October 13–19, 2013:
Warburg Week in London

Posted February 25, 2014

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In October, Goshka Macuga and Dieter Roelstraete spent a week inside the archive of the Warburg Institute at the University of London. There, they were able to study the Hamburg Comedy written by Aby Warburg in the winter of 1896—the year of the eccentric German art historian’s widely publicized travels to the American Southwest (a journey broken up by a visit to Chicago, we learned during our visit to the archive).

This playlet, which was only performed once, at a Warburg family gathering in Hamburg on December 31, 1896, has never been translated or published; it only exists as a manuscript written down in the late 19th-century German longhand, the deciphering of which effectively requires paleographic expertise. The play’s classic generational dynamic—it tells the story of young and old clashing over what should be considered good or progressive art, or what should be considered art at all—sounds a familiar note, and it is this age-old story of the “quarrel of the ancients and the moderns” that acts as the inspiration guiding the writing, now well under way, of Macuga’s Chicago Comedy.

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Goshka Macuga in front of (top) and entering (above) the Warburg Institute at the University of London. This is not her first visit to the building that holds the archive and personal library of the pioneering German-Jewish art historian. In 2008, Macuga turned to Warburg’s fabled Amerikareise as the main point of reference and source of inspiration for her solo exhibition at the Kunsthalle Basel . Warburg’s revolutionary associative way of thinking about art and culture could be said to act as something of a model for Macuga’s own way of doing things—something which this particular part of her MCA residency is meant to tease out.

The stone seal above the front door depicts the four elements, air, earth, fire and water, encircling the holy trinity of man, world, and year. The Greek inscription above the first door inside the building reads “memory.” Mnemosyne was actually the mother of the nine muses (one of which, Thalia, is the proverbial patron saint of comedy). She also gave her name to what is arguably Aby Warburg’s best-remembered opus, the so-called Mnemosyne Atlas—a series of 63 wooden boards on which Warburg depicted hundreds of different images spanning centuries, cultures, traditions—in effect, a collage-like technique of ordering things not unlike that practiced by Macuga herself.

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Another view of the Warburg Institute is the archive on the fourth floor, where the blinds are never drawn but perennially lowered. The institute’s revered library is on the ground floor, while Warburg’s massive photo collection—including those images used in his Mnemosyne Atlas as well as the photographs he made (or that were made of him) during his trip to the States—is stored on the second floor.

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Whosoever thought secrecy had no future or place in the world after Edward Snowden should pay a visit to the Warburg Institute, where it is forbidden to take photographs. We were not allowed to photograph the manuscript of Warburg’s original Hamburg Comedy; the only reproductive technology tolerated within the walls of the Institute is that consisting of pencil (no pens) and paper.

And so we set about hand-copying the manuscript in question, or rather, the different drafts, written by different people (Warburg, his fiancée Mary, an unnamed secretary), one less legible than the other, all adhering to orthographic conventions long since lost. Still, this was a singularly thrilling experience, shedding light on questions that had long vexed us with regards to the actual contents and structure of Warburg’s play, and thereby providing decisive guidance in the process of conceptualizing and refining our own Chicago Comedy.

These are the hands of Goshka and the institute’s head archivist Claudia Wedepohl; Goshka’s hand is resting on her own book, on a page depicting a diagram drawn by Warburg that might inform some of the movements planned to be written into the Chicago Comedy.

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Here we see the artist in her studio, tinkering with the model of the MCA’s Edlis Neeson Theater that was made to her specifications during an earlier trip to Chicago. Visitors to the MCA may perhaps recognize the maquette shown here on a stool in the studio and deposited on the model theatre’s stage: it is the original sketch for Model for a Sculpture (Family), 2011, one of the centerpieces of Goshka’s exhibition at the MCA.

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Warburg Week was concluded in the London townhouse of George and Marjorie Greig, long-time supporters of the MCA who recently acquired one of Goshka’s tapestries. A photo collage like her other tapestries, this piece depicts an assembly of women in various states of undress gathered in front of Karl Marx’ grave in Highgate Cemetery, a mere seven miles from where this picture was taken.

The tapestry is meant to roll on to the floor, and you’re meant to sit on it, as if enjoying a picnic in the park, all the while taking in the spectacle of a young woman cleaning the Marx memorial. Death of Marxism, Women of All Lands Unite, as the work is titled, could scarcely have found a better or more appropriate home, especially given Goshka’s long-standing interest in theatre and the arts of the stage: this is the former house of the legendary English playwright Noel Coward, who had a stage built in it so as to better rehearse his plays. We can easily imagine the preparations for the Chicago Comedy taking place in such a historically apt location…