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Notes Toward a New Language: The Collage

Mamma Andersson, Filly

This past year I’ve been teaching poetry workshops based on the idea of the jeweled lyric poem. The lyric poem is a poem that utilizes the “I.” A “jeweled” lyric poem is a lyric poem that jewels “outside information” into the poem using what I call a beading technique: the poem utilizes words that are fused with meaning so rather than tell or explain a story, this type of poem shows, not by examples, but by beading a series of words, each word a symbol or bead. Here, I am thinking of Fanny Howe’s poem, Yellow Goblins:


Yellow goblins
and a god I can swallow:

Eyes in the evergreens
under ice.

Interior monologue
and some voice.

Weary fears, the
usual trials and

a place to surmise

The poem is neither telling a story nor attempting to explain. Instead, the reader is invited into an experience. The poem is experiential. The words used are filled with meaning: “yellow,” “goblins,” “a god,” and so on. The words are specific enough to direct the reader in one specific direction without being so esoteric that the reader becomes lost.

It is a kind of collaging but not the random, poetry-magnet-flarf-erasure-kind-of-collaging(random piecing together of images or words). Rather, it is a kind of collaging where one does , indeed, collage but makes deliberate choices when she puts the pieces together. Like collagists:

Hannah Höch, Around a Red Mouth

Each item, cut out, then affixed to the artwork becomes one more word, one more symbol. Höch’s collages aren't “telling” us anything nor are they explaining. Instead, they enact and convey. The “telling,” is in the details. This is form, of course.

In this type of work there are many different readings because the work is complex, layered, just as there is no one experience—it is complicated and as a result the image has multiple meanings or interpretations. And yet, the very act of cutting, of violently separating and then, Frankensteining the images back together enacts fragmentation, the breaking apart of culture, of the self, of our connection with one another. It resists the push for a nice conclusion, for sweet summation; it says there is none.

Careful attention to detail suggests a mind that is thoughtful, perhaps hesitant, making work as a means of moving toward an answer to the unanswerable questions. It is also indicative of a curiosity, a wish to know--an opening up rather than a closing down.

In my recent collection of poems, Wunderkammer, I explored, on multiple levels, the issues of generational trauma, personal trauma, the archive and memory, clutter, chaos, and excess. I researched the work of different German, Swiss, and Austrian artists and writers who work(ed) with the archive including Walter Benjamin, Gerhard Richter, Rosemarie Trockel, Hanne Darboven, Dieter Roth, Thomas Bernhard and Aby Warburg. Here, again, I examined the ways that setting one thing next to another create meaning. For example, Hanne Darboven's project, Kulturgeschichte, arguably her most known work, consists of, according to Lynne Cooke in her Introduction (Hanne Darboven: May 3, 2003-March 26, 2005):

1600 panels and almost 20 objects, includes “troves of postcards to a saccharine annual calendar, images of contemporary artists, and artworks taken from a catalogue for an exhibition in Cologne in the mid-60s, fragments of some of her own earlier pieces, plans for military battles from WWI, a series of photographs of doorways, along streets on the Upper East Side of New York, pinups of film and rock celebrities, designs for textile patterns, religious imagery, busts of political figures, manikins, and much else.

Hanne Darboven, Kulturgeschichte

Hanne Darboven, Kulturgeschichte

It is, like all of her work, a veritable wunderkammer, a mass collection of things. And yet, the objects escape curation; she does not force meaning upon them or on the work, overall. Or, as Jans Verwoert writes, “They aren't wrapped in a cocoon by the sticky spider yarn of pervasive ego…”  In other words, though she does have a hand in the work by choosing what to include and what not to include, she doesn't curate the work in any way. In fact, when Kulturgeschichte was exhibited at DIA, Darboven gave no instruction how to set up the work, not arriving in New York until a few hours before the show opened. Darboven leaves herself out of it. Dan Adler writes:

…Cultural History is relentlessly resistant to being read in terms of an overriding system. Idiosyncratic linkages, a few vials patterns and perhaps even narrative cohesiveness are apparent here and there, but the images do not ‘admit’ any interpretive insights into what sort of cultural history Darboven is providing.

I looked, also, at the work of Aby Warburg, a German art historian who wrote his doctoral thesis on Botticelli's mythologies and, in 1927 began to compose a work in the form of a picture atlas. This project he named Mnemosyne. It consisted of 40 wooden panels covered with black cloth, on which were pinned nearly 1,000 pictures from books, magazines, newspaper and other daily life sources.

These pictures were arranged according to different themes:
1. Coordinates of memory
2. Astrology and mythology
3. Archaeological models
4. Migrations of the ancient gods
5. Vehicles of tradition
6. Irruption of antiquity
7. Dionysiac formulae of emotions
8. Nike and Fortuna
9. From the Muses to Manet
10. Dürer: the gods go North
11. The age of Neptune
12. "Art officiel" and the baroque
13. Re-emergence of antiquity
14. The classical tradition today

Aby Warburg, Mnemosyne Atlas

Aby Warburg,Mnemosyne Atlas

There were no captions and only a few texts in the atlas. The way the work is to be read overall is complex but suffice to say 1) there is no one way to read the project and 2) like the Fanny Howe poem and the Höch collage, like the rooms of panels and objects in Hanne Darboven's Kulturgeschichte: much of the meaning is to be culled from the relationships between images set next to one another. Also, importantly, like the collage and like poetry connected by words infused with meaning but without direct explication, the work resists reduction.

This kind of work can be described as a kind of morse code—consisting, again, of a string of words or images, each filled with meaning. This can also be seen as a form of stuttering and also of being filled with holes. This type of work allows space for the reader’s own interpretations, allowing the reader to make her own connective tissue. This type of communication enacts a fracturing, a broken-ness. It is a kind of pasting together of memories, of images—the way a survivor might express the inexplicable.

The German artist, Isa Genzken, also works in this manner:

Isa Genzken, Spielautomat (Slot Machine)

Isa Genzken, White Horse

In addition to her visual work, Genzken also made an artist book, I Love New York, Crazy City which is actually the result of combining three artist's books (of collaged work) together.

The collages are constructed of photographs, images from newspapers and magazines, receipts (her own from fashion boutiques, hotels, and so on), and other miscellanea.

Isa Genzken, I Love New York, Crazy City

I have also been thinking of the work of artists such as Camille Henrot, Rosemarie Trockel, Cosima von Bonin and Pierre Huygye. What some of these artists have done is curated the work of other artists into their own shows which, again, creates a missing link (between the artist’s own work and the curated artist’s work) which the viewer must now come up with. But what I find perhaps even more interesting about all of these artists is how they curate their own work without providing connective tissue so that when one views the works of these artists one must come up with a connective tissue between the artists own work.

Rosemarie Trockel, from A Cosmos

Camille Henrot, from The Pale Fox

When, this past summer, I saw Pierre Huyghe’s retrospective in Köln, I was able to experience these loose connections first hand. The exhibition sprawled through many different rooms and hallways; there was no there, there, no main attraction. Visitors wandered quietly from room to room or sat on the makeshift benches places throughout. Some rooms were darkened, with aquariums filled with creatures who, like the visitors, also moved about. From the corner of my eye, I thought I saw something moving and when I did a double take, saw that there was, indeed, a thin white dog moving through the exhibition. It occurred to me to follow him and so I did.

Pierre Huyghe, Untilled

Pierre Huyghe,Untitled (Light Box), Human, Player

But other visitors either did not see the dog or didn't take this a sign that the dog ought to be followed. There was enough space in the show for our own individual experiences and interpretations but, again, not so much so that the work was meaningless. The work is not meaningless, it is political and emotional, social, scientific—in other words, it is many things and the meanings cannot be contained. At one point, I made my way alone through a hall that lead to outdoors (outside the museum), I looked up and saw the sculpture of a naked body wearing what appeared to be a bee’s nest. The sense I had was visceral—sensual and scientific, I saw too that the work was trying to tell em something but nothing concrete, no sound byte. I looked up and saw to my surprise, a dark fur jacket hanging off the wall in the exhibit as if anyone could take it and try it on. Fashion, I thought, beauty and fashion, identity and escape, and the end times.

I had a similiar experience at the Kolumba Museum, also in Köln, where, for example, byzantine works were displayed next to abstract paintings. Again, there were no explanations given, we were to do the work to make the connections ourselves. There was enough space for this (both physically and mentally) and this museum was by far one of the most enjoyable of my visit to Germany.

Kolumba Museum, from Shrine exhibition

This type of work is similar to the Paris or Salon style of hanging paintings:


And what can happen here, just as what happens in the work of all the other artists I’ve discussed so far, is that the viewer gets to see the work viewed but also, by placing the work next to other dissimilar work, a new world is triggered in the space between. This is what happens when, for example, in a poem, I place the word “gold” next to “furs.”. The reader experiences the two words but also the world that occurs when these two words meet and, of course, the new sound made by the meeting of these two words. What else happens is that the mind is jolted. Here, for example, we see the word, “furs,” but then the mind wakes up and says, “furze.” And so when disparate pieces are set next to one another, a game of association and of expansion (of meaning) occurs. It is a widening out, an opening up rather than a closing down.

It is like the stutter in that it is like a comb or a ladder: different pieces with spaces in between. It mimics the speech pattern of the stutter, of hesitation and, in a sense the artist(s) vanish into the background, allowing for the things, to speak for her, instead.

Originally Published: April 6th, 2015

American poet Cynthia Cruz is the author of Wunderkammer (Four Way Books, 2014), The Glimmering Room (Four Way Books, 2012), and Ruin (Alice James, 2006).She has published poems in numerous literary journals and magazines including the New Yorker, Kenyon Review, the Paris Review, and the Boston Review, and in anthologies including...