File Note 67: Hanne Darboven - Camden Art Centre

Essay by Annelie Pohlen



From  → to  → Writing Time Images References Quote Biography Credits

From  → to  → Writing Time

‘To everything there is a season … A time to be born and a time to die.’ This is what we read in the book of Ecclesiastes. The same is true of plants: there is a time to pluck up what is planted, to kill, to heal, to build, weep, laugh, mourn or dance, and it also says that man cannot fathom the work of God, ‘from the beginning to the end … That which hath been is now; and that which is to be hath already been; and God requireth that which is past …’ 1

The turbo-charged system of today’s world and its global networking means that we have not only mislaid God but also the rhythm of time that He decreed. Now, common sense must reject as futile any attempt to trace the time cited in that pre-rational, Old Testament, vision of the world. Does the time exist? Does it go forwards — in a linear fashion, year after year, century after century, as the object of some great history counter? Is time yesterday, today or tomorrow? Is it what the clocks say? Or does the sun prescribe time to the planets? If this was the case, surely it would have to keep restarting — or even go around in circles? In the digital age, what counts is the fastest possible assimilation of facts. Time is money now — and it’s expensive. Measured in such terms, Hanne Darboven has thrown away endless time and likewise filled excessive, cost-intensive space with her time-work.

1000 words is my contract, to cover an œuvre of four decades that frequently puts thousands of ‘written’ sheets into sequences, which — each separately framed — cover walls and entire rooms like ornamentation or fill display cases and shelves when stored in files or bound into books. Begun in 1971, the ‘große arbeit’ [great work] alone comprises 40,000 sheets and is still unfinished despite such a wealth of material. Actually, it is not the sheer number of works but their intellectually, emotionally and sensually charged intensity, their encoding with such abstract regularity, which confuses, overwhelms, and even scares away not only predominantly rational specialists in efficiency. 

2011 was the 20th anniversary of the Museum für Moderne Kunst Frankfurt am Main and visitors were lured into a lecture room by a sound loop of more or less familiar noises. A black and white film was being shown. The camera pans across a room stuffed with the products of high culture and knick-knacks, useful things and curiosities; the scene then changed to a fairground, passed through the streets of a town, and then returned to the first interior. At one point it stops in front of a pile of boxes like the ones still used to store documents of all kinds to the present day. When those familiar files with handwritten labels appear, at the very latest, the initiated know that this film must have something to do with Hanne Darboven. Four Seasons. The Moon Has Risen. Act II is the title of the 16mm. film dating from 1982–83. The running time on the label is 57 minutes and 24 seconds. It shows her place in Hamburg-Harburg, a breathtaking combination of collector’s archive and researcher’s workshop, the laboratory of an artist who has been lending an exemplary physical presence to her debate with reality since the sixties.2

“My secret is that I don’t have one”, is one much-cited statement about a (mis-) understanding of her work that is still prevalent even today. This approach oscillates between two contrasting extremes: unquestioning admiration for her appropriation of reality, its radical reduction to basic abstract components and the tremendously diverse ‘illustrative material’ deriving from it on the one hand; and a semi-automatic qualification of her system of rigid graphic ‘patterns’ as too reminiscent of book-keeping and ⁄ or obsession on the other. 

Hanne Darboven first discovered graph paper in New York in 1966, and — a little later — began operations on the basis of cross sums of numbers as an enduring principle of construction. Meanwhile, despite sufficient warnings, the worlds of economics, society and politics were still teetering in an ecstasy of progress — and the art scene continued to bask in self-sufficient waves of formal innovation. Apart from an isolated few, that is, who dropped out and quite literally took reality into their own hands. In 1965 Roman Opalka decided to write down the numbers to infinity, day after day, according to a principle that he had devised himself — continuing until his death. On Kawara started his Date Paintings in 1966 and Hanne Darboven discovered her ‘writing time’: first for the day, then the month, the year, the century and finally for periods of time in which outstanding individuals — politicians like Bismarck, scientists like Leibniz or poets like Heine — wrote history. Or at least according to the common, rarely questioned interpretation: a history that is always its own political, social and cultural present. And also, as in her Hommage à Picasso (2006) comprising 9,720 sheets and a staged space incorporating a wealth of references to the final decade of the recently ended century, in order to pose the fundamental question about the meaning of (her, or) any kind of artistic practice.

Of course, even in the ’60s, the artist could have spared herself handwritten calculations of cross sums for days, months, years and centuries. The fact is, however, that she has never been concerned with mathematical or indeed any kind of rationally-based operations but with time as an existential experience, with a process that she, the artist-subject, completes intellectually, emotionally and physically, a process that can be followed by each viewer individually, realised within a self-defined system that is no more arbitrary than any other system invented by mankind: it is the appropriation of reality — of what happens now and what came about long ago, and what will be and has long since been — in her own unique way by writing numbers and words in geometric modules or endless wave-like movements in the style of unwritten texts. And finally, in images from her collector’s archive, as silent witnesses to a time encoded from multiple perspectives and always lived through. “I feel no responsibility towards so-called mathematics … I think it’s marvellous … that numbers exist, you can use them, can draw things with them, like angles, curves etc.” She even wrote in this vein in a letter dated 09 June 1967 3 before she had tied the laws of algebra to their existential variant in the cross sums from dates on the calendar. This is not some rule or other within some order or other but an order of Darboven’s own, comprehensible and exemplary of release from any form of prescribed reality. In 2004 Lawrence Weiner answered her question “Do you read me?” by writing “I read you loud and clear    The writing does not fill a void    The writing enters into a world filled with many things    The writing from the first stroke is a fait accompli    The writing is today    We write therefore we are” 4.


1 The Holy Bible, Old Testament King James Version, Ecclesiastes 3.1

2 Now owned by the Hanne Darboven Foundation

3 Letters from New York, 1966–68, 1997

4 13.03.2009

Lucy Lippard ‘Hanne Darboven: Deep in Numbers’ Artforum (October 1973) pp. 35–39

Jean-Pierre Bordaz ‘Hanne Darboven or the dimension of time and culture’ Parkett Art Magazine No. 10 (1986) pp. 109–111

Annelie Pohlen ‘Hanne Darboven’s time: The content of consciousness’ Artforum (April 1983) pp. 52–53

Lynne Cooke Hanne Darboven: Kulturgeschichte (1980–1983) Dia Center for the Arts (1996)

Michael Newman ‘Remembering and Repeating: Hanne Darboven’s Work’ Robert Lehman Lectures on Contemporary Art, vol. 2. Dia Center for the Arts (2003)

Ingrid Burgbacher-Krupka Hanne Darboven: The Sculpting of Time Cantz Verlag (1994)

Hanne Darboven Briefe aus New York [Letters from New York],
Cantz Verlag (1997)

 ‘A system became necessary; how else could I, in a concentrated way, find something of interest which leads itself to continuation? My systems are numerical concepts, which work in terms of progressions and/or reductions akin to musical themes with variations.’ Hanne Darboven


Hanne Darboven was born in 1941 in Munich and raised in Hamburg-Harburg, Germany. After completing her studies at the Hochschule für Bildende Künste in 1966 she moved to New York City where she lived for two years. Darboven moved back to her family home in 1968 where she continued to live and make work until her death in 2009. Darboven’s first solo exhibition was at Konrad Fischer Galerie in Düsseldorf, 1967, after which followed others both in Germany and internationally. Selected solo shows include: ‘00/366-1.’, Leo Castelli Gallery, New York (1973); ‘Ein Monat, ein Jahr, ein Jahrhundert — Arbeiten von 1968 bis 1974’, Kunstmuseum Basel (1974);  ‘Bismarckzeit’, Rheinisches Landesmuseum Bonn (1979); Bonner Kunstverein, Bonn; Gelbe Musik, Berlin; ‘Der Mond ist aufgegangen’, Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg (1983); ‘Histoire de la Culture 1880–1983 — 24 chants’, Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (1986); ‘Quartett >88<’, The Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago, Illinois; Portikus, Frankfurt; Neue Gesellschaft für Bildende Kunst, Berlin; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, California (1989); ‘Die geflügelte Erde — Requiem’, Deichtorhallen, Hamburg; Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven (1991); ‘Milieu >80<-: heute (für Walter Mehring)’, Kunsthalle Bielefeld (1996); Hanne Darboven: ‘Kulturgeschichte 1880–1983’, DIA: Chelsea, New York (1996);  ‘Das Frühwerk’, Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg / Galerie Klosterfelde, Berlin (2000); ‘Hommage à Picasso’, Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin, Germany (2006); ‘Hanne Darboven’, Sammlung Falckenberg, Hamburg (2011). Darboven was included in major international group exhibitions including Documenta 5 (1972), 6 (1977), 7 (1982) and 11 (2002). She was chosen to represent Germany at the Venice Biennale in 1982.


Annelie Pohlen was previously director of Bonner Kunstverein and is now a freelance author, critic and art historian.

Supported by Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen e.V. and the accompanying symposium and File Note text translation is supported by Goethe-Institut London.