part 2: An approach to address something that one would have never dared to say anything about, except through symbolic practices             In 1998, a book with the title Photographs at the Frontier: Aby Warburg in America, 1895–96 was published.

It contains photographs of Aby Warburg’s journey to the West at the end of the nineteenth century, mainly to the mountain region crossing New Mexico and Arizona. Warburg had never intended to publish the images made available in the book. Regarding the ones that were part of his famous lecture, The Serpent Dance, Warburg had even insisted that the images should never be published.

  Dear Aby,

Some time ago we came across the book about the photographs you took on your trip to a couple of ancient villages of Pueblo Indian tribes. We had known some of them already through another book that was published a bit earlier about your lecture The Serpent Dance, but we had never seen all of them. Needless to say, we were surprised.

After you had taken the images and stored them in boxes for about twenty-five years, you yourself had used some of them in the lecture that was supposed to prove your mental sanity in the sanatorium in Kreuzlingen. We knew that you had clearly written and communicated afterwards that none of the parts of this lecture should ever be published. But as it goes, after you died they where taken out of the boxes, and now, decades later, they are here – printed in a glossy hardcover book and maybe even on display in exhibitions somewhere.

If we are to show you these images and accompany them with our words and thoughts, we do so to share with you our concerns about the taking of pictures and their own growing life. What to do with images that, although they were made, should never have been published or shown? How should one deal with them? How could your doubts be articulated, as well as our doubts about them being shown?

      We are asking ourselves what the reportable external events that you’ve experienced could have been and how, in your opinion, they relate themselves to the materiality of the souvenir. In terms of a mediation of one’s own experience to a public, how important is the site where the experience was made? Did you need to take pictures to localize and categorize your experience?

The souvenir domesticates the event. External experience is internalized. The beast is taken home. And this beast is unlucky; in its capture we can witness the crossing from event to memory and desire. Origin becomes trace. The cultural sign triumphs over the natural.

The photograph as souvenir is a logical extension of the pressed flower, the preservation of an instant in time through a reduction of physical dimensions and a corresponding increase in significance supplied by means of narrative.

What narrative did your souvenirs generate for yourself? And what is the narration that is generated through them today? What were the translations you have being working on, and what were the ones you’d been looking for? The ones you never found?

It is said that your wish for the romantic contributed to your westward fever. You were not exactly a traveler, neither a vagabond looking for the new, if necessary with the option never to return to your place of origin, nor an explorer drawn westward to extend the last frontier. We are certain that you “liked” it over there in the villages, that you appreciated the hospitality of the people and their willingness to let you witness their dances, visit their homes. We think there is a very fine line between appreciation and approp-riation, respect and self-aggrandizement, a line that is always shifting and impossible to detect in advance.

A friend of ours published a book with images that troubled him. He wrote a text accompanying the images in order to make them disappear, to somehow return them to the ones who made them, used them, and were responsible for their existence – a gesture that articulated his refusal to keep these images as part of his own life. For our friend, the images were part of a symbolic practice of violence, appropriating spaces and people by placing them in front of the camera. But can photographs be returned? Or is another symbolic gesture needed in order to make them disappear?


          The images that you have taken are used nowadays as ethno-graphical documents, tools used once more for retrospection. They become a way of decoding and naturalizing the present, and the present becomes the lens through which the past is constructed.

You never could speak about what you experienced under the vast western sky. Something must have struck you as being unspeakable. But how can one create ways to speak the unspeakable, address the impalpable?


Video installation (18 minutes), text, 2008

Installation of Unnamed Series part 1 and 2 at the Brussels Biennial, 2008

On January 10, 1896, Aby Warburg received two visitors in his room, number 59, in the Palace Hotel in Santa Fe.. These visitors were Cleo Jurino, guardian of the Estufa at Cochiti and the Kiva priest of Chipeo Nanutsch, and his son. Both put their secret drawings down onto paper.
                  What is the material, the package of information, of which only a little drawing is left? How did the impact of that secret knowledge, whispered into your ear, unfold? Who was the sender of this drawn material? Who was the original recorder? And why are we receiving it?

Perhaps you would like to share some time with us, talk about the encounter and maybe even participate in a meeting with Cleo Jurino and his son, which we will organize. Then we could talk about symbolic practices in which the serpents, for example, are living agents that generate lightning at the same time that they represent lightning.

In April and May 1896, Warburg visited the villages Oraibi and Walpi, old settlements of Hopi tribes, and witnessed the Humiskachina dance.

You must have experienced great strangeness, deplacement and irritation. Regarding your lecture, it seems as if here, in these villages, you clearly understood and realized that the real limit of the rationalist, modern Western mentality is its tendency to negate things that cannot be measured. Ephemeral phenomena that cannot be described other than in their form, in their outer appearance, as you said.

Could it be that your taking of pictures of the Pueblo Indians, their dances and houses, helped you stay connected with this measurable and comprehensible world of yours? Do you agree with us that these pictures are snapshots taken as souvenirs, as self-defining and grounding mirrors?

Did you collect other things? Sand, stones, pottery?