The Parergon: A Perspective on the Work of Anna Scalfi Eghenter

by Heather Höpfl


Well of course, in a similar way, my concern is also with the frame. Whether it is the building itself, the display case, what surrounds a picture or, indeed, the concept, there is a need to give attention to what constitutes the frame. This is a concern too for Derrida (1987: 63). “Where”, he asks “does the frame take place. Does it take place. Where does it begin. Where does it end. What is its internal limit. Its external limit. And its surface between the two limits”. In short, Derrida invites us to consider the frame. In Truth in Painting, Derrida (1987) takes us to the “outskirts” of the work of art: frame, title, signature, museum, archive, reproduction, discourse, market, in order to identify these as limits and limitations to the work of art. My intention here is not to describe the work of art. However, as an artist, this is very much what Anna Scalfi Eghenter seeks to do in performing her art. In the sense that “art” refers to an aspect of human skill, I might reasonably interpose myself into her construction as an artefact, subject to the limits and limitations of framing. In this sense, to see art (Latin, ars, art- from base ar [as a hypothetical form as, for example, in harmony] meaning to put together, join, fit) as the very process of construction. Scalfi Eghenter is able to bridge the concept and the material construction of it and to play with the relation between them as a process which is both translation and transgression. My concern is with the most basic, etymological notion of art. It is not concerned with high art, or narrow definitions of fine art. It is not concerned with art as representation. It is about art as process and in this regard there is an easy reconciliation of my interests with those of Anna Scalfi Eghenter. Her art is performance but it is performance in pursuit of a philosophical end. In seeking to find an appropriate frame of reference, art in this context is more to do with the skill of the artisan than the usual rarefied notions of art which make all works of art, grand or banal, parodies of themselves: always capable of deconstructing into indeterminacy. Again, Anna Scalfi Eghenter uses a frame of reference which both announces her authorship and authority and which establishes this authority by reference to other authorities which confirm the standing of our authority. However, she goes further. Once she has established her art, she seeks to make in transparent, accessible and gratis. This is her unique contribution to the parergon, to the framing of art. “It is no longer merely around the work. That which it puts in place – the instances of the frame, the title, the signature, the legend, etc – does not stop disturbing the internal order of discourse on painting, its works, its commerce, its evaluations, its surplus-values, its speculation, its law, and its hierarchies” (Derrida, 1987: 9). To define is to exclude. To mark what is inside and what is outside is to draw a line. This is the frame and this is what, in every aspect, Anna Scalfi Eghenter seeks to present and subvert. Certainly, this is not the place to which those seduced by the notion of art as an absence of structure or as antithetical to science might like to go. Anna Scalfi Eghenter’s work is not anarchic. It is transgressive. It is characterised simultaneously by opposition and exclusion: to borrow the term from de Man, “blindness and insight”. However, there is sa-voir in this definition to permit a de-construction of “art” as frame-work, as to enable the exploration of the relationship between the framed and the framing, and as to examine frame in relation to structure and order, to view art as the means of construction.

Do Not Cross the Frame-Line

Paris, 10th Septermber 2004. The second Art of Management conference has reached a successful conclusion. My colleagues from the University of Essex, Ian King and Ceri Watkins, have organised another splendid event bringing theorists and practitioners together for three days of discussion, spectacle and performance.

At the Ecole du Commerce, Anna Scalfi Eghenter has taken the audience from the banal to the surreal and framed the auditorium with yellow tapes of the type the police use at the scene of a crime. This done, bizarre events begin to occur with children running around with square balloons, a mobile phone ringing, frogs released at will. A crime is taking place. It is a violation of the space, a transgression of the quotidian world, and yet the audience sits and waits, does not respond, does not pursue the invitation offered to them. They will not cross the police line, will not be indisciplined and complain about the mobile phone which keeps ringing or the frogs which leap between their feet. What Anna is demonstrating by the imposition of the structure and its simultaneous infringement is the power of the frame. The understanding of the world as encountered is a world which is immutable. Even when the boundaries are clearly demonstrated and the possibility of contravention made possible, the frame exerts a powerful pressure to conform. People stay within their frames.

After three days of talk, performances, events, noise, encounters with old friends, drink, a trip on the river, a visit to the Pompidou: the space – circumscribed by event and by demarcation – is now vacant. The site of the conference is now deserted. A few leaflets blow around the empty courtyard. The organisers load up their car for the journey home. The former order is restored to the site. A few students and stragglers from the conference who are taking a later flight home remain under the trees. The place is quiet, recovering from the circus which briefly encamped and has now moved on. Now framed only by the high walls of the teaching blocks, it is a site of possibility between the world of what has just taken place and the return of what went before.

In the street outside the site of the conference I run into Anna. She is breathless and rushing. She has so much to do before she leaves. I too am rushing. I want to visit the Louvre before it closes. More precisely, I want to return to the Louvre and since this is perhaps my tenth visit to the Louvre over nearly forty years, I have come to the conclusion that each return visit is a reassurance. In a peculiar way, the museum’s past affirms my own. I was here before amongst these artefacts: their history frozen as my own transient self passes. The Venus de Milo is nearly forty years older than when I first saw her and so am I. And so we embrace, say goodbye and move off in different directions. Each of us framed by time and commitments, by circumstance and demands. And so, as I set off, I am thinking about Anna’s exploration of structure. In 2003 she explored Weber’s Iron Age of bureaucracy creating for herself an iron cage penetrated only by workers’ voices talking of their experiences of work. Another framing.

I enter the Louvre. Framed as the exhibits are in the magnificent setting of the Palais de Louvre they remain oddly lodged together over decades – divided into a logical system of categories, time periods, types of artefact, cultural origin and so forth. The museum is an outstanding testament to order, logic and organisation. On this bright Friday afternoon in September, I am returning to see these exhibits moving slowly in time like great glaciers moving across continents, in some sense I have returned to venerate order, and, in a more tragic sense, to measure my own transience.

Through the glass pyramid, I pass through the frame of a security screen, a metallic arch which filters out those intent on bringing disorder into the museum, and descend into the subterranean entrance hall. Here I have a number of options. In front of me there are three wings: Richelieu to the North, Sully to the East and Denon to the South. Within this division, there are seven departments each with several collections. These are Paintings, Objet d’Art, Prints and Drawings, Oriental Antiquities, Sculpture, Egyptian Antiquities, Greek, Etruscan and Roman Antiquities. There is also a further subterranean level where the medieval walls of the ancient palace can be seen. Each department has its own colour code, is a separate territory with its own exhibits, artefacts, experts, curators, guardians and so forth. This is an ordered world: a work of art. It is a place where things are brought together and given coherence by the logic of the frame. What Anna Scalfi Eghenter reminds us is that these choices are made for us and we accept them as such. These divisions of knowledge, of artefacts, this periodisation, categorisation, episodic structuring of events and artefacts is an exercise in power: the power to define. In all aspects of her work, Anna invites transgression. She is trying to remind us that such understanding is negotiable.

Structure / Destruction

Anna is always working with the relationship between constructing and de-constructing. Her wall of books at the EGOS conference in Berlin in 2005 is a case in point. Derrida (1987) says that “from Plato to Hegel, Husserl, and Heidegger (all philosophical discourses on art…) presuppose a discourse on the limit between the inside and outside of the art object, here a discourse on the frame” (Derrida, 1987: 45). The point here is that the construction of categories too is an art: put together, joined and fitted. Art then is not merely the object of construction but also the process of that construction. Management has sometimes described itself as an art rather than a science and has frequently, somewhat pretentiously perhaps, regarded this description as evidence of a superior mode of apprehension. Yet, in this construction, art might be more readily associated with construction, science with knowledge. Ironically, this might mean that the art of management per se privileges appearance over substance, aesthetics over function. Yet, frequently, management seems to be interested in frames and framing often with a disregard for what is framed: its status, its art: without an awareness that this too is a construction, and has its own art: yet, again, the denial or “erasure” of the signature does not eradicate the signature but, rather, doubles its operation, more emphatically imposes its mark. Similarly, management, now defined as the process of the regulation of the construction, of the regulation of art, has been concerned to stress title, hierarchy, signature: to define the limits to the possibility of what is framed and which cannot be easily liberated by the evocation of art. Anna Scalfi Eghenter confronts us with this and, like a terrier, she will not let us go until we acknowledge both the constraint and its possibility of contravention.

She is without doubt a woman of extraordinary talent. Her work is clever and authoritative. It commands our attention. She has the rare ability to take an abstract concept and give it material form. Whether she is setting up police-lines, or installing washing machines in the town square, building walls of books or iron cages, her work pushes at the boundary of the known in order to confront it. She simultaneously structures and subverts an idea so that its meaning becomes transparent, its structure exposed. Her work seems always to be concerned with the relationship between knowledge and practice: with how knowledge is performed. She draws our attention to the process of realisation and with humility she requires our participation. She wants us to know that what appears to us as fixed is, infact, negotiable.

Heather Höpfl

University of Essex


J. Derrida, The Truth in Painting, translated by G. Bennington and I. McLeod, University of Chicago Press, Chicago 1987.

This text includes excerpts from the following pre-published text: H. Höpfl, Frame, in Culture & Organization, Mar 2006, Vol. 12, Issue 1, pp. 11-24, Abingdon: Routledge. The text is an updated version of the introduction to the previous text.

(2011, Anna Scalfi Eghenter. Katalogos, edited by Andrea Viliani, Fondazione Galleria Civica – Centro di ricerca sulla Contemporaneità di Trento, Silvana Editoriale, Milano, 2011)