An Unresolved Tension
Between Memory and Trace
Te Tuhi, Auckland
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Memorialisation has unavoidably become a civic political act. By this I am not only referring to the ubiquitous inert obelisk, statue or bronze plaque. The act of memorialisation and its political motivation are also evident in more intangible forms including the public speech, parade, or the televised news report. Even though many such motivations might be unavoidably subconscious, fuelled by assumptions deeply engrained in the collective social psyche, it remains that public remembrance is an exercise in political influence. An influence that has the power to shape the formative tenets of identity, history and a sense of place.
Art often has a central role in memorialisation. For acting under the commission of the state an artist may be responsible for creating the image, monument, song or story. Art in this guise, more often than not, subsumes a redundancy of agency and critical integrity in favour of the politic at play. The obvious reaction against such compromise, usually involves forms of revolutionary iconoclasm or ideological activism. However, according to theorist Jacques Rancière, the problem of art being subsumed by politics is not simply solved by an act of oppositional subversion but rather maintaining an unresolved position in between. Rancière explains:
Art has lived for two centuries from the very tension by which it is at once itself and beyond itself, and by which it promises a future destined to remain unaccomplished. The problem is therefore not to set each back in its own place, but to maintain the very tension by which a politics of art and a poetics of politics tend towards each other, but cannot meet up without suppressing themselves ... To prevent the resistance of art from fading into its contrary, it must be upheld as the unresolved tension between two resistances.[i]
The exhibition Between memory and trace brings together three artist projects that, I believe, attempt to maintain such an unresolved tension in relation to the memorial. Jointly, the three artists strategically form various positions under the umbrella of conceptual practice by employing various means of intervention, exchange and the readymade. Through these approaches, the artists explore aspects of erasure or precariousness in relation to overlooked or forgotten social histories. In fact, it is not only an unresolved tension between just two resistances but numerous pairs of resistances that play a pivotal role under the rubric of memorialisation. I have identified three pairs of such unresolved tension apparent throughout all three projects. These include the tension between: memory and erasure, engagement and estrangement, and the banal and profound. Due to the limitations of this essay, I explore each pair in relation to a single project rather than all three. Despite this, I aim to investigate these resistances as a sequence of interconnected in betweens that might aid in discerning levels of contextual depth within the artworks and to ascertain what the artists might be contributing to current practice.
Between memory and erasure
Memory is a selective phenomena that occurs both consciously and unconsciously in our daily lives. Our brains are an incredible processor of information but they are also evolutionarily programmed as bias editors. This bias editing engages in a process where some information is prioritised and saved while other information is deleted and forgotten. The end product of this process is memory. When this editing process is amplified from the individual to the collective, it is people and communities that are erased or forgotten.
However, with memorialisation, there is more at play than just selective memory. Memorialisation also often involves the claiming of space through the founding of a site. In discussing the topic of foundation sites, art historian W. T. J. Mitchell states that:
Historical events must, as we say, ‘take place’ somewhere and these places are almost immediately sacralised or monumentalised as foundation sites. The ‘taking place’, as native Americans sometimes say, requires a totemic keeping place to preserve memory and continuity …[ii]
Such foundational sites or totemic keeping places have also been described as time markers, designated areas in physical space that are preserved to create a perceived pause in the ‘motion and flow of time’.[iii] Subjective engagement with these time markers is important in enabling individuals and communities to maintain a sense of place, one that informs the basis of identity and the understanding of being in the face of mortality.[iv] Therefore, it is within this pursuit of stasis amongst the complexity of life that the politics of space and time is fought.
The added complication here is that in the process of creating markers in time and space we also have to delete something. As Mitchell explains, the process of establishing foundation sites erases the actual ‘memory of the road to foundation’.[v] To unpack the psychology at play within this inherent contradiction, he uses the example of the Gestalt diagram ‘one vase, two faces’ to point out the impossibility of focusing on both the figure and the ground simultaneously.[vi] Within this optical metaphor, it is the vase which stands as the time marker or memorial object in place of the face as the secondary negative space where the loss has occurred.
In this light, Luke Willis Thompson’s exchange with a property owner to obtain the garage doors used in his artwork simultaneously preserves and erases. His act of exchange oscillates between the figure and the ground as it does between the site and the saved trace. The action removes a local time marker of the tragedy and the history of the event as told through the news media. This act of erasure is also intended as an act of subversion on part of the artist to save, from inevitable destruction, the last remaining trace of a life. Conversely, due to the fact that after stabbing Pihema Cameron for tagging his garage doors, Bruce Emery proceeded to clean off the tag, and his marks are also evident on the garage doors through the abrasions left in the outline of the spray paint. Thus, Thompson’s act of collecting the doors preserves the trace of the victim but also the hand that killed. The mark of the killer is inextricably bound in the mark of the life lost; the time marker of the trauma is simultaneously erased and conserved as it is removed from the site; the complication between what is being saved and lost is bound in the impossibility of separating the figure and the ground.
This psychological conundrum is further added to by the many news headlines and reports that have surrounded the incident. During his research, Thompson unearthed a considerable number of newspaper articles that, through the repetitive use of particular language, have played their part in influencing public opinion or disseminating disinformation. As a form of public remembrance, these reports simplified remnants of information so that they might catch the eye of the reader, or more accurately, appeal to the latent bias of a certain demographic.
The graffiti-marked garage doors became the salient point for many news reports, through which Cameron was identified as the ‘tagger’ rather than the tragic victim of a violent act. As it turns out, the validity of the ‘tagging’ was later not deemed relevant to the judge in the sentencing of Emery.[vii] This revelation raises a number of pertinent questions: Why does a crucial point of interest to the media become irrelevant in a court of law? Whose interests are being served through the limited labelling of this individual? As a form of memorial, what effect does this type of reporting have on public remembrance?
In critiquing the lack of critical investigative journalism and fear-driven media rhetoric following 9/11, theorist Judith Butler explains that such examples of limited identity profiling in reporting hinders empathy and mourning:
Those who remain faceless or whose faces are presented to us as so many symbols of evil, authorize us to become senseless before those lives we have eradicated and whose greivability is indefinitely postponed.[viii]
She continues to explain that this facelessness also acts to limit critical discourse:
The foreclosure of critique empties the public domain of debate and democratic contestation, itself, so that debate becomes the exchange of views among the like minded, and criticism, which ought to be central to any democracy, becomes a furtive and suspect activity.[ix]
While the media may limit critical discourse in the public domain there are still other public platforms, such as public art galleries, that encourage independent perspectives to be voiced rather than cloistering discussion. By attaining the doors for the gallery context, Thompson shifts the remembrance from the street and eye of the media to the context of the art gallery, where slow thinking and contemplation are prioritised over attention-grabbing headlines.
Between engagement and estrangement
Butler’s position that empathy is contingent upon the understanding of life’s fragility is also of importance in the mode of strategic social engagement evident in Maddie Leach’s work Evening Echo. The question of empathy for Leach may operate within the notion that life is a slow and quiet passing and that this is heightened for those whose cultural perspective is in a direct mismatch with the fundamental tenets of the majority.
Leach’s intervention essentially attempts to reactivate a memorial mostly forgotten. In doing so, she calls on the problematic question of empathetic remembrance for a dwindling community whose memory is fading amongst the city’s current inhabitants. However, to mistake this motivation as an attempt at creating lasting social change would be a grave misreading.
As a type of social engagement, Leach sets up the possibility for participation but does not assume or presuppose that the offer is taken up. She made no Twitter announcements, no Facebook sharing of the annual event, rather, the occasion was made known to the public through a series of advertisements in Cork’s free newspaper the Evening Echo.
Here, the artist made no attempt to fabricate a positive public situation in the beguiling neoliberal spirit of social inclusion.[x] Alternatively, Leach establishes a conceptual framework that prioritises the possibility for physically present participation in such a way that allows for the artist’s own proposition to be ignored or discarded by the community. This approach allows social engagement to take place with various levels of criticality.
To understand this strategy further, it is important to consider how it combines forms of communicative and symbolic acts. Influenced by theorist Jürgen Habermas, communicative action is a ‘type of social action geared to communication and understanding between individuals’.[xi] Leach enacts a form of communication that partakes in the shared understanding of a specific location and community. She does this by adding to the existing six lamps together with the constituent ephemera (advertisement, poster, promissory agreement and publication). These communicative contributions allow the potential for a set of relations to be established through a participant’s own free will to engage. The example here is pivotal because it reduces the possibility for the artist to act as a manipulative agent in presupposing from an assumptive position what is or isn’t in the community’s best interests. It further posits a dramaturgical situation where time, place and the community set the context for meaningful engagement.
Evening Echo also functions strongly as a symbolic act. In the symbolic, there is no actual social exchange enacted only meaning attributed to the artwork beyond what its objective existence suggests at face value.[xii] This is particularly evident when considering the contingent material exhibited at Te Tuhi as part of Between memory and trace. For example, the free takeaway poster was brought into association with the promissory agreement; this drew attention to the dichotomy between the Jewish and Western European calendars and the artist’s logistical hurdles to work with this problematic issue to establish the automated lighting of the ninth lamp for the next 50 years. The 1989 video documentation of Shalom Park’s inaugural dedication was also brought into relationship with the live video feed at Te Tuhi that observed the second instance of the lamp being lit on the last night of Hanukkah. By considering the uncannily similar video footage; the 1989 documented and real-time presence of Fred Rosehill, the president of Cork’s Hebrew Congregation; the lamp’s fleeting illumination coupled with the sun setting in Cork as it rose in Auckland, these relationships subtly built upon the nuances of time and light as a fitting reflection on the passing of a generation. A myriad of other associations and attributed meanings could be further applied by taking into account the reproduction of the original ceremonial photograph, documentation of the first lamp lighting and a copy of the Evening Echo newspaper featuring the advertisement.
Here, strategic forms of communicative action and lingering forms of symbolic significance balance contemplation with participation and spectatorship. In doing so, there is a conscious decision to resist the presupposed emancipation of the viewer though social engagement – a proposition that risks not connecting with anyone but at the same time has the potential for deeply profound connections to be formed. This resistance, between engagement and estrangement, stands at odds to forms of participatory art that critic Claire Bishop argues are rather than ‘being oppositional to spectacle [and neoliberal capitalist agendas that champion the spectacle, have] now entirely merged with it.’[xiii] Echoing Rancière, she continues to emphasise that:
This new proximity between spectacle and participation underlines the necessity of sustaining a tension between artistic and social critiques. The most striking projects that constitute the history of participatory art unseat all of the polarities on which this discourse is founded (individual/collective, author/spectator, active/passive, real life/art) but not with the goal of collapsing them. In doing so, they hold the artistic and social critiques in tension ... for both art and the social are not to be reconciled, but sustained in continual tension.[xiv]
Between banal and profound
I have so far explored two pairs of unresolved tension: between memory and erasure, and between engagement and estrangement. Throughout, I have emphasised the strategic conceptualism employed by Thompson and Leach that has enabled their projects to maintain a resistance in between these polarities. In considering Ruth Ewan’s work, I will now investigate the third and final unresolved tension: between the banal and the profound.
In the Te Tuhi courtyard, a grove of over 200 heirloom Paul Robeson tomato plants grow in black pots. The grove’s presence invites joy in some, curiosity in others and overall a common acceptance by most gallery visitors and locals who frequent Te Tuhi. However, lingering behind the easy approval of these tomato plants is a troubled history. For the act of naming has politicised these tomatoes and so they carry the story of a man, the situation he found himself in and the cause he fought for.
No one knows who named this Siberian tomato variety after Robeson, only that the seeds were first exported internationally from Moscow in the early 1990s.[xv] Although, given Robeson’s fame and relationship with the Soviet Union during the 1940s, the connection is not wholly surprising.[xvi] Neither is the fact that the Paul Robeson fruit is a ‘black beefsteak’ tomato – no doubt a deliberate racial insinuation of the African male body. Far from glorifying the memory of Robeson, these connotations further obfuscate his life and the significance of the plant in a confusing mix of Cold War politics and racial profiling.
Ewan entitled the installation, Them that plants them is soon forgotten, after the lyric from Robeson’s most famous song ‘Ol’ Man River’ from the Broadway production and film Showboat.[xvii] Her use of the Paul Robeson plant does not function to reconcile the problematic associations embedded in the tomato’s naming. Rather, as the artwork title suggests, her use of the tomato plant is to further emphasise the complications within an existing form of memorialisation, to invite a reinvestigation of Robeson’s legacy and thereby a reflexive consideration of who and what is remembered or forgotten.
The allowance for participation in the work adds further layers of complexity. As the fruit ripened, gallery visitors were welcome to pick and eat the tomatoes. Given the associations to Robeson’s body through naming and the consumption of the tomato flesh, there is a similarity to the Catholic tradition of communion as a form of remembrance – an association that creates a tension between the joy of eating freshly picked heritage tomatoes and the elegiac remembrance of an artist who became a politically harassed figure. This almost Buddhist reflection on the unkind nature of life is emphasised to me by witnessing the behaviour of avian visitors to the tomato grove. Blackbirds made a habit of dropping in to feed off ripe fruit that had not yet been picked. The birds fluttered and fought over the remaining fruit only to wastefully peck out red patches on mostly green fruit. Yet, due to their beastly behaviour, the birds invite other life such as insects, both beneficial and harmful, to establish the beginnings of an ecosystem.
In this work, Ewan creates a bittersweet commemoration that sends conflicting messages on the memory and fragility of life. At first consideration, however, many people would have simply recognised the work as only a grove of tomato plants. Between this initial objective recognition versus the social significance, which unfolds more slowly, is a powerful tension that shifts our understanding from the casually ordinary to the deeply insightful and back again. The resistance between the objective and subjective creates a lag that somehow invites the discovery of greater symbolic meaning to be experienced as if an epiphany.
Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates has been exploring this betwixt mode of objective and subjective comprehension in various projects that range from social events to urban regeneration. Of particular relevance to my enquiry here are his series of works titled In the event of race riot (2011), which consist of coiled fire hoses of the same vintage as those used against the protesting Black youths of Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963. Critic Matthew Jesse Jackson quotes Gates and shares the meaning-making significance of this work:
Fire hoses are something you don’t really think about untill they are necessary … but they’re filled with real potency: the potential of this tremendous amount of water and water pressure. And they summon the Ghost of Bull Connor onto an upper-middle-class stage, so it’s a psychological twofer: potency and pain in one package. Or, to paraphrase James Baldwin, white liberals tend to get an erotic charge from their fantasies of black rage. That is, it gives them a little shiver.[xviii]
This white liberal emotional ‘shiver’ shares some similarity with the impact and reception of Ewan’s work. What this example also illustrates is the potential of inanimate material in conjunction with remembrance to awaken a response to past pain.
For dOCUMENTA (13), curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev conceived the notion of the ‘traumatised object/artwork’, one that gives some further understanding of materiality and pain. In her research, Christov-Bakargiev explored the history of post-traumatic stress disorder beginning with Sigmund Freud’s early studies of relived trauma in soldiers who had returned from World War I.[xix] Freud developed the theory that we have a psychological impulse to remove emotional tension or pain from our memory but that in some cases of severe trauma the psyche allows pain to remain unresolved and therefore relived after the fact.[xx] Christov-Bakargiev proposes that bodies of culture, like bodies of people, also suffer from a type of post-traumatic stress disorder.[xxi] Trauma causes inanimate objects to undergo and relive transitions of symbolic and objective meaning – transitions that if recognised can help us 'react to a sense of the precariousness of life'.[xxii]
Throughout dOCUMENTA (13), there were many examples of artworks and historical artefacts that illustrated Christov-Bakargiev proposition. Sharing similarity to Ewan’s work was the planting and display of Korbinian Aigner’s apple varieties. Known as the Apfelpfarrer (apple priest), Aigner was a Catholic priest whose anti-Nazi stance during the 1930s resulted in his imprisonment and ultimate deportation from Germany.[xxiii] His most enduring form of resistance was the cultivation of four new strains of apple, which he named after concentration camps during his four years spent in Dachau.[xxiv] As with the Paul Robeson tomato, Aigner’s act of naming irrevocably associates a humble apple with both the horror of the Holocaust and the memory of resistance.
Context is integral for the transition of the traumatised object’s symbolic meaning to shift from the banal to the profound in such artworks. The road to uncovering this context has its rewards for those willing to sit with the object and to scratch the surface of its reason for existence. In the search for further meaning, anticipation builds and the experience of discovery or impact of understanding are made all the more compelling. Carefully chosen words from the artist, curator or institution are required in this process for both allowing the objective and the subjective contexts to be considered with subtlety and time.
All the projects included in Between memory and trace rely, to some degree, on this lag between experiencing the objective existence of a work and the availability of explanatory reading material. Some might argue that supplementary material makes such artwork dependant on an institutional voice to elucidate secret meanings only known to the few. The great assumption within this logic is that art should be a cohesive visual language that is easily understood, and this assumption shows an apparent lack of awareness that all art is culturally relative and therefore reliant on an existing context in which deeper meaning can be found.
Ewan, Leach and Thompson are artists who take considerable time to research the specific nuances of the material and contexts in which they are working. They are also artists who are greatly aware of the implications of information and display, and, because of this, steer away from the didactic methods of museumology. For museum practice seeks a reductive taxonomy and simplicity of information. Whereas, these artists are aware of the stifling implications that such methods can have on the histories of people and the meanings of objects. Their alternative approach, therefore, is to explore the potential of the ephemeral and everyday to be considered as symbolically profound, but ambiguous and open-ended, remnants of human life.
[i]Jacques Rancière. Dissensus: On politics and aesthetics. Edited and translated by Steven Corcoran. London/New York: Continuum, 2010. p. 183.
[ii] W. T. J. Mitchell. Foundational Sites and Occupied Spaces. The keynote lectures, dOCUMENTA (13). Staendehaus: 4 p.m., 10 June 2012. http://d13.documenta.de/de/#/research/research/view/foundational-sites-and-occupied-spaces (accessed 9 September 2012).
[iii] Yi-Fu Tuan. Space and Place: The perspective of experience. Minnesota: University of Minnesota, 1977. p. 179.
[iv] Kevin Walsh. The Representation of the Past: Museums and heritage in the post-modern world. London: Routledge, 1992. p. 152.
[v] Mitchell. Foundational Sites and Occupied Spaces.
[vii] Hugh Williams J Sentencing remarks of Hugh William’s J.: Regina v Bruce William Emery. High Court of New Zealand:Auckland Registry. CRI 2008 092 001285. 13 February, 2009. . p. 2.
[viii] Judith Butler. Precarious Life: The powers of mourning and violence. London/New York: Verso, 2004. p. xvii.
[ix] Ibid. p. xx
[x] Claire Bishop. Artificial Hells: Participatory art and the politics of spectatorship. London/New York: Verso, 2012. pp. 14, 277.
[xi] Pablo Helguera. Education for Socially Engaged Art: A materials and techniques handbook. New York: Jorge Pinto Books, 2011. p. 7.
[xii] Ibid. p. 78.
[xiii] Claire Bishop. Artificial Hells. p. 277.
[xiv] Ibid. pp. 277–8.
[xv] Ruth Ewan. Brank & Heckle. Exhibition brochure. Dundee Contemporary Arts. 13 August– 9 October 2011. p. 6. www.dca.org.uk/uploads/Ruth-Ewan---Brank-Heckle-interpretation.pdf (accessed 2 September 2011).
[xvii] Ibid. ‘Ol’ Man River’, music by Jerome Kern, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, 1927.
[xviii] Matthew Jesse Jackson. The Emperor of the Post-medium Condition in Theaster Gates: 12 Ballads for Huguenot House. Köln: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, 2012. p. 19.
[xix] Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev. ‘On the Destruction of Art – or conflict and art, or trauma and the art of healing’ in The Book of Books: dOCUMENTA (13) Catalog 1/3. Ostfildern, Germany: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2012. p. 282.
[xxii] Ibid. p. 283.
[xxiii] Lars Bang Larsen. ‘Korbinian Aigner’ in The Guidebook: Catalog 3/3. Ostfildern, Germany: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2012. p. 34.