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Art And Memory

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As a basic tool of human existence, memory determines our actions and reactions to stimuli, creating a link between what has passed and what is yet to come in search of patterns and similarities between people and events past and current. Memories can serve as warnings, upon recognition of harmful behaviors in us and others around us; we must not touch the stove on which we were previously burnt, so we take back our hand. However, this does not explain human tendencies to repeat our mistakes, and oversimplifies the process, giving us more questions than answers. Conversely, memory can allow us to dwell in pleasures of the past, making the memory of even greater importance than the moment itself, obsessed with recording the memory without trying to experience it in given time through the technology and its increased role in the society and culture. These contrasting functions of memory seem to be a highly appealing aspect of the phenomena, inspiring both scientific research and literary works.

Since memory has such a crucial role in our existence, it must also manifest itself in the world of contemporary art. Artists not only ask about its function in our daily lives, but also try to detangle the web of our expectations of it as both societies and as individuals. Olivier Dyens writes: Born of human memories and emotions, art is a universal current. Melancholy, sadness, joy, terror, anger and the like constitute an esperanto that every human being can read, understand and share. But emotion and art are nothing other but memories. Living beings remember, and this is how they are able consciously to exist in time and space. Memory is fundamental to the emergence of both order and complexity. Without memories, a being cannot learn and adapt to the demands of environment. Without memories a being cannot evaluate the condition of his or her body (since this evaluation depends upon an interaction between before and now), and is thereby unable to emerge as a conscious being. Memories of pleasure, pain, sadness and joy, are the common thread that unites all human beings. Memories are our existence, and art is their system of replication.

Questions of identity based on memory and history, the impossible task of finding the ‘truth’ behind sources that time after time prove to be unreliable thanks to the nature of our psychology, quests of getting rid of the clutches of trauma on personal and social level- these are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes of the depth of problems regarding the memory. Memory can be revisited- just like art can be seen again and again- each time with different results. The process of going back and rewriting the past in the present time is explored in depth in George Orwell’s novel “1984” as a haunting picture of the world in which memories are being forcefully molded into whatever “the Party” wishes them to be. Individual memory in opposition to the force of the political vision of the past loses its importance. Siegfried J. Schmidt in his essay “Memory and Remembrance: a Constructivism Approach” (Erll, Nünning, Young 2008) writes:

The politics of remembering, too, is steered by emotions and moral values, and it is intrinsically connected to power: Who is entitled to select topics and forms of remembering in the public discourse(s)? Who decides in which way narrations of remembrances rely upon relevant presuppositions in order to shape the past in the present for promising futures? It seems impossible to discuss memory and history without including the role of politics in the equation. Memory as a theme in art does not have to be political, but does very often does cast a light onto how this coalition influences today’s world. Eric Meyer writes about the clash between memory and politics this way: Conflicts within the field of “politics of history” deal less with the facticity of historical reconstructions and the appropriateness of resulting interpretations than one might assume for discussion within the academic community. The interest lies instead in the meaningful connection between past, present, and future, which is often coupled with a reference of action. In this perspective, the question is not if the image of history communicated is scientifically truthful. Instead, the crucial factor is how and by whom, as well as through which means, with which intention, and which effect past experiences are brought up and become politically relevant. (Erll, Nünning, Young 2008)

As individuals, we remember only in our subjective fragments: we preserve only one perspective, one side of the story. However, societies as a whole remember what helps to establish the identity of the society. Art helps us to fill the gaps between universal and individual aspects of the phenomena- bringing experiences that are common to us all, but with a unique perspective of the medium that is used, along with the questions that are asked and those not asked at all. Andrea Dezsö, Artur Zmijewski and Doris Salcedo are three artists that touch on theme of memory in art. Even though they share this topic (or aspects of it) they bring something completely different to the table. This is due to their unique cultural perspectives of being respectively Romanian of Hungarian descent (Dezsö), Polish (Zmijewski) and Columbian (Salcedo) in the predominantly Westernised world of contemporary art, and also due to the influence of their individual, national and overall human contexts of their perspectives on memory.

Andrea Dezsö

Born and raised in Romania in the 1970s/80s, Andrea Dezsö is an artist that combines her memories of childhood with the dreams that accompanied her while growing up, using variety of mediums. Known for her New York subway mural/mosaic Community Garden, the artist uses themes of folklore, fairy tales, dreams and superstitions that illustrate the richness of her cultural heritage in all of its shades. She describes herself and her art practice in these words: A storyteller and an image maker; really a narrator of personal experiences, trying to make sense of what happened before and what is happening now.

Perhaps the most literal example of her fascination with memory is in her series Lessons from my mother, in which she embroidered a variety of her mother sayings, with accompanying illustrations. In her essay “Embroidered Feminist Rhetoric in Andrea Dezsö ’s Lesson from my Mother” Adriana Cordali Gradea (2014) explains the influence of Romanian folklore and its tradition of “samplers” in Dezso’s work and also points out how reinterpretation of the theme changes the context of the artifacts.

The artifact and its practice help Dezsö connect the newly recreated messages to the woman’s condition through historical time. Starting from a humble, seemingly powerless, subaltern art form with parochial circle exposure, Dezsö repurposes the enriched artistic product for a different historical and geographical context, and this reoriented traditional artifact gains more power by virtue of this transformation.

The art of embroidery in this case evokes memories of home, and of a different time in which women stitched messages of morality and domestic bliss on pieces of fabric for decorative purposes. This activity, common for the European circle, finds a new form of expression in Dezsö’s hands. The artist derives the ‘lessons’ from her memory, but directs the messages to the modern world. Memories carefully recollected and forever immortalized in the stiches on white fabric present us with lessons delivered in the tone of righteousness, from the point of now challenged authority.

In the larger historical context, the girl represents the new generation. She inherits a state of facts from the specific conditions of Eastern Europe, where solutions for the working woman had been tried out. The communist regime liberated the woman at the same time as it transformed the peasantry into a proletarian class, and it did that by providing both with equality in the workplace. But in doing so, the tradition of the village, which had been long established through centuries of organic growth, was systematically destroyed in the name of modernism and progress. The girl’s presence prompts a reevaluation of past practices so that the new generation learns history’s lessons. (Gradea, 2014)

Dezsö reminds us that the messages stitched upon the white ‘samplers’ with her mother’s wisdom don’t exist only in her memory, or in this case also available on her website or at occasional exhibitions. These sometimes naïve, sometimes misinformed and sometimes even cruel messages are also stitched into a fabric of society, raised within frames of superstition and hostility towards women. On first glance, these images represent the mother, but on closer inspection, the influence of the patriarchy becomes more evident as the benefit for the fathers and brothers is revealed, leaving the audience chilled. By exposing these messages to the world, Dezso takes away the power of the past and remolds her memories for the sake of exposing unreliability of socially constructed norms. At closer look, therefore, while often funny and slightly absurd, these messages show how knowledge changes vertically, with time. Societies, indeed humanity in general, organize knowledge and belief systems in a certain relative way, which may change with time, through generations. Because science, medicine, religion, philosophy, as well as societal organization change with the passage of time, so does our organization of knowledge and belief systems. (Gradea, 2014)

Messages such as those demonstrated in these works can continue to circulate through generations of mothers and daughters on a subconscious level, rooted in the influence of folklore favoring men. The artist does not address the question of how and why this happens, despite the acquired knowledge in adulthood that the truth of your mother and her mother before her, is your truth no more. She instead merely gives a glance into the experience of how these messages can linger from childhood into adulthood. Memories that Dezsö replicates for our viewing pleasure are bitter-sweet. There is sense of nostalgia and homesickness for the magical realism of the sentences that could only be produced in the environment of Dezsö’s upbringing, while still maintaining a critical eye enclosed in the sentence “My mother claimed”.

The artist gives a truly unique perspective on the experience of being raised in the world of communistic practicality mixed with eerie Transylvanian folklore. This very personal take on the power of the memory in shaping one’s identity, and focus on the individual experience (in this case, the artist’s) is perhaps an attempt to not rewrite but to come to terms with one’s personal history, and the history of the people who helped create it. Memories selectively chosen to represent the unique experience of the artist build a fundament for the history of the larger group of people brought up in similar environments. Pierre Nora explains how personal memory turns into history this way The commandment of the hour is ‘Thou shalt remember.’ It is the self that remembers, and what it remembers is itself, hence the historical transformation of memory has led to preoccupation with individual psychology. (Farr, 2012)

Dezsö is indeed a storyteller, and since she tells stories directly from personal experience, these extracts of her ‘individual psychology’ become historicized. They turn into an impression of the time that has passed but continues to live within the frame of her artistic endeavors and consequently in the world of contemporary art and culture.

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