Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Romantic Dispersals: Afterlives of Dress and the Archive

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Romantic Dispersals: Afterlives of Dress and the Archive

Article excerpt

"I dream of a museum that will only preserve plans and game rules"                                          --Christian Boltanski (1)  "Everyone is unique and important. But I like something Napoleon said when he saw many of his dead soldiers on a battlefield: 'Oh, no problem--one night of love in Paris and you can replace everybody'"                                                      --Boltanski (2) 

IN JANUARY 2010 THE FRENCH CONCEPTUAL ARTIST CHRISTIAN BOLTANSKI piled some thirty tons of old clothing into the Grand Palais, Paris, as part of an exhibition entitled Personnes (fig. i). A culmination of Boltanski's decades-long production of found, forged, and simulated archives of human lives, Personnes centered upon an enormous mound of discarded dress heaped beneath a menacingly grasping crane. Facing this towering heap of dress, a grid composed of numerous square plots of clothes (strewn about within this relative orderliness) spanned the remaining floor. The clothing persisted amidst the background thumping of recorded human heartbeats and alongside tall stacks of the rusted biscuit tins (artificially patinated, contents inscrutable) that are Boltanski's long-running emblem for the deep-seated human drive to collect. At the center of it all, the crane itself rose and fell: clutching a few garments in its claw, hoisting them aloft, and then releasing them, so that ever-new combinations of clothes drifted slowly back toward the indistinct agglomeration from which they emerged. (3) As part of the Monumenta series of specially commissioned, large-scale works exhibited annually at the Grand Palais, Personnes was in one sense, perhaps, another instance of how in the contemporary moment "the scale of art just keeps getting bigger." (4) But as a specimen of Boltanski's intently archivalizing career, Personnes also prods us to confront, via the distinctive provocations of old dress, problems of archival memory that originate in the Romantic period. Boltanski's presentation of consumable dress dramatically revisits the archival practices of that period, especially because the clothing his art engages is not simply one material-archival site among many, but a site standing before many others. And here, the spectacle of consumable dress and its reconsumption visibly draws the Romantic past into material continuity with the present.

I argue in this essay for the shared lines of inquiry into material and cultural practices and their preservation that spin out and back between the Romantic moment and our own. As with Boltanski's art of dress, this web of material continuity must be traced across multiple different sites of archival repurposing rather than through any single instance or specific Romantic material practice. As an alternative to tracing particular lines of influence, I evoke a way to rethink the unity of Romanticism by foregrounding what it means to look at the materiality of dress--as clothes, as rags, as a jumble of collected yet uncertainly related remainders. In the Romantic archival practices to which we can read back through Boltanski's art (such as the album-making of women like Barbara Johnson, for whom, as I will show, textile fragments rather than words served as the primary medium of memory), we might see a refusal of an aspect of Romanticism that critics discuss more frequently--that is, a refusal to defer to the immaterial imagination and its texts, over against the material substrate on which texts and their cultural significance depend. Consider the Blind Beggar of the seventh book of The Prelude, "Wearing a written paper, to explain / His story, whence he came, and who he was" (1805 and 1850, 7.641-42). (5) His rags might have told the beholder where he had come from, a point that goes almost unnoticed in Wordsworth's insistence that the textual meaning written on the beggar's sign is all we can know--and yet the written paper must be worn in a way that sutures the words to the clothing rather than erasing it entirely. …

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