(January 25, 2008)--The front page of a five-year-old newspaper; a silent reel of film discovered in a storage box; snapshots retrieved from flea market bins - these are elements of a vast archive of collective experience. At least that's the premise of "Archive Fever," an ambitious new exhibit at the International Center of Photography that looks at how artists use found images to create something new.
An archive, in this context, is not merely a library or a database, but a delicate abstraction enlisted to support a heavy burden of conceptual material. I'm not sure curator Okwui Enwezor is clarifying matters much when, in an introductory text, he defines an archive as "a critical methodology for shaping and constructing the meaning of images." In practice, the artists in the show use pre-existing images in their work, rip them from their context, and then distort, edit, add and remove. The danger of this process is that the loaded material that fascinated an artist in the first place can overpower its next incarnation.
That's exactly what happens in Eyal Sivan's two-hour video from 1999 called "The Specialist: Eichman in Jerusalem." Like many such conceptual works, the piece comes with elaborate exegesis, explaining that the artist has jumbled footage of the Nazi commander's 1961 trial, undermining its narrative and giving life to Hannah Arendt's famous phrase, "The Banality of Evil." But what you actually see feels more like a judiciously edited version of a pivotal legal moment - still so raw and appalling that Sivan's ministrations seem utterly beside the point.
I suppose Hanns-Peter Feldmann must feel bravely analytic and trenchantly critical in filling a room with front pages from newspapers around the world, all published Sept. 12, 2001. In the catalog, Enwezor calls the installation a "provocation," and asks rhetorically, "Is September 11 principally a media event for the global public?" In a word: no.
Feldmann's point, whatever it is, gets swallowed in the visceral impact of the photographs, repeated again and again, a visual assault that makes all critical thinking about imagery and its uses seem unforgivably precious.
Far subtler and more successful is "Intervista," a video by Anri Sala. The Albanian artist had unearthed some silent television footage from the 1970s, showing his young mother participating rapturously in a government-sponsored Marxist rally. With a gumshoe's doggedness, Sala tries to figure out what she was doing there, what she was saying, and most important, what she was feeling when she said it. He finds that she has forgotten the event and is dumbfounded by her own enthusiasm for an utterly corrupt regime.
With sensitivity and tenderness, Sala studies the way a totalitarian system extends its tendrils into the mind, tampering with memory and passion. In the process, he produces a meditation that stands out among the clumsy manifestos.
ARCHIVE FEVER: USES OF THE DOCUMENT IN CONTEMPORARY ART. Through May 4 at the International Center of Photography, 1114 Ave. of the Americas (at 43rd Street), Manhattan. For hours and admission prices call 212-857-0045 or visit www.ipc.org.