The Order of Images

Published in „Der Greif – A Process“.

Note from the editors: Text translated and proofread by Susann Dettmann.

The Order of Images

Images are being collected, ordered, arranged in ensembles, and presented. Primarily involved in this process are the main actors of the art scene: Curators produce meaning by constellating already meaningful objects. Gerhard Richter composes his private collection of images on tableaus and presents them as art. Aby Warburg tried, by compiling images in a pictorial atlas, the Mnemosyne-Atlas, to show the remaining traces of the ancient world, establish image constellations as a practice of art theory, and offer a possibility to create meaning differently and novelly.

Atelier von Sibylle Springer

Atelier von Sibylle Springer

These rather different, often experimental approaches to images are nowadays widely considered a creative practice rather than a scientific method or a medium of a culture of remembrance. Occasionally, important art exhibitions of the 20th century are themselves treated as art work. Curators see themselves more and more as artists. Collections are no longer simply understood as a cultural practice, but as an art form in itself.

Thus, they also moved beyond the three logics of the order of knowledge, which Foucault identified as main thought patterns: Thinking in resemblances as it can be seen in the cabinets of curiosities and wonder; the perspective of distinction which he assigned to the encyclopedic collections of the Age of Enlightenment and which should promote the most comprehensive collection possible of sources, flora, and fauna; and finally the age of historical thinking that is reflected in historical museums until now. As early as 1966, Foucault asked if we are thinking in new patterns of order, and if so, in which ones.

How is meaning constituted when order follows the logic of artistic practices? When order desires to be understood as a creative process? When order may derive from sheer arbitrariness? When order equals meaning? Will new forms of magical thinking emerge, as Foucault noted for the cabinets of wonder?

Numerous single images (in the plural)

For the arranged order of images, Felix Thürlemann coined the notion of the hyperimage which was linked to the hypertext discourse in literary studies. The latter was responding to internet practices like (hyper)linking or copy and paste. A hyperimage gives the impression to be a big picture consisting of numerous single images; yet, at the same time follows the logic of gaze, i.e. the regime or conventions of viewing, which Lacan differentiates from the view, the act of looking. But this concept is too static to take the dynamics of images into account that constantly re-constitute themselves through ever-changing contexts. After all, a hyperimage is still an image, thus indicating a finality that is not always given. And at the same time it reveals its need for an appropriate categorization. The prefix hyper on the other hand quite accurately characterizes such constellations as the creation of meaning which goes beyond the mere summing of parts.

When single images are arranged on tableaus, one thing above all becomes evident: Resemblance, be it visual or not, always remains in(de)finite. Because resemblance, as well as difference, is only produced when it refers to another resemblance or difference. It does not exist in itself but only in the confrontation. At the same time, the accumulations of affirmations, disappointments, surprises, and conventions – as they might emerge within the tableaus – are unlimited. Therefore, the foundations of images as well as the way we deal with them are built on sand. Yet, to set foot on sandy soil can also be considered brave and visionary: The constant rearrangement of tableaus deconstructs the myth of an immediate comprehensibility of images. This (old) belief that images are easier to comprehend than other media, easier to understand than a text, for example, not only presupposes a similarity between image and object. It also prerequisites the idea that images, however unique or specific, would always mean the same. At all times and in all places.

Of course, this fallacy has long been identified as such. The photographic works are hence not being depreciated but rather appreciated. They fit with different contexts and thus free themselves from the determination of their author who accepts this. He releases them into democratic space to have them exposed to dictatorship again.

Magical thinking does not spring from the specifics and autonomy of images – but from their order.

Still in the age of mechanical reproduction: The work of art has regained its aura. Not by reverting to its status as an original, a single image, but rather by its constellation with other images.


  • Foucault, Michel: Die Ordnung der Dinge. Suhrkamp: Frankfurt a.M. 1974. French original (Les mots et les choses) 1966.
  •  Lacan, Jacques: Seminar XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. W.W. Norton and Co.: NY & London 1978.
  •  Thürlemann, Felix: Mehr als ein Bild. Für eine Kunstgeschichte des hyperimage. Wilhelm Fink: München 2013.