Historical Documentation or Art?


There are many interesting points in the essay by Dipti Desai and Jessica Hamlin (Desai and Hamlin, 2009) in their discussion about the use of the historical record by artists.

They comment on the contrast between the teaching of art through a materials based approach with the investigative historical approach which is the theme of this chapter. This involves ‘mining archives for primary and secondary documents, conducting oral histories, and asking critical questions as part of the process of opening dialogue about the past and its relationship to the present.’ (Desai and Hamlin, 2009 p 49). Later in the chapter, they stress the importance of photography in the provision of this historical material, ‘Many artists integrate photography as a component of larger installations or multi-media presentations, others utilize the camera as their primary medium. This recognition that photography can serve as both a functional tool for documentation, as well as an artistic strategy, positions it at a very interesting place between history and art.’ (Desai and Hamlin, 2009 p 62) 

Melinda Hunt has used photography to link the past and present in The Hart Island Project (http://hartisland.net/). Hart Island is a 101 acre spit of land off the southern coast of The Bronx (New York), where the poor or the unknown (mostly adults, but also infants and the stillborn) are buried (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yg-Q1W5KCtE and http://www.daylightmagazine.org/blog/2010/8/11/838) . Melinda Hunt is heavily involved with the ongoing effort to identify and record the occupants of the individual and mass graves. Hunt’s work is a critical presentation of this aspect of the island’s history bringing together archived records, prison documents and contemporary aerial photography and film (http://www.newfilmmakersonline.com/movie-download/8514,2542/Melinda-Hunt-Har ). Still images from Hunt’s project can be found at http://hartisland.net/wwwebs/Gallery/tabid/67/Default.aspx . Two images are shown here.

stadthaus ulm 3rd floor



Adult mass grave with records



I have some misgivings regarding the re-presentation of the records  and many of the on-site photos as art. I see it more as an historical/anthropological investigation. The gallery floor with carefully laid out empty coffins is a poignant artpiece. Hunt is an artist and I do not doubt her sincerity, but I see this as a confusion or hybrid of contemporary art with politically and culturally sensitive historical documentation. This does not downgrade its importance to history or to the bereaved but does question its categorisation.

My research into this brought to mind Andy Warhol’s 1964 piece Thirteen Most Wanted Men. Warhol, in response to a commission, chose to decorate the façade of the New York State Pavilion with large silk screened images of thirteen of the FBI’s allegedly ‘most wanted men’. Although these images were presented as an art piece (the silk screening process being a re- make of actual photographs), the political repercussions concentrated on the content not the art. Most of Warhol’s art used this documentary approach, but its medium, its contemporary comment on popular culture and its multiple image nature legitimised it as art. Warhol himself said ‘Art is what you can get away with’ http://www.quotationspage.com/quotes/Andy_Warhol/

 He got away with it, I’m not sure if Melinda Hunt does.


Desai, D. and Hamlin, J., 2009. Artists in the realm of Historical methods: The Sound, Smell, and Taste of History. In: D. Desai and J. Hamlin eds, History as Art, Art as History. New York: Routledge, pp 47-66, accessed at https://thinkingpractices.files.wordpress.com/2011/02/desai-artists_in_the_re [accessed 20/02/11)

Images from: http://hartisland.net/wwwebs/Gallery/tabid/67/Default.aspx

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3 Responses to Historical Documentation or Art?

  1. paula roush says:

    Heather, this is a well researched and resourced post raising crucial issues regarding the intersections of historical archives, memory and power within art practices. I am not sure why you decided Warhol’s piece is more art that Hunt’s project. After all, as Desai and Hamlin (2009) write in their chapter ” What are the assumptions we make about what art looks like, sounds like, and feels like, and how are artists currently pushing those assumptions in new directions, toward new artistic methods and models that allow us look at history in new ways?” (p.47). Calling it a hybrid seems fine to me, not so much ‘confusion” at it appears as a project with very clear and yes socially engaged artistic aims.

  2. heather28 says:

    Paula, thank you for your comment and the opportunity to discuss the issues raised in the seminar on Tuesday last.
    I think my concern is based on that unanswerable question ‘What is Art?’ My justification for being inclusive about Warhol’s ‘Thirteen Most Wanted Men’ was based on there being intervention between the collection of the documentation and the presentation of the piece as art. This intervention was the process of silk screen printing. There were other less material interventions in both Warhol’s and Hunt’s pieces, particularly in choice of material for exhibition/ arrangement/ curation and accompanying text. There was, in retrospect, photography in Hunt’s work which is just as valid as screen printing. I think though it goes deeper than this. To me there is an element of serious and sensitive historical and current social significance to the Hart Island Project and that may be what creates my unease. Would I be happy that documentation of the death of a relative of mine became part of an art piece? Probably not. The artists are pushing the boundaries, but they are up against human sensibilities. Art has many aspects ; sometimes playful/ serious/ questioning/ entertaining/ ugly/ aesthetic. It is multidimensional. Taken in its entirity the Hart Island Project does display quite a range of these. The records alone, to me, are still in the realm of documentation but the diverse elements which contribute to the project as a whole objectively legitimise its art status. Subjectively, with the intervention of human feeling, it is still an unanswered question.
    In what category do we put this year’s prizewinning images from science? Would they be art if they had been produced by artists? More information at http://www.wellcomeimageawards.org/ . Finally if I present a video of a friend’s endoscopy as an art piece in a gallery as a portrait of her, it will be seen as art by gallery visitors. But is it? And should it be?

  3. paula roush says:

    All very relevant questions, heather, for which there are no easy answers, thus the need for artists like you to bridge the gaps between the disciplines and continue to research, research and suggest possible answers through your writing and artwork

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