LOS ANGELES — A clanking sound emitting from six 16mm projectors fills the room with a loud rhythm. The repetitious tone mirrors the flashing patterns lighting up on the screens at Sprüth Magers. On display are short films that showcase every page in a series of notebooks used by Hanne Darboven to record the date during the tumultuous year of 1968. The bluntly titled Six Books on 1968 (1969) demonstrates Darboven’s meticulous method for tracking time, which strips away memory and turns recordkeeping into a strictly scientific study.
Though trained as a painter, Darboven became known for the numbers and text written in orderly notebooks, which she carefully preserved over the course of her career. Her obsession with sparse, conceptual work brewed when she befriended minimalists like Sol LeWitt and On Kawara in New York City, and their influence is apparent in her fascination with date and time.
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Darboven, however, didn’t just transpose information onto paper. She developed her own form of calculations to reinterpret the way we read a date. Called konstruktionen (construction), Darboven would slice up a day’s integers and add their values together. January 1, 1968 would be broken down into 1 + 1 + 6 + 8, adding up to 16, and that would become its K-value, which Darboven would use as the basis for future writings and drawings. While this process might seem adjacent to an esoteric study like numerology, it was purely rational. Darboven wanted to remove memory and emotion from our associations with chronology. Just as LeWitt used minimalism to distill geometric forms, Darboven used it to expose the raw structure of time.
Six Books on 1968 focuses on the six different ways Darboven visualized her konstruktionen method. For one year, she recorded each method in its own graph paper notebook, then turned each notebook into its own reel of film. The bright white page flashes on screen, with Darboven’s precise notation creating the composition. Sometimes it’s a minimalist grid, and sometimes it’s a busy waterfall of numbers. Then, for just a moment the screen goes dark, representing the turn of a page, before the next day brightens the room again.
At Sprüth Magers, all six reels of film are lined in a row, allowing you to view all the notebooks at once. They are not perfectly synched, so three notebooks might be flashing while the other three screens are dark. For the briefest of moments, you might find the entire room illuminated, but the notebooks will quickly fall out of step. The retro machines’ refusal to communicate with one another only amplifies their machinations; this is the world before algorithms and machine learning.
When Darboven originally screened these works in Germany, each projector was in its own room, allowing you to focus purely on its form and method. With Sprüth Magers placing all reels in one space, you may find yourself studying the blinking screens like morse code, searching for meaning in something that is supposed to be deprived of a message.
Only one reel, placed on the far right, eschews konstruktionen for the most traditional method of writing down date. In this notebook, Darboven records every day sequentially, row by row. Because this doesn’t require a flip of a page, this reel plays like movie credits at super-speed. It’s too fast to catch the time of year, which helps the viewer feel emotionally distant, but compared to the other five notebooks, this one is vigorously animated.
The footage in motion evokes the sensation of human life, which helpfully connects Darboven’s work to the period it was made. 1968 was the year of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, the May ’68 student uprisings in France, and the Tet Offensive in the Vietnam War. Though Darboven was set on making work that did not bind narrative to time, it is impossible to see the year 1968 and not think of these events. It is ironic that even Darboven’s most conventional calendar of 1968 would be the one that most stirs up history. If anything, this demonstrates the success of Darboven’s more geometric representations of the date; without context, they appear like mathematical formulas attempting to solve an impossible problem.
Ultimately, our paradigms of time still overtake Darboven’s experiments. Had this year been ’67 or ’69, maybe we’d think less of the historical significance and focus solely on the notation, but the coincidence of recording ’68, one of the most newsworthy years in the 20th century, injects so much intrigue into this work. Darboven could not divorce time from the memories viewers have with that period. Emotion is more powerful than reason.
Hanne Darboven: Six Books on 1968 is on view at Sprüth Magers (5900 Wilshire Boulevard, Carthay, Los Angeles) through July 16, 2022. The exhibition is organized by the gallery.