Between memory and trace
17 November 2012 - 10 February 2013
Luke Willis Thompson
curated by Bruce E. Phillips
In his poem In Memoriam: A. R. Jorge Luis Borges writes, "man's memory shapes its own Eden within ..." In this passage Borges suggests that memory functions selectively by editing the past within the mind. Herein lies a great contradiction of memory: that to remember, something must be edited out and forgotten. When this process of selective remembrance is expanded from an individual to the collective, the ramifications are escalated to the erasure of people and the history of their existence.
Between memory and trace groups three projects that examine this contradictory process of public memorialisation. The three projects are unified through conceptual practices that employ strategies of intervention and exchange to elicit varying aspects of erasure or precariousness in relation to the memorial.
Working with the ephemeral trace of a person's life is for Ruth Ewan an opportunity to tribute a politically silenced figure. Through two works, Ewan memorialises the notable singer, actor, athlete and activist Paul Robeson (1898-1976). Robeson became a target of the U.S. government during the McCarthy era 'witch hunts' resulting in an operation that attempted to erase his political and cultural prominence. In the work Them that plants them is soon forgotten, Ewan reflects upon this attempted erasure by growing over 200 'Paul Robeson' heirloom tomato plants in the Te Tuhi courtyard. As the plants mature and fruit, gallery visitors will be able to enact a form of commemoration by eating the tomatoes. Within the gallery, Ewan also installs a grid of empty record sleeves that hold the indentation of Robeson's recordings. This material memory stands as a potent reminder of the attempted deletion of Robeson's music from cultural history and raises questions as to the political role of artists within society.
Responding to the site of Shalom Park in Cork Ireland, Maddie Leach's work Evening Echo questions permanence in relation to collective remembrance. Shalom Park was opened in 1989 and its name marks a connection to Cork's dwindling Jewish community who had lived in the surrounding area since the 19th Century. The opening ceremony also included the illumination of a gas lamp - a gesture acknowledging the gifting of the park's land by the Cork Gas Company. After falling into disrepair for some years, the park was again 'upgraded' in 2003 and included a new suite of six electrically powered lamps. In 2011, Leach installed three additional matching lamps, completing a sequence of nine to correlate with the number of candles on the Hanukkah candelabrum. Connecting a conceptual framework to Jewish tradition and a contract partnership with Cork City Council, Leach's work proposes that the ninth lamp to be lit for only 30 minutes once a year, at sunset, on the last night of Hanukkah. Framed by a quiet, cyclical call to permanence, the public observance of this fleeting annual occasion remains uncertain. The work's continued relevance is partially contingent on future communities in Cork to remember and enact remembrance. Evening Echo is featured in the exhibition through documentation, artefacts and a live video event on 16 December to witness the second occurrence of lighting the ninth lamp.
In a new work commissioned by Te Tuhi, Luke Willis Thompson attempts to attain and erase a site of trauma in Manurewa, Auckland. In the early hours of 26 January 2008, teenager Pihema Cameron was tragically stabbed to death by home owner Bruce Emery. The incident occurred after Emery caught the boy and his cousin tagging his three prominent street facing garage doors. After confronting the pair, Emery gave chase with a knife and stabbed Cameron in a nearby cul de sac. While the garage doors were not the site of the murder, they became closely associated with the act of the 'tagging' through news media reports. Locally the doors and the trace left by the tagging became a tangible representational marker of the incident from which to retell and remember the story. For Thompson's contribution to Between memory and trace, these same doors have been removed, replaced and acquired for an installation at Te Tuhi. Through this act of exchange, Thompson negotiated with the home owner to fast track building renovations so that the building will no longer look the same from the street and thereby erase all visual association to the incident.
All three projects explore the potential of the ephemeral and everyday as profound but overlooked remnants of human life. While the works ultimately memorialise their subject, they also simultaneously resist the political rhetoric and nation-building narratives commonly evident in forms of civic remembrance. Through this resistance, the artists strategically maintain an unresolved tension between collective memory and the trace that is consciously created in its wake.