constellation, Thomas Lange

narrator Thomas Lange
term constellation
published 11 August 2014, Eindhoven, Netherlands, Europe
affiliated institution Van Abbemuseum

Within the political-sociological-economical-historical field of the ongoing modernity (1800 to present day) capitalism reveals itself as a timeless, living and constantly changing and adapting, assimilating organism that is in itself a key to the notion of the connection (not separation) of past and present. To make this visible with and within art a concept of critical analysis, of presentation, of exhibiting with and within constellations has emerged at the transition from the 19th to the 20th century as an appropriate tool to reflect, comprehend and work with a notion of “history” which is – as Walter Benjamin put it in his notations entitled “On the Term History” – a present which is aware of the fact that it is addressed by the past which the respective present remembers in a brief moment, a flash of acute danger. This was put in strong contrast to the always ready, accurate “truth” of history the historicism claimed to achieve. Moreover, 'constellation' was used by Benjamin as a strong counterpart and only logical alternative to the narration of history as a linear progress.


Thinking and working with Constellations is the key to Jacob Burckhardt´s notion of history. He rejected in the mid-19th century the historical timeline of development as well as the separation of historical relevant “fields” (the field of politics, the field of art etc.) as an insufficient construction. Instead, he saw the artistic wealth of innovations in the Renaissance, its development of ideas known as humanism and the political practise of the same time as barbaric deeds of criminal warlords (i.e. the Medici and many other families) who (besides financing art and scholars) organised political and economic power with violent and gruesome force. From here on, thinking in constellations is inherent in the work of Nietzsche, Warburg, Benjamin, Adorno and Didi-Huberman. Thinking of history in constellations is a much more plastic, formable, fluent and dynamic notion, that takes into account what the idea of progression within a timeline of singular events neglects: the simultaneity of that which does not belong to the same time period, the anachronism and heterochronism, the layers of different “historic” constellations (conventionally understood as periods of time: barbaric, ancient world, pre-modern, modern, postmodern or Pagan, Christian, a. s. f.) that are still present in every present.


In the light of the notion that history is a constantly changing creation of the present, those periods appear also not to be fixed but reveal their plastic, formable, moldable qualities of the past that feedback into the notion of the present. Understanding a moment in history in its constellation is understanding the process which is stored in it.


The insights into such created and formed images of the past shift and change permanently as part of a continually unfinished process. Thinking in and within constellations is the key to this shift in understanding history as an ongoing process with no determined direction or aim. Constellations enable the understanding of the expanded and interwoven matrix of layers of time revealing multiple connections to later or previous, past and present times. Constellations are configurations, montages, interferences that enable us to look at a specific historic place or moment in history.


Benjamin pointed out that Ideas relate to things like star constellations to planets. They are neither terms nor laws. Instead, they make sense only because of their relative position. They exist only in the very place that emerges from a given montage. Thinking in constellations is working on the ability to understand the “layers of time” in breaking the one-dimensional idea of timelines (of linearity) as well as the notion of strongly related cause and effect or cause and consequence relations. (Burckhardt would not have suggested that both barbaric deeds and humanist ideas are somewhat related like cause and effect, but much more baffling: are related as two obviously extremely contradictory and mutually exclusive realities that go together very well, that reveal something that is more than the two could reveal on their own.)


Moreover, constellations overcome ideas that are based on merely physical assumptions that one thing stands next to another rather than being overlaid, influenced and changed by multiple others. Constellations enable connections between things and incidents of very different origin; constellations offer the chance even to overcome boundaries that separate the realm of thought from the realm of doing, the realm of “mind” and “body”, to enable understanding of “thinking” (and producing of reality) through the “hand”, through bodily actions and experiences, through the forming and arranging of materials, images, movements, bodies etc; forming and creating interactivities that can be best described as constellations as well. For Benjamin the image of constellation as well as the thinking in and with constellations enables a critical practise that the image of a progressing sequence does not allow: it takes the advantage to open the eye and mind of historians as well as artists for the interrelation of events past and present and to understand that history is a time that is filled in the presence of a “now”, as an interrelation in being (rather than “has been”). In his reflections “On the Term History” Benjamin points out that what "has been" is coming together in a flash with the now to form a constellation.