The Archive in Art Art in the Archive

In recent years, as with a number of scholarly issues related to contemporary Syrian art, it has become increasingly evident that the concept of the archive needs to be revisited and its shortcomings more closely examined. Legitimate inquiry into problematic aspects of the archive in Syria has been accompanied by a newfound readiness to engage with political questions, particularly those associated with power and control, along with an increased urgency to the social aspects of these questions following the outbreak of violence in 2011. Though art is, due to its inherent subjectivity, an idiosyncratic practice, in the case of Syria this idiosyncrasy has only been intensified as a result of the obstacles that hindered the entry of modern art (along with its theoretical and conceptual baggage) into the country in the early 20th century. Any examination of Syria’s artistic archives will inevitably be affected by these factors.

In this essay we will attempt to look at both the archive of art as well as the archive as art. When we draw a distinction between those materials that we treat as documents with a ‘factual’ historical significance (those which offer themselves in the service of scholarship), and the uses which artists make of the archive as one of the media of expression that intersect with their documentary value, we ask ourselves: which theories about the archive’s nature and function are applicable to Syrian art? What are the roles adopted by ‘the document’ and ‘the archivist’? To what extent do these roles alternate and intersect?

The Concept of the Archive and its Authority

Archiving as a process goes back to antiquity. Every civilisation has possessed ways and means of preserving, ordering and categorising its documents. According to the French archivist and historian Bruno Galland, the oldest known documents are those discovered at Uruk in Iraq (dating to the fourth millennium BC) and Tell Mardikh in Syria (from the third millennium BC).[1] However one could describe the Archiv Handbuk[2] of Jacob von Rammingen from 1571 as the first step towards the development of archival practice as a science. 

In 1994, Jacques Derrida delivered a lecture at a conference in London entitled ‘Memory: The Question of Archives’, which was later reconstituted in French and published as ‘Mal d’Archive: Une impression fruedienne’, a text of central importance referenced by the majority of archive-related studies and articles. It was, if the term serves, the first psychological-deconstructionist study of the different formulations of the concept and purposes of the archive and the archivist. Referencing the Classical Greek word arkhé meaning ‘beginning’ or ‘origin’) Derrida explains that in the past the archivist’s role was to store documents in their own property, giving them the authority to classify and interpret them as they saw fit. This authority, which strictly speaking went beyond their primary responsibility to protect the archive, was further reinforced by the social (or legal) recognition of their position.[3] It was here that the archive took on a political dimension, which for Derrida meant incorporating the archive into institutional theory and questions surrounding neutrality and objectivity. Derrida begins with Freudian thought because he believed that Freud had conducted a form of “archival probing” into his patient’s past[4] and that he had established an equivalence between the archive and archaeology.

The archival process requires that documents first be assembled, then classified and preserved, then actuated. The contemporary German scholar Dietmar Schenk has insisted that the process of actuating or “using” the archive should meet three conditions: “That the archived documents are truthful, that they are in good condition, and that the links between them, and their networks of data and context, remain intact through preserving the pre-archival connections between the information’s material structure.”[5] This last stipulation raises questions about the long-term destiny of the archive and its mechanisms. Schenk also highlights another truth: that archives (specifically the contemporary archive) are mutable and capable of expanding, and that this is due to a number of factors, first among them being time. That is to say: what is important today may subsequently cease to matter. Furthermore, any archive may receive holdings that alter the path of its development or entirely derail it, in which there is a form of compromise with the idea of the archive’s basic incompleteness or imperfection. With the creation of any archive we must face the more-or-less inescapable fact that the work of assembling documents is, as Derrida states, an archaeological act. Even as we return to the past we will never be able to avoid the deficiency that results from the loss or destruction (accidental or deliberate) of material.

Thinking about the archive becomes more urgent at times of historical crisis: during conflict and war. This is what happened when the two World Wars confronted the governments and peoples with their own history. Each and every one was forced to consider how their present would appear to the world of the future, and great care was taken in selecting what they wanted to be preserved. One could go further still and say that in the modern age the archive has been used in some cases as tool for colonialism: achieving superiority, hegemony and opportunistic benefit by selective inclusion, censorship and exclusion. This raises an essential question about truth and how it relates to the filtering of the archive, the selection of what is to be preserved, made available, and actuated, and the choice of what is to be destroyed, concealed or restricted. It is a question about the legitimacy of value judgements.

The archive is a source of historiography, a mirror held up to the collective memory of a given country and the living memory of its past. While it is intimately connected with scholarship around epistemology and the truth, Syria has never officially afforded the archive any methodological, precise or broad-ranging interest. The Al Assad Library holds the largest collection of archival material and manuscripts[6] in the country and provides a range of related services including collection, preservation, reservation, digitisation and printing. In Syria, archival science and classification can be studied at the Department of Libraries and Information Technology, created in 1983 as part of the Faculty of Literatures and Humanities at Damascus University. However the processes of preservation, documentation and archiving as related to the arts (e.g. the artworks and documentation associated with artists, art movements, and exhibitions) remain neglected, for reasons to do with a mistrust of the arts that persisted in Syria on both the official and popular levels until very recently. In Archive Map: Syria (created by art historian Anneka Lenssen in 2011 based on field research conducted in Damascus between 2006 and 2007) Lenssen makes the following observation:

“It must be noted that very few of the relevant archival collections within the country conform to the paradigmatic form of an archive, i.e. troves of paper-based records, systematically ordered and maintained, documenting exhibitions, detailing their financial elements, or recording audience opinion. Even though the Syrian state has long regulated all exhibitions staged in the country by means of a simultaneously arduous and capricious permitting process, it has not typically regarded materials documentary material relating to the country’s artists as valuable components of national patrimony. Nor does it make these or any other government documents available to the public.”[7]

This prompts a question as to whether the first stage of documentation is the creation of an artwork’s identity, and the processes of preservation subsequently forms the basis of its place in the archive. Is the title not the starting point? The title of an artwork is the first piece of data that asserts its existence and counters the dynamics of forgetting and disappearance. It can sometimes become the only trace of it that is left: for example, in the case of those fragile or impermanent works created before the invention of photography, or whose importance was not recognised and were therefore not cared for, or those that were neglected by their creators. This is what we see in the case of Georges Brac’s Oblique Still Life, which he described in correspondence with Picasso in 1912, but of which no image existed until one appeared in 1984 during the excavation of French artist Henri Laurent, who had kept a newspaper clipping with a grainy photograph of the piece. Here, despite the huge variety of methods for preserving artworks (photography, video, textual description), it was the title that kept the work alive.

In his book La fabrique du titre: nommer les oeuvres d’art, Pierre-Marc de Biasi writes: “Historically speaking, the title’s function is first and foremost indexical, descriptive, allusive and seductive.”[10] Of course, the title is the abstract, non-material representation of the work. Theoretically, a work could be titled by someone other than its creator, but this hypothetical remains vanishingly rare in practice. The title can refer to an idea or concept, the medium in which it is made or the techniques used. As well as being a first clue to understanding the work, these designations are useful in the archival process. Through the title, then, the artist is the first individual to assist in ordering the archive and its datasets. However, when works are called Untitled, or when they have no title at all, things become more complex. This is what we find with the work of a number of Syrian artists from the early 20th century.

The relationship between art and the archive continues to broaden and deepen. Critic Jean-Yves Jounnias writes that, “the archive has established itself as an artistic medium capable of opening new possibilities for experimentation with historical knowledge and with what is commonly regarded as an objective discourse.”[11]This relationship extends to other practices outside art. For instance, the exhibition L’ineffacé held in 2016 to mark the revival of L’Institute mémoires de l’edition contemporaine (The Institute for Conteporary Publising Archives)[12]. The French poet Jean-Christopher Bailly staged an exhibition of manuscripts and texts by French writers and poets that were held by the institute. The archive was a visual and conceptual reference at the heart of the show: the un-erasable trace. In the introduction to the exhibition catalogue, the then-head of the institute Pierre Leroy wrote: “What is l’ineffacé ? It is perhaps the most fragile, the most tenuous, the most insatiable of what the archive contains.”[13] Bailly played the role of the artistic director of the archives of a group of writers, some of them dead, others still living.

Archives are treated differently depending on whether the “holder” of the archive (that is to say, the person who established it as opposed to its owner) is alive or dead. When this person is an artist, then the raw material of the collection (before it ever becomes an archive) is the artist’s window into their own private existence. The moment the artist passes away, however, this privacy disappears. Philosophically speaking, the moment of death immediately transforms the documents from a collection in a state of formation to one that is the raw material of the archive. It is the same temporal starting point that Henri Bergson describes when he says that in the very instant that we apprehend our present moment, the thing we call our present has passed, and that, “every sensation is already memory”.[14] However, we are not moving away from the archive here, because the archive is by its very nature (intrinsically and inevitably) in conflict with memory’s fallibility.

Understanding the principles of the archive, its creation and its use, requires an understanding of the circumstances of its context in the present moment. From the Syrian perspective, then, we accept that it may not be possible to establish an intellectual framework to address the archive solely by relying on Derrida or other Western theorists and scholars. The contexts in which our archives exist remain unstable. Even if we choose to pass judgement anyway, we would have to admit that our archives are vulnerable. Gaining access to their holdings, to the raw material of the archive, remains impossible.

When it comes to art, the archive goes beyond its traditional role. In thinking about art archives, we cannot confine them to a single form or developmental path nor prescribe a single set of uses to which they are put. Their incorporation by artists in their own work is the only instance in which the archive can be said to be modified or edited. A number of Syrian artists have used their private archives in their art practice, but that is a subject better served by a separate article.

The archive is fragile and vulnerable to destruction, something that applies equally to digital and paper records. The priority now must be saving and preserving these materials, alongside promoting the benefits of digitisation — not just as an alternative, or a way for archivists to make back-up copies, but because it allows researchers (in the case of widespread collapse as is the case in Syria) to access and supplement information. Over the last 10 years, independent and institutional initiatives related to cultural and artistic heritage have woken up to the importance of preservation and documentation[15], and no doubt many individual efforts are ongoing to establish and protect valuable personal archives.

Select initiatives that seek to preserve and utilise Syrian art archives, including that of the Atassi Foundation, The Modern Art of Syrian Archive.

Name/ Date founded/ Focus/ Founded as/ Link

The Syrian Design Archive, 2020, Design (publications, designs, posters), Independent initiative (private individuals),

Modern Art of Syria Archive, 2018, Modern and contemporary art, Independent initiative (Atassi Foundation),

Syrians for Heritage (SIMAT), 2018, Material and non-material culture (including art-related artefacts), Independent initiative (a collective of independent researchers),

The Creative Memory of the Syrian Revolution, 2013, Creative production (including fine art), Independent initiative (private individuals),

The Syrian Heritage Archive, 2013, Material and non-material culture (including art-related artefacts), Museum for Islamic Art / Berlin State Museum,   

The Al Sharekh Archive, 2010, Arab literary and cultural magazines including an archive of back-issues of the Syrian art magazine Al Hayat), Independent initiative (Mohammed Al Sakhr),

The Mirath Initiative, 2004, Material and non-material culture (including art-related artefacts), Independent initiative (independent explorers and travellers),



[1] Bruno Galland, Les archives, Presse Universitaire de France, Paris, 2016.

[2] Lund : Wallin & Dalholm, The earliest predecessors of archival science

[Texte imprimé]: Jacob von Rammingen's two manuals of registry and archival management, printed in 1571 (translated by JBLD Ströberg, 2010)

[3] Jacques Derrida, Mal d’Archive : une impression freudienne, Galilée, Paris, 1995

[4] In his first theoretical formulation, Derrida says that the archive and archaeology are alike in meaning but opposed in essence; in the second he stated that, “the archive is made possible through death.” In his third theory he references Freud’s structural influence through the followers of his analytic school, even though he is, at the same time, a thinker keen to undermine the principle of patriarchal authority.

[5] Dietmar Schenk, Pouvoir de l’archive et vérité historique, Écrire l'histoire, issue 13-14, 2014, pp. 35-53

“Trois critères de l’action archivante sont à souligner à cet égard au regard de la dynamique de transmission : l’authenticité des documents d’archives, leur intégrité au fil du temps, la conservation de mises en rapport, réseaux d’information et contextes préexistants à travers la conservation du rapport préarchivistique entre les supports d’information.”

[6] Manuscripts here refers to any handwritten document of scholarly value and are of two types: a) old manuscripts, which are more than 50 years old and b) modern manuscripts, which date from 50 years ago to the present. Published material includes books, periodicals, newspapers, magazines, and doctoral theses. Unpublished material includes stamp issues, money, photographs, musical scores, maps, microfiche and microfilm, slides, CDs, film reel, cassette tapes, and video tapes.

[7] Anneka Lensse, Chapter entitled ‘The Shape of the Support: Painting in Syria's twentieth century’ from Archive Map: Syria, (, 2011

[8] Lenssen, Anneka, Rogers,Sarah, Shabout, Nada, Modern Art in the Arab World: Primary Documents, Duke University Press,Caroline, 2018

[9] Khaldun Sati Al Husri, Orhan Miyassar, Adham Ismail, Adunis, Abdel Aziz Alloun, Fate Moudarres, Mahmoud Daadouch, Mohammed Al Maghout, Mohammed Hammad, Naim Ismail, Adnan Bin Zurail and Munir Suleiman.

[10] Pierre-Marc de Biasi, La fabrique du titre: nommer les œuvres d'art, CNRS, Paris, 2012. p.7

“Historiquement, le titre a d’abord une fonction indicielle, descriptive, allusive et séductrice.”

[11] Jean-Yves Jouannais, Artiste sans œuvre: I would prefer not to, Paris: Verticales, 2009.p.7.

[12] Saint-Germain-la-Blanche-Herbe/Paris

[13] Jean-Christophe Bailly, L’infaccé, Saint-Germain-la-Blanche-Herbe : L'Institut mémoires de l'édition contemporaine, 2016. p.4.

“Qu’est-ce que l’ineffacé ? C’est peut-être ce qu’il y a de plus fragile, le plus ténu, de plus insalissable dans l’archive.”

[14] Henri Bergson, Matter and Memory, 1896

“The pure present is an ungraspable advance of the past devouring the future.”

[15] An example is the series of articles by the critic Saad Al-Qasim under the title “The Virtual Museum of the Country”.



-        Galland Bruno, Les archives, Paris : Presse Universitaire de France, 2016.

-        Derrida, Jacques Mal d’Archive : une impression freudienne, Paris : Galilée, 1995.

-        Schenk Dietmar, « Pouvoir de l’archive et vérité historique », Écrire l'histoire, 13-14 | 2014, 35-53. 

-        Lensse, Anneka Chapter of the archive map from, “The Shape of the Support: Painting in Syria's Twentieth Century." 2011.

-        Lenssen, Anneka, Rogers,Sarah, Shabout, Nada, Modern Art in the Arab World: Primary Documents, Duke University Press : Caroline, 2018.

-        de Biasi Pierre-Marc , La fabrique du titre : nommer les œuvres d'art, Paris : CNRS, 2012. p.7.

-        Jouannais Jean-Yves , Artiste sans œuvre : I would prefer not to, Paris : Verticales, 2009.p.7.

-        Bailly Jean-Christophe, L’infaccé, Saint-Germain-la-Blanche-Herbe : L'Institut mémoires de l'édition contemporaine, 2016. 

-        برغسون هنري، المادة والذاكرة، دمشق: وزارة الثقافة والإرشاد القومي، ١٨٩٦