Encyclopaedic thinking
by Joseph Imorde.
Text written for the project Art Book.

“To have an entry in an encyclopaedia is like having a monument in front of an opera house.”
Werner Benjamin

There is something going on with encyclopaedic approaches on contemporary art. Recent shows – like the one at the Venice Biennial 2013 – attempt to encompass the “whole story”, to tackle nothing less than the “global archive”, or tend to fill huge exhibition-spaces with the most heterogeneous material to display theories about “everything”. These encyclopaedic endeavours may be understood as a compensatory move towards an understanding of the over-complex world we live in, a distraction from the reality the majority already lost touch with. People who are fatigued by the excessive demands of our late capitalist society or who are stressed out by the requirements of our digital age can find refuge in the over-simplifications visual encyclopaedia provide – order, reduction and comprehensiveness. Encyclopaedia discloses, in these simplifications, the ideological conditions of their formation, and reveals hegemonic processes of selection and choice. Massimiliano Gioni compiled in his Palazzo Enciclopedico very different artistic positions and all kinds of projects that tried to systematize an arbitrary knowledge about the world as a whole. “Blurring the line between professional artists and amateurs, outsiders and insiders, the exhibition took an anthropological approach to the study of images, focusing in particular on the realms of the imaginary and the functions of imagination. What room is left for internal images — for dreams, hallucinations and visions — in an era besieged by external ones? And what is the point of creating an image of the world when the world itself has become increasingly like an image?”

One of the connections between the very different positions was the attempt to adopt scientific methods. Encyclopaedic thinking tries to offer models, to prepare specimen, or to present “things” that account for other things. A small collection of pictures can represent all thinkable images; a sample of self-made model-houses can become a placeholder for the entirety of global architecture. What happens here is the metamorphosis of complexity into an artistic world of allegories, an operation that is getting away with classifying the world’s parts – assuming that from a detail the whole picture can be reconstructed.
Today, authors, curators, and artists try to create allegorical systems that explain the whole out of selected bits and pieces. These heuristic operations stand in a long history of encyclopaedic thinking – such thinking, by the way, was always driven by the idea of shaping the world through tangible simplifications. It is not at all necessary to present every contemporary artist in the world, if you can bring together fifty that allegedly represent them all. The countless books that list the most important works of the 60s, 70s, or 80s shape not only the art historical knowledge, they establish also ranks of value and a regime of importance.

Artistic encyclopaedia – like the one Bruno Moreschi put together – are attempts to create a self-determent system of qualities that speak about an ideological understanding of the world beyond the simplified information one can extract from the compiled material. To search for these intrinsic and often hidden laws in the form and content of an encyclopaedia can open ways for the understanding of something disconcerting – the undeniable truth, that all the world views are ideologically fabricated.

* Joseph Imorde is associate professor for Art History at the University Siegen. His fields of interests are Baroque Art, Historiography, Architectural History and Media Studies. He wrote Presence and Representation, or: The Art to Exhibit the Eucharist (1997), Affect Transmission (2004), The Grand Tour in Modern and Postmodern Times (2008); Michelangelo Deutsch! (2009), Dirty Sheets. The Underside of the Grand Tour (2012).

Some of the texts on the site were written in conjunction with curator Caroline Carrion / Alguns dos textos do site foram escritas em conjunto com a curadora Caroline Carrion.