The Phantom Lady Strikes Again: The Artist and the Archive

Artists are like scavengers who use various kinds of references in their work, thereby creating their own archive out of disparate materials. They may in fact revive dead technologies to infuse them with new life, or experiment ferociously with the latest forms of media, or put together ordinary found objects and transform their meaning. They may accept no watertight boundaries between genres or disciplines. And the new archive finds creative connections between categories seen as opposed, mixing up high and low, central and marginal, insignificant and significant, questioning established conventions, in search for a more profound insight into what shapes our world today.

History of the Museum and the Archive

First, we have to see the public institutions of the archive and the museum as 19th century European constructs, which were created at the high point of colonialism, and closely connected to the disciplines of archaeology, anthropology and ethnography. The Great Exhibitions that took place in London and Paris in the late 19th century were related phenomena, which were showcases of technology and industry as well as of colonial crafts. Native artisans were brought in from the colonial countries like India, and made to work on site making their “authentic” crafts and entertain the onlookers with exotic display. (The real story was that paid agents got people from India who were not necessarily trained in that particular craft and made them pose in native gear.)

Museums were seen as repositories of cultural memory, where artefacts from past civilisations like the Elgin marbles, Egyptian antiquities, Medieval illuminated manuscripts or Mughal miniatures were stored and displayed recalling a sumptuous golden age, or ethnographic objects collected to reveal the primitive stages of human civilisations. These were always great inspirations to artists and poets besides scholars, and artists were allowed to copy the works inside the museums. Copying from originals has always been a traditional way of learning.

Museums and archives are based on the nineteenth century European mania for collecting, classifying, typing and listing, which was the base of all knowledge systems of the time. The explosion of new knowledge with the contact with new cultures with trade and colonisation made it imperative to sort out all the new information, and certainly the idea of hegemony was very much a part of this. Many artists have critiqued the museum and its classifications in their work, notably Fluxus artist Marcel Broodthaers.

Historically, collections and collecting have always been contentious and dynamic in meaning. There is constantly a war between the old Western empires and the former colonies about the objects they have stolen for their museums – over the Peacock Throne for instance. In India, when J. Swaminathan, artist and Director of the Bharat Bhavan Cultural Centre in Bhopal, capital of the state of Madhya Pradesh which has a large tribal population, created a contemporary art museum especially for tribal art and commissioned tribals to make new work for it, it created a huge stir. The tribal collection has a separate building right next to the contemporary art collection, making a very obvious attempt to move tribal art out of its status of timelessness and anthropology into the living present.

Museums and Archives as Cultural Memory

 Talking about cultural memory, on the other hand, there is the Curious Case of Ananda Coomaraswamy and his collection. At the time of Independence, when the great anti-imperialist philosopher-art historian Coomaraswamy wanted the new Indian government to fund a museum for his vast collection of South Asian art in Varanasi, the government which had other priorities took no interest, and miffed, he moved his whole collection to Boston, where it is now housed.

In recent times, we have the scandal of the sack of the Baghdad Museum during the Iraq War, when the occupying US army allowed mobs to loot priceless and irreplaceable objects. The irony is that the collection was made by British and Western archaeologists in colonial times, which then became the official heritage of the Iraqi people – which was then looted again to reach Western collectors no doubt!

Again, the notion of the archive as history, and as collective cultural memory is both contentious and dynamic as in the 2004 scandal of the vandalisation of the Bhandarkar Orientalist Research Institute in Pune by a group calling itself the Sambhaji Brigade, offended by a biography of Shivaji by American academic James Laine who had researched his book there (Shivaji: Hindu King in Muslim India). Rare manuscripts and materials relating to Maharashtra were burnt and destroyed in the process. Scholars have compared this to the sack of Baghdad Museum or Sarajevo, or the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddha – but perpetrated in this instance by misplaced nationalism. The stand of the Institute, the custodian of history, was very interesting. It was to call for a ban on the book, referring to Shivaji as a national “deity”, who therefore could not be historicised.

This brings me to my own current work, where I am using popular images of the young nationalist martyr Bhagat Singh. In calendar art, Bhagat Singh is shown worshipping the figure of Mother India, often portrayed like a sort of Hanuman, tearing open his chest to reveal Bharat Mata’s inside. The fact is that Bhagat Singh was an atheist and a Communist, but this fact will never be accepted in a “popular archive” of cultural memory.


 Quoting and referencing past works is supposed to be a post-modern phenomenon in art practice, but at every “original” and innovative moment in art history, either the past or foreign images are used and recalled. Self-conscious quotation it would seem comes after the emergence of art history as a discipline and the establishment of museums, collections and archives as institutions.

Looking at Western high culture, we see that Renaissance artists and architects in Italy actually strove to copy Greco-Roman works which they saw as an ideal, while the practicalities and demands of the new age with the inventions of new materials and technologies like oil painting, perspective drawing and the optic lens transformed their work into an expression of their age. In fact, outdated forms and technologies are particularly rich mines for the artist’s imagination.

While discussing the idea of context transforming meaning, it is interesting to look at Jorge Luis Borges’ short story Pierre Menard Author of the Quixote. Pierre Menard, a 20th century novelist writes a word to word replica of the original 17th century Cervantes novel Don Quixote, which, according the narrator of the story, becomes infinitely more sophisticated because it has to be read in the context of the intellectual and scientific culture of the 20th century. To quote from the story, the narrator says:

“Cervantes’ text and Menard’s are verbally identical, but the second is almost infinitely richer. (More ambiguous, his detractors will say, but ambiguity is richness)”.

Exactly the same words take on a different meaning when read in a completely different context – in this case, time: reading a 17th century work as a work by a 20th century author, makes the meaning far more complex and subtle, according to Borges.

When collectors and traders started getting African sacred masks to France from colonies like Mali, they were a revelation to artists like Picasso, who saw in them a very different approach to reality and the human figure, than the conventions of Western realism. In the new context, the mask took on formal qualities it was unaware of. (Ironically, while the cubist style is seen as an “original” form, the African masks are doomed to ethnography, as repetitive cultural products. Their “authenticity” however, a French collector told me, depends upon their actually having been used in rituals.)

Quotation as Cultural Memory / The Art Work as Quotation

 Quotations are not a recent phenomenon- the traditional concept of “copying” is in itself a form of quoting: the new work is invariably different from the original. Copying creates continuity or a genre, and at the same time invariably breaks it, as in the very act of copying, changes become inevitable. The 16th century Turkish miniature painters in Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red are confused by the advent of Western realism. The Master Painter blinds himself with a thin needle, so that he can “see” better. But does this mean that he will go on copying the old works perfectly with the most delicate inflections without actually seeing them, or that he will inevitably create a new work taking from the wells of his own experience?

The Arcades Project, Walter Benjamin’s monumental work about late 19th century Paris, is entirely composed of quotations. It is like a montage of views of the city, each view hitting off against the others to create an original cultural landscape of Paris, the leading European city. The book is a quest to define a civilisation by putting together all the relevant and striking things about it, as an archive of found materials.


 As post-colonials, we are constantly accused of “aping” and “mimicking” Western culture, denied “originality” but expected to be “authentic”. This denies us the right, as citizens of the world to make use of knowledge systems available to us, which is freely given to a Western artist, and puts us in the position of being “un-thinking”, “un-original” and “inauthentic”.

Interestingly now, with the coming of the World Wide Web, the archive itself becomes ephemeral, with a free-for-all access to unending images.

The Artist as Flaneur

 The artist is a flaneur … who walks through the labyrinths of the city with the amused and ironical detachment of the onlooker, yet with a strong empathy which goes to the heart of the matter. Filled with understanding, playing both protagonist and audience, the artist dreams, and becomes the characters in the play. The street as an archive, the archive as performed, acted out…

 The artist plays the detective probing the mysteries of contemporary life, scrutinising the world for clues, a narrator familiar with the secret language, the hieroglyphs of the city. The artist is a carnivorous animal, imaginatively devouring life around, both the banal and the profound; a cook, who creates a fabulous new dish from the material she takes from the real world and her own inner life. Artists are scavengers who use varied kinds of references in their work, thereby creating their own archives. If a traditional archive in society represents an accepted order and historical value, the artist may take materials from genres that are not recognised as of archival value, or invert accepted icons and redefine the notion of a society’s dominant history. The new archive may find creative connections between categories seen as opposed: such as high and low, central and marginal, insignificant and significant, in search for a more profound insight into what shapes our world. 

 The pseudo archive is an archive formed from the artist’s own imagination. The parade of daily experiences large and insignificant all feed into the artist’s vision. From the combination of past images and present and imagined ones, new connections and insights emerge. The artists’ subjective experiences and her remembered past life and emotions form an archive from which images are drawn. These subjective, emotionally charged images melt into the larger cultural icons. Yet all the time the artist is rooted in the present, the urge to dive into the past is to find meaning in the present and to understand the future: in short, to search for a larger civilisational meaning.

 Benjamin’s Arcades Project while being nothing but a collection of quotations about Paris is a revolutionary new work. It is a new work because of the painstaking and profound research that has gone into it, the texture and piquancy of the quotations selected, in the study of the most banal of materials shops, streets, city plans, cheap entertainments in order to discover a panoramic understanding of a whole civilisation and time.

The artist as auteur uses subtle shades and complexities to problematise the present and the past. Art historical or other cultural references from literature/ music/ cinema/ theatre become alive and throb in another context or location, when the present and past are both charged with new meaning. While rejecting the Modernist notion of originality and formal purity as a primal quality, the artist frees herself to be inventive, play with genres, fill her work with political and social material, and address the contemporary directly.


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About Author

"The Phantom Lady emerged like a tornado in 1997 and has kept the art world enthralled with her adventures. A small town girl, she is quite at home in the metropolis and keeps a close eye on all the goings on, swooping down now and then to bring some order into the chaos."

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