What if Objects Could Talk?: Seeds of Memory
March 29th, 2014 - May 26th, 2014
Perhaps it’s the gaudy red of the pomegranate flowers which will, for me, forever evoke the memories of wolfing down jianbing before my morning classes at Nankai university, over 15 years ago, or the pungent smell of the lotus blossoms which filled the campus pond and presided over an aerial ballet performed by dragonflies—but one thing is undeniable, our environments are filled with mnenomnic landmines, ready to send us flying into the past with little warning. These “involuntary memories” then tumble out in succession—the time it rained and the streets of the campus ran black washing weeks of accumulated soot onto the pavement, the time we were eating at one of the small dirty restaurants beside the dongbei barbeque and I accidently ordered “dog” because I had mispronounced the word “enough.” One is 够 “gou” the other is 狗 “gou.”
In “À La Recherche do Temps Perdu,” the narrator Marcel experiences a similar event when he dipped a madeleine into a cup of tea an act which precipitated an avalanche of memories:
Thus on the day where I dipped the madeleine in the hot infusion, in the heart of that place where I happened to be (whether that place was, as then, my room in Paris or, as today, the Prince de Guermantes’ library) there had been the irradiation of a small zone within and around myself, a sensation (taste of the dipped madeleine, metallic sound, feeling of the uneven steps) common to the place where I then was and also to the other place (my Aunt Léonie’s room, the railway carriage, railway carriage, the Baptistry of St. Mark’s )
Objects, smells, sights and sounds can create myriad of associations for us and in “If Objects Could Talk,” we asked artists to reach back into their own memories to reconstruct and reinterpret the past and in the process explore the concept of memory itself.
Walter Benjamin in “Excavation and Memory,” has a fascinating way of conceptualizing memory as discussed by Howard Eiland and Michael Jennings in their book “Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life”:
Benjamin argues that memory is not first of all an instrument for surveying the past, not simply a recorder and storehouse. Rather, memory is conceived as theater (Schauplatz) of the past, the permeable medium of past experience (Meium des Erlebten), “just as the earth is the medium in which ancient cities lie buried. He who seeks to approach is own buried past must conduct himself like a man digging.” What is called remembers is the actualization of a vanished moment in its manifold depth, its meaning.
In this show we hope the viewer will act as an archeologist, looking for something lost, but what we must always approach the task with the rigor of an archeologist, maybe that buried classical city is no more than the relics of a 1960s theme park.
Zhang Hao invokes this concept of “authenticity” in his work “Renowned Spirits.” A series of eight watercolors depicting different well-known brands of baijiu—the work was inspired by his boisterous baijiu-fueled family gatherings and his grandfather’s refusal to sell the empties to the fake baijiu producers. But without the alcohol these bottles no long symbolize raucous family fun, but rather a business opportunity for unscrupulous entrepreneurs who are trying to steal and consequentially tarnish the names of the brands who have worked hard to earn a good reputation. His rendering in watercolor—a rather new direction for the artist—is significant in that it not only parallels the liquid contents of the bottles, and the somewhat wobbly vision which occurs after conspicuous consumption of large amounts of spirits—but also the faded nature of the artists memories—as if they have evaporated like the drops of water spilt on the table after a toast.
Tao Damin, also employs a similarly faded aesthetic in his “Remains Window” project. Like Zhang Hao’s work, Tao’s installation also has a similarly nostalgic tinge to it. It was inspired by the quality of light in the late afternoon in his childhood home in the 80s. The artist has had to relocate a number of times, each move creating a recognizable chapter in his life. The work consists of a windowsill—a board attached to the wall, with a number of real objects whose shadows are painted on the wall behind them. Unlike real shadows they don not move or change according to the position and intensity of the sun—like true memories they are frozen in time, cast in a dead, grey hue. Tao Damin, has taken this concept further, but painting little vignettes upon the work, images of a traditional garden, a pagoda, a rowboat, typical scenes one might find in an album of 1980s photographs. Here he is making a visual representation of the process of recall of involuntary memories—i.e. how a seemingly mute object can immediately produce a virtually unstoppable flood of memory.
The suspended almost, inert nature of memory is something which also comes into play in the work of Monika Lin in her “Memory Boxes.” Lin stumbled upon discarded wooden boxes and filled them with a variety of mementos, some precious and others less so. The contents range from small plastic toys, tacky earrings, perfume bottles, old gloves, measuring tapes to things like her Grandmother’s, Great Grandmother’s and Great, Great Grandmother’s collections of postcards. In Lin’s works, such venerated family artifacts (what look like birth and death certificates) share equal space with what seems like joke gifts—plastic skeletons and the like. Lin’s family was not always supportive of the way in which she used these objects which brings up an interesting concept of how we choose to represent the past. Indeed it is rather a mishmash—not only composed of souvenirs from famous locales, or photographs of us in our best clothing, rather it is a collection of miscellany, like the contents of a desk drawer, which no matter how we arrange the contents, cannot find many clues to a person’s past, no more than a mystic reading tea leaves can see the future. Trapped in a layer of resin, these objects cannot tell a coherent story, they can only present themselves and allow us make our own observations. The question of “If Objects Could Talk” is an interesting one. I would have to say yes they can talk, but we shouldn’t always trust what they are saying.
Virginie LeRouge Knight uses a very evocative object—one which rather has a lot to say. A lock of hair has the intriguing property of being human. It is visceral but not gory in the sense of a dismembered finger. It is usually collected specifically for purposes of remembrance and locked away in some special place. But more than not, a lock of hair symbolizes agony, longing and sadness, rather than the memory of the person who used to own it. The installation is composed of one thick lock of hair, followed by a thinner lock of hair, and progressively thinner locks until there is almost nothing left. It explores the waning, failing nature of memory the somewhat sneaky process of slowly being unable to recall the contours of a person’s face or the sound of their voice. A process of loss which occurs with surprising frequency, and to varying degrees depending upon how close we were with that person.
As time trickles by our memories get fainter and fainter, like water slowly evaporating from a glass. Xu Zhifeng uses this metaphor of water in his work “5 Pounds” and installation composed of an 80s era thermos, placed on a loadcell scale. The scale is meant to weigh the contents of the thermos which in the open air would naturally evaporate over time, but this thermos is no ordinary thermos, rather it is a glass inner bottle cast in concrete, the cold, weighty, grey material replacing the screaming gaudy red exterior. Somehow by doing this he has invested this everyday object with an almost classical countenance, the grooves in the plastic looking like some kind of doric column. The object’s placement on a plinth, which looks somewhat like a museum display case, also puts it in the category or artifact or relic. Ironically, such objects can still be found in the shikumen, and less progressive danwei of Shanghai, but rather than being historical objects, they are simply functional ones, ones which have the remarkable capacity to keep water warm for what seems like months. Xu’s inclusion of the scale, with its LED display, is meant to create a temporal rift and to ask the question, what is the value of these objects, of our memories, how do we quantify them? Can they be measured like something which is real or are they as ephemeral as evaporated water?
There is also a somewhat ephemeral quality to the work of Annelies Slabbynk, her work “Connecting Wounds,” is composed of four delicate vintage dresses, almost brittle with age, which the artist has darned with blood-red antique yarn, patching up the holes in the fabric with wound-like forms. These tired, yet elegant ladies are strung together with the same yarn, sharing a common sense of struggle and malaise. There is something very intimate about the work, the nightgown suggesting domestic themes, things close to the heart, lover’s quarrels and things bottled up which usually erupt in the wee hours of the night. As we gaze up at these dresses, we wonder what kind of struggles their previous owners must have had. Obviously they could afford beautiful garments, but were they happy or did they carry with them wounds, normally covered up by layers of clothing.
In linking them together Slabbynk takes an individual painful memory and links it the pain of others, she is in a sense, saying that those nightgowns could be the garments of anyone, as we all carry around with us some kind of internal injuries.
The sense of the universal is something very much present in the work of Lin Jingjing. Her installation work, “The Color of Memory” examines looks at how painful events are processed in our brains. The work consists of interviewing subjects about a difficult life experience. The subjects have no prior knowledge of the topic before entering the interview. After telling their story, they are asked which object and color they most strongly associate with that memory. The artist paints a painting of that object and also produces a silent video of the interviewees telling their stories. The content of the interviews is summarized in a wall text which is placed at different intervals on the gallery wall. By the way that Lin has organized it, we have no way of telling which trauma is related to which subject, rather the point is we all share these scaring events which we often carry around with us for years and years.
Lin has conducted the project in many different places. In one instance she encountered the story of a woman whose daughter was abducted from a department store never to be seen again. The artist felt great awkwardness at evoking such a painful memory, but the woman was actually relieved saying, “You know people around me will never ask about this. They won’t even bring young children around me for fear of bringing out those memories.” She hadn’t spoken of the incident for years and talking about it was almost a kind of therapeutic act.
Here Lin work examines how our brains store and catalogue information, how they retrieve information but also the functioning of our hearts—how we hide our past, deflect questions, or change the topic. Alternatively there is the other approach of sharing what ails us, as a way to expunge the poison, even if that means sharing our most intimate thoughts with stranger.
Memory is indeed a fascinating territory—it fills our lives with longing and nostalgia for what is lost and gives us a reference point to where we are now. At the same it is also something of a dream state. I frequently dream of my childhood—mixing contemporary people and events into the stage set of my family home or the homes of my childhood friends. I dream so much of my childhood, that now it is very difficult to discern actual events from the nocturnal fabrications of my subconscious. Memory is an unpredictable and fascinating place to visit—I hope this exhibition will allow you a small and enjoyable day-trip, filled with surprising and provocative discoveries.
1.Proust, Marcel, “Remembrance of Things Past,” Wordsworth Editions: Ware, 2006, p. 1152.
2. Eiland, Howard and Jennings, Michael W., “Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life,” Harvard University Press: Cambridge, 2014 p.382