldn’t be worth this candle that burns in such a “paranerving” and inquisitive way.[i]

The puzzle is solved, for there are many ways to narrate a history, be it through scientific research, in an attempt to stick to the facts, or through interpretation, advocating a particular approach. Art that presents itself as true tries to join the two ends of the thread. This is how I think Daniel Blaufuks handles his topics and his characters – deriving from his detailed scientific and philosophic investigation the interpretational grounds for its public exhibition, thus avoiding the artificialness and the apologia of images that are surreal or explicitly violent. He prefers Husserl’s phenomenological approach, encouraging the viewer to construct his/her own narrative based on the fragments and signs presented by the artist. His is the role of the interpreter, or if you prefer an auspicious place, the dialectic mediator of a history that doesn’t belong to him but belongs to him.


[i] Tarkovsky,  Andrei. Esculpir o tempo. São Paulo: Martins Fontes, 1990.

[ii] Benjamin, Walter. Obras Escolhidas II – Rua de mão única. 5th ed. São Paulo: Brasiliense.

[iii] Safran, Yehuda. A Perfect Day

[iv] Calle, Sophie, Beaux Art Magazine, Venice Edition, 2007