Why is history fascinating

What fascinates us about fossils: Holding the past in your hands

My story begins in my grandmother's attic, where my uncle kept some fossils that magically attracted me as a child. The fact that I was holding in my hands the petrified forms of creatures that had lived on earth millions of years ago cast a spell over me. This experience of touching something in the here and now of the grandmother's summer house that came from an unimaginably distant past, concerns me to this day, even if not as a paleontologist.

Decades after the childhood experience in the attic, I try to understand how we think about the past, what ideas we have of it and what role objects and images play in it. "Understanding" is to be understood here in both senses of the word. As a representative of artistic research, the production of artifacts, or the knowledge and experience necessary for this, is an important part of my approach to a topic.

What are dialectical images?

My current research project is devoted to the philosophy of history of the philosopher Walter Benjamin (1892–1940), which he explains in the "Passagen-Werk" - his fragmentary history of the 19th century. The central concept of his philosophy of history is the "dialectical image". What is a dialectical picture? Benjamin defines it as that "in which the past and the now come together in a flash to form a constellation". As puzzling as this definition may seem at first glance, it sums up what fascinates us about fossils, namely the immediate presence of something in the past - such as the ammonites that died out 66 million (!) Years ago, one of which finds its way into the house my grandmother found.

Benjamin's thinking of history thus revolves around the dialectical image which he identifies with the "historical object". Without going into the questions raised by Benjamin's concepts, we can state that for him it is the task of historiography to "construct" dialectical images. This formulation brings the historian closer to the artist: composing a picture is something that is spontaneously more associated with the artist than with the historian. Here we come back to artistic research and the question of whether it is possible to generate dialectical images with the means of art?

The past in the now

Of course, Benjamin's dialectical images are not the way we look at them in museums, for example. The dialectical image is dynamic, a "constellation saturated with tensions" that "flashes" and thus more reminiscent of a vision or mental images as they appear in dreams. There is, however, a concrete starting point that the art historian Georges Didi-Huberman provided with his exhibition on the Imprint in Art History, which was shown in 1997 at the Center Pompidou in Paris. In the book accompanying the exhibition - which was published in German under the title "Similarity and Touch" - Didi-Huberman relates the dialectical image to the print.

In fact, Benjamin's definition of the "constellation of the past with the now" fits not only to fossils, but also to the fleeting footprint in the sand: this shows the contact with the foot as well as the absence of this contact and thus forms a constellation of the past - the past moment of touch that left the imprint - with the present in which the imprint becomes visible when the foot is no longer there. Between the fossilized prints from prehistoric times and the ephemeral ones that we leave on the beach, there is a broad spectrum of the most varied, both permanent and ephemeral forms and techniques of imprinting. The history of art in particular knows a multitude of methods for making impressions or casts. Examples are the frottage, the photogram or the self-printing of nature, which I will talk about later.

Negative prints

In fact, art history has been about imprints from the start. Negative handprints are often found in the Neolithic cave paintings of all continents. Here the palm is not pressed directly, but the color pigments are left out where the hand has touched the rock, so that it is visible as a negative. On closer inspection, even this simple gesture turns out to be astonishingly complex, because the hand in the negative imprint is both there and not there in two ways. Here too, however, we are dealing with the absence of contact. When we imagine placing our hand on one of the prints our ancestors left thousands of years ago, it is as if we could touch that past. In this respect, the imprint not only indicates the absence of a touch, but also enables something like a touch of this absence. This thought expresses something of the fascination that the encounter with fossils had for me as a child and inspires my plan to create things that, similar to prehistoric handprints, give an idea of ​​what Benjamin understood with his concept of the dialectical image tries. In this context, Didi-Huberman speaks of a "complexity of time" that is justified by the artist who makes use of a printing process.

Reconstruction of the past

A series of works that wants to meet this claim is "The Pencil of Nature". With natural self-printing, I reconstruct a forgotten printing technique that was perfected in the mid-19th century and relate it to the photographic experiments carried out by William Henry Fox Talbot at the same time. For his attempts to record the incidence of light on paper, Talbot used plants that he pressed onto the prepared paper with glass plates and exposed to sunlight in order to then fix them as negative silhouettes. The botanical photograms created in this way, like self-prints of nature, are based on physical contact with their object. Self-printing in nature begins with an imprint of the object to be printed in lead, from which a copper gravure printing plate is produced by means of two galvanoplastic impressions. In terms of production technology, it is the imprint, the physical contact, that creates the image.

This parallel between nature's self-printing and the beginnings of photography is underlined not only by the title - "The Pencil of Nature" is also the name of the publication with which Talbot presented his photographic process in 1844-46 - but also the choice of motifs: the natural self-prints show copies of the Plants that can be identified on Talbot's photograms. Through this reference to the history of photography, my series also brings into play the different temporalities that characterize photography and natural self-printing. While we usually speak of fractions of a second when it comes to exposure times in photography, the individual production steps of natural self-printing require longer periods of time. On the motif level, there is another temporality with the plants: the cyclical time of nature, which for us is an ahistorical time.

The various levels of temporality and historicity that "The Pencil of Nature" addresses are only sketched out, but I hope that the series of works in Didi-Huberman's sense establishes a complexity of time. In doing so, I do not just want to provide illustrative material for reflecting on the dialectical image, but also set such thinking in motion: the viewer should feel the joyful excitement that the historian feels when he comes across a promising source. (Anna Artaker, August 15, 2018)

Anna Artaker is an artist and Elise Richter PEEK Fellow at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, where she is preparing her habilitation with the title "Media of History". Her work has received multiple awards and has been exhibited internationally. As the first representative of artistic research, she has been a member of the Young Academy of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (ÖAW) since 2015, and was elected to the board of directors in 2018.