On ViewA.I.R. Gallery
April 28 – May 23, 2010
Memory, like the memory of Kata Mejía’s brother, murdered by FARC paramilitary guerillas, restores nothing. Emotionally feral and disoriented, it re-imagines the past, which only serves to distort it further. This adverse but instinctive mental tampering is the subject of Feeling what no longer is, an all-female exhibition organized by Serra Sabuncuoglu, as part of A.I.R. Gallery’s emerging curators series. Marginalized, objectified, exposed to violence and in search of answers, the seven exhibiting artists find plenty of bygone bones left for the mind to pick.
Mejía’s ritualistic performances combine tender and painful gestures to exorcize past trauma from life in her native Colombia. At A.I.R. Gallery on May 6, she attempted to reconstitute a head of cabbage by sewing together a pile of loose leaves. The leaves wilted and snapped, more damaged by the task than salvaged. The performance (titled “Mending”), demonstrated the impossibility of restoring what has been torn apart. Photo-documentation and a vessel used in her 2007 performance, “Healing,” similarly concerns coping with the aftermath of violence. The photographs depict Mejía lowering her hair into rust-red paint and then systematically pressing her head against 20 plaster craters protruding from a wall, one for each year of her brother’s curtailed life. Twenty years of memories are bloodied, retroactively, by the violence that concluded them.
Another Colombian artist, Doris Salcedo, memorializes that country’s disappeared by arranging furniture in a way that accentuates the absence of people. “Istanbul Project I” (2003) is a computer-rendered print of her installation proposal for the 2003 Istanbul Biennial. It depicts an abandoned lot between rundown buildings that the artist filled with hundreds of wooden chairs, stacked three stories high, raising a mass grave where a home used to be. Refusing to let the past go free, Salcedo and Mejía’s work arraigns its forgotten atrocities.
Elaine Angelopoulos and Eleanor Antin share an interest in collective memory and both assume different identities to address it. Antin’s black ballerina alter-ego, “Eleanora Anitova,” stars in her video, “From the Archives of Modern Art” (1987). Offering amateur dance vignettes and bohemian seduction scenes as lost footage from an ignored artist’s oeuvre, Antin parodies Modernist clichés and the archival aesthetics employed to signify fact. Criticizing discrimination among the avant-garde, she also commemorates those excluded from history’s canon.
Angelopoulos explores a more personal history. Her installation, “Efrosini Haunts” (2010), features a video of the artist dressed like her Greek grandmother, sitting on a bench in Istanbul and pulling tangled ropes out from under her blouse. The knots in her stomach, metaphors for anxiety, serve to connect the artist to her ancestors like an umbilical cord. They hang in the installation under the monitor and above grandmotherly accessories (hairpins, a crystal sugar bowl, etc.) placed upside down on a bedside table. Photographs of yellowing magazines enforce the notion that we understand previous events through unsubstantiated anecdotes, assumptions, and poplar culture.
Photography epitomizes the visual distortion of remembrance. Sophie Calle’s “Autobiographies (Amnesia)” (1992) is a larger-than-life, black-and-white, framed photograph of her husband’s torso, neck to knees, arms behind him and penis tucked. The photograph’s tall, narrow frame casually leans against the wall, under framed wall text where his head should be. The text reads:
“No matter how hard I try, I never remember the color of a man’s eyes or the shape and size of his sex. But I decided a wife should know these things. So I made an effort to fight this amnesia. I now know he has green eyes.”
Beyond challenging traditional marital roles, her startling confession, and objectification of the male body speaks candidly of intimacy and the association between loss and forgetting. To stave off death or heartbreak, Calle catalogs her thoughts and preserves her love, maimed but classically beautiful. The viewer, however, seeing neither eyes nor sex, experiences her amnesia.
Digitally reworking a nocturnal photograph of an abandoned carousel, Sophia Petrides mimics the disorienting motion of the ride and suggests that revisiting memories similarly warps our perception. Replacing words with lines of thread or opaque blocks, Elena del Rivero’s minimalist “Letters” series also presents the past as full of intangible messages.
Memory’s illusionary habits have been suspect since antiquity. While maintaining distrust, Sabuncuoglu’s exhibition attempts to reconcile with these phantasms. Authors of their own history, the artists replace the past as it has been recorded with the past as it is continuously experienced. Using selectivity, reenactments and forgetfulness to their advantage, they redirect our consciousness to an imagined past, as subjective and unruly as any other.