The Memory Marathon
Review by Louisa Elderton
What better way to finish a hundred meter sprint than with a marathon’ This is how it felt venturing from Frieze week, the busiest in the London art world calendar, into the Serpentine Gallery’s weekend-long symposium, the Memory Marathon. With a programme of talks, interviews, screenings, lectures, poetry readings and live performances which responded to the topic of memory, artists, writers, philosophers, poets, architects and academics took to the stage to explore the complexities of this phenomenon.
Memory colours everything; it is ever present and all pervasive. We utilise memory in every moment of our lives, constantly merging the past with the present, affecting the here and now. There is nothing without memory. It is not just a recollection of days gone by, but informs our movements (muscle memory), speech (memorising vocabulary, grammar) and even our appearance (scars become a memory of past affliction to the skin; freckles tell stories of the sun; wrinkles talk of our skin’s own history). In a way, memory is everything - it is inescapable - and this was reflected by the heterogeneous subjects covered during the marathon itself, as a vast variety of themes and issues were touched upon, the common link between them all, of course, being memory.
Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, a Professor of Internet Governance at Oxford University, proposed that the nature of human memory is not fixed, that it changes in response to the developing times. Painting, language and script previously provided us with the tools to capture precise moments, to fix memory and remember accurately. He suggests that the index of memory has become inverted through the digital age; previously forgetting was easy and remembering hard, yet today, it is forgetting that is hard as remembering has become the default. Sites such as Twitter, Facebook and Flickr precipitate (in)voluntary storage of the past, compounding a fabric of visual memories that we cannot escape. In some instances, we might be haunted by this constructed past, unable to fully exist in the moment, and thus he called for a revival of forgetting: ‘let us remember to forget’.
Ai Weiwei, an absent participant, feels that ‘memory is what we think the past should be - without memory, what would we have’ It is what remains when everything else fades away’. Memory might not always be truthful, instead becoming a construction of what should have been. For an artist like Ai Weiwei, memory is intrinsic to his practice, merging past with present to comment on the socio-political state of China today. His work in response to the Sichuan earthquake is called to mind, listing the names of those deceased and forgotten; without this record gathering the names of the people who were lost, the memory of this incident would be hazy and inaccurate - tainted.
War and politics were two subjects that continually arose throughout the weekend. Donald Sassoon, Professor of Comparative European History at Queen Mary University examined the photographer Georges Mérillon’s photograph Veillée Funèbre au Kosovo (1990). This captures a mother mourning the death of her son, killed in student protests over Kosovo’s independence. Sassoon was struck by the resonance of this image with our collective memory, with that trope so recognisable through western history, the Pietà - a harrowing tale of wrongful loss, of a mother’s pain over the life of her own flesh and blood cut short. Jay Winter, a professor at Yale University and author of Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History, postulated that ‘memory is a human right’, going on to condemn how the Bush/Blair governments had constructed false weapons of mass destructions in order to persuade a public who had moved away from war in their conscious minds and in their memories.
John Berger and Tilda Swinton’s film Ways of Listening was a highlight, the two drawn together by the date 5th November, their shared birthday; with thirty years between them they still ‘got off at the same station’. An experience is shared by the two of being brought up by fathers who were at war but never talked about these traumas - but of course ‘history cannot have its tongue cut out’. The closest Berger ever got to hearing his father verbalise his experiences was when watching a film of soldiers wounded in war. His brother proclaimed ‘I bet you don’t die that quickly’ and his father lowered his newspaper to gaze over it and say the words, ‘you don’t’. And that was it - perhaps nothing more was needed.
War, personal memory and collective history became interwoven as Hans Ulrich Obrist went on to interview Berger. The Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm was discussed by the two, who felt that it is the hopes and personal feelings of people, even if illusory, that are forgotten in histories. This is ironic given the role that these hopes can often play in bringing these histories into being. The weekend itself was dedicated to the memory of Hobsbawm, who died recently and was an advisor for the symposium.
The poetry of Etel Adnan, accompanied by the responsive music of Gavin Bryars, was filled with allusions to smell - incense, gasoline, ‘skin on skin we danced - we wrote Quranic verses on your bones’. And as the audience watched these two perform, the rain began to fall above and the crisp sound of water droplets encompassed us in our memory tent. We settled in, together, and allowed time to dissolve within the yellow light. John Giorno took to the stage to recite a series of exhilarating poems, the first proclaiming: ‘where were you in 1963 when JFK died’ I was with Andy Warhol - It was exhilarating, like when you get kicked in the head and see stars’. His poems were recited from memory, throwing out the spoken word rhythms from the depths of his mind - sometimes we falter, forget, and the last line of a poem escaped him.
This was a weekend that required true stamina and the ability to last the distance. To experience the entire marathon was perhaps an impossibility, and therefore everyone’s own memory of the event will be different, combining disparate stories and scenes. Gilbert and George and Isabel Lewis respectively provided me with wonderful memories, as they sang impromptu and head-banged upon the stage. Memory exists everywhere, both intrinsic to and autonomous of us all. It is within the buildings that surround us - as Jacques Herzog, Pierre de Meuron and Fumihiko Maki explored - the sounds that we hear, the movements that we make and the scents that we smell - smell and memory was the subject of discussion for the artist Sissel Tolaas. We can access memory through photographs, digital images, scripts and paintings, and of course without any trigger at all, involuntarily. This symposium encouraged discussion and sharing and stimulated thought - the perfect conclusion to a manic week too often characterised by frivolous parties, posing and pretension.