Ariadne’s Thread

Aby Warburg and Walter Benjamin are two names that have occurred with increasing frequency in the discussion of the way(s) in which the Archive mediates our relationship to the deep time of Western cultural memory itself. Warburg began serious work on his Mnemosyne (Memory) Atlas in Florence in 1928; it was cut short by his untimely passing the following year. Benjamin’s so-called Arcades Project was conceived in Paris in 1927; it was still incomplete at his tragic death in 1940. Both late and ultimately unfinished undertakings sought, among other things, to chart the Western cultural memory from its pagan roots in classical antiquity down through the constitution of modernism in nineteenth-century Paris.14 Benjamin’s “Short History of Photography” was a key document in the theorization of that technology in relation to archival practices.15 These two key cultural historians and critics have been linked more and more closely of late,16 and not simply for their complex interwar attitude that balanced a profound cultural and historical pessimism against at least a glimmer of hope for the future.

Neither these attitudinal complexities nor the equally complex outlines and intertwinings of their work can be addressed adequately here. But it is possible to explore, however briefly, the way in which Aby Warburg’s project has spawned a work that appropriates the archival impulse as part of an elegant pictorial and textual strategy juxtaposing the classical past, the Renaissance and Baroque rebirth of that past, and the modernist and post-modern critique of that reiterated cultural memory. In addition, this meditation on the density and lability of cultural memory is articulated within a productive practice that simultaneously celebrates the power of hand-work while acknowledging both the mechanical and the digital reproduction of that technique.

Elaine Reichek, <em>Who Besides Me</em>, 2010. Hand embroidery on linen in hand-carved frame, 57 1/2 X 53 1/2 in.

Elaine Reichek, Who Besides Me, 2010. Hand embroidery on linen in hand-carved frame, 57 1/2 X 53 1/2 in. Courtesy of the artist and Shoshana Wayne Gallery, Santa Monica, Ca.

The artist in this case is Elaine Reichek, and the work is her ambitious Ariadne’s Thread (2008–11) recently on view at the Shoshana Wayne Gallery in Los Angeles.17 In briefest outline, the work consists of a series of (mostly) embroidered panels replicating (mostly) well-known works of art from Attica to Andy Warhol and centered on Titian’s magnificent Bacchus and Ariadne (1523–24). Each pictorial panel is embedded in a field on which is inscribed a gloss taken from the vast literature surrounding the Ariadne myth, beginning with a brief recapitulation of the story taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. These juxtapositions of image and text are then further contextualized by means of two huge black panels to which are affixed groups of related images that elaborate on the panels prepared by Warburg as the site for his Mnemosyne Atlas. In addition to the main elements of the myth, Warburg himself is explicitly acknowledged in a group of these images, as are the technological developments that drive the mechanization of embroidery.


  1. It is, I think, an open question whether either project could ever have been completed to its author’s satisfaction.
  2. The literature on either of these figures is vast, and ever increasing in volume. For our purposes, see Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin Mclaughlin (Cambridge, Ma: Harvard/Belknap, 1999). On Warburg, see Kurt W. Forster’s introduction to Aby Warburg, The Renewal of Pagan Antiquity, trans. David Britt (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 1999); also Philippe-Alain Michaud, Aby Warburg and the Image in Motion, trans. Sophie Hawkes (New York: ZONE Books, 2007), including the foreword by Georges Didi-Huberman. Elaine Reichek has expressed the importance of Didi-Huberman’s work to her conception of the Ariadne’s Thread project discussed below (Reichek, personal communication with the author, September 9, 2011). See, for example, his catalog to the exhibition ATLAS ¿Cómo llevar el mundo a cuestas? at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid, November 26, 2010–March 28 2011, and the summary at: atlas_en.html. The essay by Benjamin H.D. Buchloh cited in note 3 also has some trenchant comments on Warburg’s archive, as well as on the alternative theorizations of photography proposed by Benjamin and the great German critic Sigfried Kracauer. Especially resonant for me is the idea that “[Warburg’s] attempt to construct collective historical memory would focus on the inextricable link between the mnemonic and the traumatic,” Buchloh, “Gerhard Richter’s Atlas: The Anomic Archive,” 87.
  3. An especially important contribution to this ongoing research should be produced by a two-day seminar on the Warburg/Benjamin Connection, “Warburg, Benjamin, and Kulturwissenschaft”, to be held at London’s Warburg Institute, June 14–15, 2012. For more information, see
  4. Elaine Reichek, Ariadne’s Thread 2008–2011, Shoshana Wayne Gallery, Los Angeles, April 2–May 21, 2011.
Further Reading