The art of archiving lost things | From Monet to Tracey Emin

The archive is an idea often overlooked or taken for granted. The imagery of a dark, dusty room and mounds of old-smelling documents does nothing to cTracey-Emin-Tent-Exterioronvince the non-researcher of its relevance in contemporary society.  In fact, discussions surrounding the existence of archives in the course of recent history have been surprisingly contentious. Derrida, Foucault, and contemporary art curator Okwui Enwezor have all dabbled and theorized on them. The practice of archiving, along with developments in technology, is constantly evolving and adapting more dynamic means of keeping and organising objects and data.

What constitutes an archive? Common definition describes it as a place where records, often unpublished with cultural or historical value, are stored. They serve as primary source documents and are unique, unlike books and magazines (kept by libraries). Films, photographs, written letters, and artworks can make up archival collections. Some are open to the public while others are less accessible for reasons of conservation or sensitivity of information.

In an attempt to further expand perspectives and uses of archives in the art world, this article focuses on two web-based examples – the Gallery of Lost Art  project by the Tate Modern, and the Missing Art Movement by the Philippine Commission on Good Governance. Both have specific agendas – the former intends to identify the impact of lost objects in art history, while the latter aims to recover artworks for socio-political and economic reasons.

The Gallery of Lost Art

The Gallery of Lost Art was an interactive virtual exhibition that ran for a year in 2013 and now exists as a digital archive and documentation of the exhibition. It focused on over 40 important artworks from the last 10 years that have, either, expired (such as performances), gone missing, been destroyed or discarded. Images, essays and films about the works were also included in the exhibition. Pieces by Marcel Duchamps, Pablo Picasso, Tracey Emin, Willem De Kooning and more, were featured. Curator Jennifer Mundy explains, “Art history tends to be the history of what has survived. But loss has shaped our sense of art’s history in ways that we are often not aware of.”