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Westfälischer Kunstverein presents a complete overview of the types of repetition in art
“Repeating” Installation view, Westfälischer Kunstverein, 2014 Photo: Thorsten Arendt.

MUNSTER.- Self-evidently, the production of art and culture (and indeed everything in the world) can never happen in a void without consideration of the past and the future. And yet there are distinct approaches taken to referencing the world around us and history itself. The current exhibition at the Westfälischer Kunstverein is devoted to an explicit form of this referencing, namely repetition, as an equally potent and flexible strategy in contemporary art.

We have deliberately forgone the use of a traditional title, a linguistic sign, opting instead for a more universally intelligible symbol which we encounter frequently, both in technological and digital contexts (take the browser refresh button, for instance) and which simultaneously also suggests a cycle, a reciprocal influence. Thus, reference is made to relevant aspects of repetition as a practice: on the one hand, the thing being repeated, being updated – the template itself – changes, and on the other, it is possible today in our transitional phase between the analogue and the digital, to speak of another “age of reproduction” à la Walter Benjamin. Copying and disseminating content has never been more straightforward.

Repetition in the form of the copy or reproduction emerged with the beginnings of art history – for the purposes of practising, education, proof of ability, skill and craftsmanship. Anybody able to imitate the old masters was considered ready to develop an individual style – a teaching method which scarcely finds any purchase nowadays. In addition, during the eighteenth century, the reproduction print was an enduring and favoured means with which to distribute popular paintings and open them up to a wider audience. However, this initially altogether pragmatic use of reproduction was very far from arriving at an acceptance of repetition as an independent artistic method.

In the era of classical modernity, the era of the avant-garde, artists put themselves under intense pressure to produce innovative and thus original work, a situation finally alleviated as late as the 1960s and the development of post-modernism. If repetition was an affront to the strenuously achieved autonomy of art in modernity, categories, such as source and originality, were deliberately negated and deconstructed in post-modernism, in particular in appropriation art. The recently deceased Elaine Sturtevant was considered an important pioneer of appropriation art: in 1965, she started to produce reproductions of other (exclusively male) artists, such as Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol – interestingly before any of them became well known. Sturtevant defined repetition as a distancing of the work from its origin in the moment of its simultaneous further development. The copy and the original were no longer solid entities any more, instead they are concepts conforming to the perpetually new given context.

During this deconstructive climate of post-modernism, Jacques Derrida developed the concept of différance in the early 1970s, which precisely describes this shift of meaning inherent in every repetition. The precise copy can never exist: every copy or act of reusing is the equivalent of a kind of updating and thereby an altered inscription into the space time nexus. Derrida’s ideas here relate primarily to the use of linguistic signs. The meaning of a verbal utterance is never fixed, but instead it is shifted with every new reading and every new utterance. Meaning is therefore always relational and never absolute. The object of repetition is not only influenced by its temp- late, but the “original” itself is changed by repetition.

Gilles Deleuze is even better known for his ideas on difference and repetition, a combination that provided the title of his professorial thesis in1968. Deleuze attempted to think about “difference in and of itself” in a more systematic way, without recourse to something else or something beyond difference per se. An essential component of his theory of difference is the concept of time. Time has a sense of permanence precisely in the form of past time: the past doesn't pass. Subjectively speaking, a memory can indeed fade, but it can always be reanimated be- cause the past endures in an objective sense. For Deleuze, the past is thus more than a temporal dimension: the remembering of the past is necessary and constitutive for present experience. Present moments can only form a meaningful continuum on the basis of similarities prompted by memory between present experience and extant, remembered events enduring in “crystalline form”. The present itself becomes a site of difference. Proceeding from this obvious focus upon difference, Deleuze interprets repetition primarily as a process of alteration. It is not the subject that repeats itself, but the repeated entity itself forms an “in-between” which precludes the idea both of a source and equally a telos. “It” repeats itself, it doesn't need any prior intention on the part of subjects.

Repetition as a method and expressive medium in art has never cohered to a pure notion of l’histoire pour l’histoire. It was and is used in the main as a complex intellectual figure in which remembering and forward thinking revolve around one another, a process in which individual activity is compared and differentiated from the activity of others. Creating something new is equally as important as the creation of new contexts and connections.

The exhibition at the Westfälischer Kunstverein deliberately eschews a complete overview of the innumerable types of repetition in contemporary art, choosing instead to focus primarily upon the reflexive engagement by artists in the production of cultural knowledge and their own conditions of production through the appropriation of existing artworks and culture in general. It is not a question of repetition deriving from an affirmative impetus; rather, precisely the aspect of difference, this moment of slight consternation, has been factored in to the proceedings in order to reveal certain structural conventions of presentation and representation as both hegemonic and worthy of critique.

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