When viewing artworks representing ideas of memory and memorial, what can be found in artworks that illumine the nature of these two entities?
Victoria Haviland MA Fine Art 2012
Memory has for centuries been a subject of deep phycological concern for philosophers artists and scientists, Freud, Plato Satre to name but a few. Memory is ‘a brightly lit circle of perfect presentation’, Hussesl 1.
The notion of memory has wide implications, historical, narrational, personal, real, imagined. Often in artworks offering these intentions, projects hold a multitude of process, of technique in the attempt to portray the charm and tenderness that ideas of memory evoke.
Artists engage with themes of a personal memory and whilst he remembers, he is engaging in a commemoration of the past. Imagination partners memory. The entity that separates them is the fact that a memory is validated by a ‘belief feeling'2, the imagined does not provide this feeling, and it is this element that makes us able to tell the difference between what happened and what did not.
Artist Susan Rothenberg, an American painter has been concerned with a handful of single images for the past 20 years, the images of a horse, a dog, and a bee. These images are connected to events and observations recalled from her past. Rothenberg deconstructs the forms of these images and arranges them on the canvas providing the viewer with a new perspective.
The idea of the temporal memory is supplied by viewing the images as if from a bird’s eye view. The images become totemic symbols, bearing a strong sense of identity for the artist. The works are a vehicle for Rothenberg’s journey into a myriad of methods of painting.
When considering what it is that make an art work poignant and truly effective on the viewer, perhaps 'emotion’ would be the theme most obvious. What could possibly be more emotive than the idea and occurrence of the death process?
So to remembering and honouring the dead. Memory plays a part along with the ritual of memorial. Remembering is a form of commemoration, although E Casey says “memory is solipsist self-enclosure”3, this would not be appropriate for an act of memorial and commemoration, so ritual is employed in order to formalise, allowing group experience that endears itself to the shared experience of emotion and remembering. Commemoration links the past to the present leading both into the future.
Commemoration makes the past and the present substantial, they become a duality/unity. Commemoration can be a very intricate and intense experience. Consider the act of remembering a commemoration? The ceremony itself becomes a memory, the process of the ceremony of remembering is doubled as the act of honouring is for future reflections, this itself requires memory.
Artist Kerry Tribe pays homage to a man who had lost his memory (and is unable therefore to participate in the act of memorial). After an operation to cure his epilepsy failed patient ‘M' was left with irreparable memory loss. He was unable to remember anything past the last 20 seconds.
Tribe documents this loss of memory that is not only phenomenal in terms of disaster, but phenomenal in terms of the very idea of it. This is what Tribe seeks to portray.
A close up of a butterfly’s wing is projected onto a wall, next to it an interview with 'M’ where his memory loss becomes glaringly evident. The two film projectors positioned side by side mimic the 2 sides of the brain inherently relevant to the dynamics of the thinking feeling mind.
Tribes work is a poignant telling of a man’s plight, a circumstance seemingly unimaginable, an installation uses metaphor and physical interpretation of an internalized conflict between a man and his previous abilities.
Works such as Tribe’s serve to remind us to appreciate not only our faculties and our good fortune but to preserve and nurture these against any inward or outward cause of damage that we may have the misfortune to experience.
It is through learning of the lives such as ‘M' that we are inspired to commemorate such people and their lives. Most people when they die has lived a life worth celebrating. We search for our own identity through commemoration, concreting our own sense of future and purpose through the appreciation and celebration of the lives of others.
Tragedy features in memory, reflections on the tragic events of 9/11 matures like most things, with time. More and more artists find themselves ready to process their feelings and thoughts on the event. Under guises of various intentions (commissions or self directed practices) artworks are steadily being developed.
But works have seemed largely to attend to the media issues as opposed to the emotive issues penetrated in the minds of a collective global memory.
It was noted by journalist/writer Christy Lange of Frieze Magazine that the images of the twin towers decreased in size almost daily since the event, physical evidence of the practice of forgetting in the wake of an overwhelming obligation to remember.
Perhaps sometimes forgetting becomes part of the process of remembering and memorial. A negative act seemingly that seeks the positive outcome of acceptance and forward living amongst other sentiments surrounding death and its process.
For the 9/11 disaster, there are for many of us gaps in our knowledge and understanding of political issues surrounding the disaster. Artworks that serve as memorials instruct or remind the viewer that he can contribute further his memorial through his gaining of knowledge.
'Lange says 'if knowledge is recollection, knowledge is also commemoration’. But does Lange imply knowledge of the event or knowledge of the surrounding issues? Both perhaps.
It was by a curational act that all the artworks in exhibition became memorials to the 9/11 disaster. Elsworth Kelly had laid a geometrical green square over the image of the land where the towers used to stand. His work was a proposal for the monument for the disaster.
Barbara Kruger laid text onto an American flag, displaying an protest through idignance ‘Who speaks? Who is silenced? Who salutes longest? Who prays loudest? Who dies first? Who laughs last? Kruger’s put her nose to the very issue, challenging, demanding, outraged.
How is the viewer confronted in terms of his own trauma of losses? David Reiff of Harper’s Magazine put forward a suggestion for ‘forgetting’ 9/11, indicating that remembering it will always in some way be a political derivative.
Blanking and forgetting these events could contribute to the shallowing of political devise, that is infamous for manipulating the thoughts and feelings of the masses.
Surely memorial and commemoration should stand protected and unadulterated from the creeping silent and deadly agendas of the political machine. It is in this case that the arts can seize the opportunity to open wide it’s protective and nurturing arms, in favour of humanist issues.
One of Peter Eleeys artists of the MOMA 9/11 exhibition was a work by Bruce Conner 'Report 1967’ that projected images of the assassination of JFK. Flashing images caused the viewer to feel the work very physically adding a new experience for the well documented media images.
This physical viewing experience inflicted a nauseating and discomfort for the viewer, that served as an instruction on the documented media images, a view in between the lines into an event that was so prevalent to the time.
In terms of a memorial, the inconvenience of the physical experience seems an appropriate method of informing memorial, as memorial is not only to comfort, but it is through its infliction that true feelings can be attributed to memorial.
The experience of memory doesn’t just lie in the mind. Memory can be experienced ‘bodily’. “I think that all the nerves and muscles can serve memory”4
Place is attributed strongly to the memory. Memories are stored in places, to have a memory without a ‘place’ would disorientate.
Sugimoto’s ideas of ‘place’ can be detected in his design of the 2,000 square metre exhibition space, which is divided into four L-shaped galleries.
Entering the first gallery, a 6 metre-high rectangle, visitors encounter two areas with vast white screens standing solemnly like columns in a temple. The screens form an enclosed walkway. At this point, no photographs are apparent.
When visitors have walked through the screens and look back, they see photographs of Sugimoto’s recent series, ‘Conceptual Forms’, hanging on the back of the screens.
The placement of the photographs suggests that, normally encountered by viewers as they move towards the images, they present a view into the past, or a ‘backward’ view.
Artist Sugimoto is a photographer and uses the oldest technique of silver gelatin prints. What is particular about his work is the employment of architecture to his display methods.
Viewers are presented on entering the gallery with a 2000 square foot space, two white columns of wall face the viewer on either side of the room with a passage way between.
The viewer walks through the passage to the back of the space where he turns around and is faced with 8 sections of wall horizontal to the passage where the prints are hung. Here Sugimoto’s idea of connecting time to memory is relayed.
The viewer has walked ‘through a passage of time’ in order to view the works, leaving the gallery also marks an experience of leaving the works in the past as he travels slowly through the viewing experience, retracing his steps and at the same time considering works that reference memory.
The ‘Conceptual Forms’ series consists of black-and-white photographs of plaster models that demonstrate mathematical formulae brought to Japan from the West during the early 20th-century Meiji period. The models are photographed with a black background so as to ‘monumentalise’ the forms.
Sugimoto is interested in ‘real-life’ history, factual based information and culture informs his works, and has remained committed to this as opposed to exploring ideas of narrative. His installation of works provides a fusion for potentials between ‘mental memory’ and ‘body memory’.
“Memory is like a great field or a spacious palace, a storehouse for countless images of all kinds… It is a vast, immeasurable sanctuary. Who can plumb its depths?”5
Anna Barriball is an artist that examines passages of time. The exploration of memory pays homage to time in that memory is a derivative of time and is a measure of the act of making a memory and of recollection.
Time in all its intensity especially appropriate to the making of memorial. Ritual and ceremony is time based and the experience of making memorial or memory is enshrouded in time, both formally and as an element of what is contributed by making these entities.
Bariballs work provides us with an intensity of ‘familiarity’ of our own experiences of what it is that time represents. Intricate gestures of portrayal such as bouncing a ball covered with graphite onto a piece of paper, the ball leaves a mark visually suggestive of an explosion.
This work becomes an analogous metaphor for a punctuation in time. The mark becomes evidence of what it is to ‘spend time’, that is in parallel to ‘making’ time.
The work brings forth questions of the dimensions of time and compares well to the location or form a memory can exists as, bringing to mind the multitudes of variations that memories exist as, a sound a noise, a taste a smell, a feeling, an experience.
Bariball also uses found black and white portrait images and lays swirling ripples of black ink that leave the images un obscured with a translucent layer of texture that suggest gentle movement.
These works suggest the trajectory of time, of how memory and time are distorted and eroded by wear and tear, by the daily inflictions of outward causes. The ink contributes to the idea of the ‘finality of the past’. A return to an past event, the ink is applied in memorial to the past and as a final fair well to a time well spent.
There is a bitter-sweet sentiment to the works of Bariball, a nostalgia that offers both pain and joy.
The artists' familiar objects that she employs contribute to this, the fireplace, she covers an entire piece of paper with graphite, it is the placed over the fireplace, the suction caused by the varying pressures of indoor and outdoor take the paper a little way up the chimney, just enough to change the surface of the paper but also to change the work dramatically, an event occurs before us, an act of nature parallels the portrayals of displaying time processes.
Barriball’s work is characteristic by the use of dark greys and blacks, this provides a surface or a canvas that is comparable to the darkest recesses of the mind, the undiscovered forgotten memory, the void of the forgotten, ‘the dark backward and abysum of time”,6
Artist Tatiana Trouve explores memory in relation to architecture and spaces. She seeks to endure the viewer to the space, using objects of such familiarity for instance belts and mattresses (she binds a mattress to a supporting ceiling pillar with 2 belts).
The works form an installation full of curious invitation to explore, 2 miniature doors cause hesitation for the viewer on his investigation of the potentials of space, for writer Quinn Latimer of Frieze Magazine, this experience was invigorated by the sudden appearance of a unknown fellow viewer, a small toddler who appeared in the doorway, and then disappeared, causing Latimer to do no else but follow.
A reference to time was through the suspension of many lead pendulums hanging just above the ground inspiring the viewer to tipy toe forwards whilst being drawn into a sense of the past.
For E Casey the notion of the pathway is a feature common to that of memory and place. Both as a physical and internal notion, the 'pathway’ is an idea evident in Trouve’s work. ‘A given place can be entered by multiple pathways through a landscape that acts as its external horizon'7. The 'external horizon in Trouve’s case is the gallery space, perhaps the black painted floor.
The doors and obscured hidden rooms offer the viewer the opportunity to excersise 'path following’ or path breaking'. This opportunity for a sense of free exploration at will contrasts with the sited planned pathways and routes inflicted upon us in everyday life.
Trouves work has served as a cathartic experience for the viewer, a chance to challenge and change his modes of thinking, sure as thinking is the core mechanism when delving into the phyce of memory.
Artist Rachel Whiteread commits herself to the process of ‘casting’. Carboard boxes, spaces under tables and chairs, under floorboards, whole rooms, spaces under staircases and her Turner Prize winning work ‘House’, an entire house cast in concrete.
Her work evolves around notions of absence, of memory, of loss and abandonment.
The resulting casts appear as impositions within the gallery space. The viewer is confronted by a negative of his own space, as if viewing a mirror image of his own circumstance.
The casts are made in concrete plaster resin and ice and pose questions of history and time suspended in animation.
Ideas of memory come to the fore, what is it that occurred in the original space, what energy existed, what was shifted by these huge masses when huge trucks poured their liquids into the container?
Space is monopolised by the cast material, possibility and potential for the imagination is monopolised by the cast. The viewer takes responsibility for reflection, Whiteread’s work is done, her memories and visions are contained within the work, it is a case of mind over matter.
It is a personal media for the making of evidence, providing clues of past eras. What it is that we use it for is complex. The eyes have a strong relation to the excersise of remembering.
‘It is the disparate nature of the project, employing different approaches to image-making, fragments of research and narratives that refuse to be brought together in a single story, that points to ways of translating rather than telling history.'8
Cecil Collins is one such artist. A painter who studied at the Royal College of art in 1933 is said to be the most important metaphysical artist since Blake. His processes ranged as widely, he employed painting, oils and watercolour, print, pen and ink.
Influenced by printer Eric Gill, memory played a crucial part in Collin’s works. Collins was a visionary artist who centred his visions around the theory of 'the lost Paradise’, a state described as familiar to childhood experience, a bliss that connects to the world that we existed in even before birth.
Collins believed that we all inherently possess this experience and memory deeply within, Collins strove to connect us to this ‘lost Paradise, to connect us to the 'wholeness’ that we have since lost.
Collins sourced images from his own memory, as well as feelings, emotions and knowledge from past times. He connected these elements to god whom he called ‘The Great Happiness’. The ‘angel’ the ‘anima’ and the ‘fool’ are characters that repeat themselves throughout works.
Collins said ‘There is in all human beings a secret, personal life – it is this sensitive life which my art is created to feed and sustain: this real life deep in each person’.9
The painting ‘Magical Images in the Process of Time’ is a painting that reveals the colours and landscapes from Collin’s Westcountry childhood. Collins was also a poet and writer, '
A buried voice
shakes the hills
O do not forget these hollow hands
which are the years
Do not forget these restless wings
over the silent waters'.
So it is through memory that we are provided with a knowledge of the past. Artists have provided us with valuable insight into what it is that constitutes a memory and what it is that makes them so valuable. How can we introduce other ideas to compliment and enhance investigations into the memory? (honour, nostalgia, confusion). Memorial has for communities provided a formality that enables us to enjoy the phenomenon of remembering together. E Casey states in his book ‘Remembering’ that art should ‘transmit emotional experience’. Whilst preserving all the nuances and subtle refinements that are the inspiration'. When science and the arts work with each other, not only great medical progress can be achieved (the preservation of the mind), but to the realising of moving and poignant artworks depicting the vulnerability and fragility of the human mind that hitherto pay homage to those that have remembered and to those most deserving of memorial.