Look both ways

The Editors

From Emily Berry’s “The End” in Stranger, Baby (London: Faber, 2017)

January 5, 2021

Happy new year. It can’t be as bad as the last one, as everyone keeps telling us, apparently unaware that fate shouldn’t be tempted. We’re equally suspicious of statements to the effect that the coming year represents a fresh start, a blank slate, or a new frontier to be conquered. The past figured as an effaced text or exhausted patch of land, to be abandoned as the world moves west into unspoiled territory.

We’ve been working a lot on our online archive, as you might be able to tell. Reading old texts while plotting a path through the coming year has reinforced the impression that past and future are entangled in stranger ways than the above metaphors allow. The relevance of pieces written a decade ago, in the early days of art-agenda, to the present moment can be uncanny. Those curious correspondences have left us with the feeling that a new year is a moment in which to reappraise the landscape rather than stride into a brave new world.

Moving through an archive is to be reminded that the past does not slide smoothly “away,” like garbage down a chute, but accumulates around us and crops up in the most unexpected places. Nor is this historical debris inert: it cannot safely be buried underground or defused by a symbolic object’s entry into—let’s say—the permanent collection of a museum. Events from the past act upon us, shape the lives we live, and the futures we inhabit, whether or not we are conscious of it. One of the great questions of art is how we relate to it, organize it, instrumentalize it.

In the twenty-first century we are conscious that there is no “away,” that things don’t simply disappear when they’re out of our sight, because that attitude is making the planet uninhabitable. The past too is never dead, it is not even past, as someone who understood it once wrote. We might stretch the analogy to suggest that the future could be served by learning to better organize and recycle the wreckage of history. We might attend more closely to the systems that determine what bits of it end up where, contemplate the shapes we give to it and scrutinize the purposes to which it is being put. Looking at works of art is good practice for this kind of thinking.

In that spirit we start the new year with reviews from New York and London of work that challenges fixed interpretations not only of the past but of its psychological corollary, identity, and a report on how digital forms are expanding the notion of a trans archive. Further ahead, there will be reviews from wherever galleries and institutions are open to the public, more discussions across closed borders in our “Conversation” series and across time in our “Rearview” features, reflections on how the space in which we experience art defines and is defined by it, and book reviews for those whose experience of art is confined to the home. Beyond that, we don’t know what the coming year will hold, but we hope that offering easier and more flexible access to our own archives might, in some small way, help you navigate it.

Libraries & Archives, Identity Politics
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January 5, 2021

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