The Art Object as a Potential Site of Evoked Memory

(Extract from a paper delivered at the ICA London in 1999)

There is an art of imaginative intensification that lies dormant in the architecture of our first domicile that has little or nothing to do with the architectural embodiment of social ideals and structures in a strictly historical sense. The house we are born in, as Bachelard notes, ‘is physically inscribed in us. It is a group of organic habits’ and, as such, does not lend itself to description.It is a lost house conserved in fragmentary form within the individual. To state this, however, and no more is to reduce time – the present that is passing and the past that is preserved – to a wholly subjective experience; which could be, nostalgically, to concede artistic restitution to the anechoic chamber of killed time. For the house when in any way reconstituted materially – as in Rachel Whiteread’s House (1993) or Ghost (1990) or in Kate Belton’s photographic images or indeed my own – can all too easily be rendered a souvenir, marking the ‘unrepeatability of an event…a longing for a vanished original.’Souvenirs, Susan Stewart suggests – traces of events, locations, experiences, objects – are always a nostalgic denial of loss which replace authenticity with narrative. But thinking of time in another way, thinking of it as Deleuze would, as the interiority in which we are (as opposed to what is in us) time, no longer purely subjective, becomes multi-faceted and endlessly renewable. In the cinematic space Deleuze calls the direct image of time, there are narrational schema which involve non-subjective and non-chronological memory in a way that confounds the very possibility of nostalgia, of description based on the discernibility of the real and the imaginary, the original and the copy. There is only a fragmented present (split into a present of the past, present and future) considered in relation to itself rather than any discrete entity called the past, or there are discontinuous leaps through sheets of time that can never be unified from the point of view of a single authenticator. In these contingent narrations Deleuze finds the very image of memory.

Psychoanalytic practice makes it clear after all that memory, on the most fundamental of levels, is unreliable and potentially ungovernable by the narrative, programmatic implications of architecture alone; even outside the infantile site of formative experience where there lies another environment, more inescapably linked to the urge to narrate. Foucault, looking at past treatises on the art of governance, finds citizens presented with visual models – such as the Paris promenades – which draw on the classical art of memory to ensure individual acts of self-governance through internalisation, memory and application. Memory can refuse to conform to connotative conventions and need not be appropriated into the ‘false’ or official memory of a unified and narrative history. First, as already suggested, because memories related by analysands are often phantasms – albeit therapeutically effective phantasms – of scenes and events that need never have existed. Freud calls such mnemic images ‘screen memories’, a process of displacement whereby indifferent memories – usually, but not exclusively, visual – owe their preservation not to their own content but ‘to an associative relation between their content and another’ which is repressed. The screen memory is essentially a mistake in remembering – ‘what the mind reproduces is not what it should correctly have reproduced, but something else as a substitute’ – and can refer to a time before or after the actual memories to which it relates or be contiguous with them. In this sense, trapped like a Robbe-Grillet protagonist, there is always another story that can block or disrupt our linear narrative at any point in time. Perhaps it is not surprising that when we stand before screens literally – as before Cristina Iglesias’ (Untitled [Eucalyptus Leaves I and II]) (1994) which are often shown together in a way that they cannot be seen and compared simultaneously, or Mariela Neudecker’s Never Eat Shredded Wheat (Memory Maps) (1996) which play with the idea of screen memory in that the maps are ‘mistaken’ and yet geographically significant – we are often called upon to match a physical experience to a mental image. We look, and are distracted by the memory of what we cannot see. The mind is unruly because, like Bachelard’s notion of space, it contains compressed time.

The second reason why memory cannot very easily be appropriated into an official history is because history itself, as Christine Boyer has pointed out, becomes increasingly composed of snapshots not narratives or stories as the structure of the modern city – fragmented, crowded and privatised – is rendered, as ‘a generating device for memory,’ simply ‘impoverished beyond recognition.’ The expectation that places and monuments can transfer meaning across generations has now ceded to the possibility that fragments may only provide the viewer with a threshold beyond which to ‘substitute invented traditions and imaginary narrations.’ A threshold of oneirism, Bachelard would have said, a door to daydreaming of a public sort. Which is a possibility for the past more palatable than being merely promoted to the status of memory and assigned to a circumscribed and specific position between the lost terminals of supermodernity.

Early on – in the 1920s – the sociologist Maurice Halbwachs drew a distinction between narrative history and memory. He saw them as opposing terms: the one ‘manipulable and representable in a play of lost significance, the other ‘plural’, ‘alive’ and impossible to appropriate. Memory, on his terms and in Boyer’s words, is ‘above all an anti-museum and not localizable.’ It operates by way of ‘tactics of surprise, ruptures and overturnings that reveal its true power and its grip over the spectator’s imagination.’ In terms of place and memory in visual culture, one is mindful of the very unclassical nature of the art of classical memory systems which focus the mind (and eye) on irregular place, idiosyncrasy or strangeness. One is reminded too, of both Barthes’ unnameable detail that can fill a whole picture – the punctum that ‘rises from the scene, shoots out like an arrow, and pierces’ – and of Lacan’s traumatic encounter with the real (the tuché). The relationship between these two is amply documented by critics such as Hal Foster or played out by artists such as Louise Bourgeois, Luc Tuymans or Aldo Rossi through sudden encounters with objects or spaces which call up ‘bizarre uninvited memory that has the power to bring on sadness, regret, mourning’. As Barthes intimates, there is something essentially inexpressible and unlocatable at the moment of such encounters. And perhaps something a little frightening.

The familiar, estranged through repression, that returns to us in the form of the dreaded or bizarre is uncanny. It is the transformation of something that once seemed homely (heimlich) into its opposite (unheimlich) and can be glimpsed in the fixed, pallid faces of Hopper’s ‘embryonic narratives’ or Casebere’s ghostly simulacra. Etymologically and conceptually inextricable, the heimlich/unheimlich is quite literally bound up with domestic space. It starts there, according to Anthony Vidler; as ‘a bourgeois kind of fear,’ the fear of a newly established class not quite home in its home. But as the metropolis expands, the uncanny soon becomes identified with all the phobias associated with spacial fear until its space is once more an interior space, the space of the mind. The uncanny, says Vidler, is not a property of…space itself nor can it be provoked by any particular spacial conformation; it is, in its aesthetic dimension, a representation of a mental state of projection that precisely elides the boundaries of the real and the unreal in order to provoke a disturbing ambiguity, a slippage between waking and dreaming.

This inability to distinguish between the real and the imaginary, the actual and the virtual through ruptures and overturnings, Deleuze understands, leads us to a temporal overload where we stand before a painting like Réné Daniels’ The House (1986), like Alice before Humpty Dumpty, unable to choose between equally possible yet mutually contradicting narrative explanations. These narrative possibilities do not, however, cancel each other out as they would in the cause of nostalgia or in simplistically fallacious works such as Boltanski’s 10 Photographic Portraits of Christian Boltanski, 1946-1964 (1972). They suggest a pregnant silence replete with all time and meaning and possibility of renewal. This is perhaps the silence Blanchot knew, a kind of silence that is the flip-side of an incessant and cacophonous roar whose only echo reiterates ‘it never happened, never for a first time, and yet it starts over, again, again infinitely. It is without end, without beginning. It is without future.’

And so, it is perhaps only by suspending our tendency to read or tell stories about ourselves in one time or place that artists can, like the viewer in Thomas Demand’s Tunnel (1999), remember without prescription, make replicas – like those of James Casebere, Cathy de Monchaux or Robert Gober – imbued with loss and longing and a familiarity whose origins cannot be located. And, once again, we can dream. ‘The house’, says Charlotta Kotik, ‘becomes a major catalyst for memory, for it is in this certain and defined locale that the range of human relationships and feelings…take place. The image of the house represents the topography of our most intimate selves.’ This image, however, must be of a house that is beyond the merely literal, sentimental or narrative in the specific sense, drawn from a memory – of a cell, of a lair, of a back porch – that is ultimately contextless. Nostalgia for its own sake is a waste of time. Like Louise Bourgeois, we must learn to differentiate between memories, sorting those that arrive uninvited from those we track down too self-consciously; and we must learn to trust the former. Narrative situations of the rebellious and dislocated kind only appear, after all, where reality is represented as lacunary and dispersive. Thought must be put into contact with unthought, the unsummonable, the inexplicable. Thought must learn to cherish the irrational promise of gaps.

When Rachel Whiteread cast House, she made only one alteration to the original structure: she removed the roof and levelled off the building above the first floor. To make our monument to the inarticulate mind, she removed the space where the ‘dreamer dreams rationally’; which makes sense. To explain ourselves rationally is to deny gaps. It is to concede to the linear time of an enunciated sentence. It is to announce, with Levinas, that reason is alone. In Levinas’ scheme, time is never the achievement of an isolated subject but is the relationship the subject has with the Other; and the Other, when it is life not death, turns the mind itself into a room, a camera of a subversive image that adds to its own interior what is nonetheless already there. For Levinas, this is not a traumatic encounter. Rather, every object experienced is reduced to ‘an element of reminiscence’, losing distance (the opening where unforeseen relations occur) in an inescapable solitude. Ultimately perhaps it is only by speaking irrationally that I can choose to inhabit a space between my work and you.

 © Julia Dogra-Brazell 1999