Time Capsules: The Poetic and Politics of Memory in Art

This is the essay I wrote for my first curated exhibition ‘Time Capsules’ (November 2010, London). All the images are part of the exhibition catalogue, designed by David G. Uzquiza, a.k.a  Maison Texas

“One of the schools of Tlön goes so far as to negate time: it reasons that the present is indefinite, that the future has no reality and that the past only exists as a present souvenir.”

Jorge Luis Borges ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’ 1

‘Time Capsules’ is a meditation on the work of art as representation of time and the pervasive personal memories that haunt the artist when he/she faces a new project. It seems to me that, for a good number of years now, the category of space has been the main focus for many artists, curators and critics. Transnationalism, globalization, liminality, the architectural sublime and the production of space have all been hallmarks in recent artistic practice and theoretical discussion. But space feels, somehow, like a fixed, closed category. You are either here or there, maybe moving between these two points.

But how can one be sure of what time is he actually wading in? When a human being can be considered nothing but an accumulation of memories from the past –sometimes a burden, sometimes a blessing— and a formless set of desires and anxieties for the future, who is to decide what belongs to the present and what does not? The flexibility, intangibility and unattainability of time delicately address everything that is mysterious and unpredictable about life. We are always fighting time and losing the battle. Trying to stop it as to preserve a moment of elation, or trying to retrieve that past experience of bliss. Or maybe we spend our days trying to predict the future, oscillating between optimism and despair, but nevertheless always failing to work out what could happen. Anticipating what will never materialize.

Bearing all this in mind, I started getting increasingly infatuated by the idea of the ‘artist’s memory’. Works fuelled by personal nostalgia, constructed from the recycling and transformation of images, traumas and souvenirs from the past, became rare findings, almost obsessions for me. The conflicts between the individual memory and the collective unconscious, and between the autobiographical with the fictitious appeared essential to me; those interstitial realms fertile grounds for many interesting artistic phenomena. In that sense, the works of practitioners such as Lindsay Seers, David Noonan, Alice Anderson, Simon Fujiwara or Sarah Turner became beacons for me. Often from an extremely subjective perspective, the more personal these works become the more universal they feel. Moreover, when one is sure to be witnessing a piece of reality-cum-art the shadow of doubt takes over: are these works put together with shredded memories or are they fictional altogether?

Attuned, thus, to the weight of time and how it related to the subjectivity of the artist as a path to universalism, I decided to specifically explore in this exhibition the work of art as ‘time container’, instead of an ‘idea container’ (which could be considered the classic artistic approach). The time capsule came immediately to mind as an essentially problematic tool to encapsulate and preserve time. The reasons for it being problematic are manifold. Even though it is still being used nowadays in serious institutions like NASA, it is mostly a device which appears in non-serious contexts, related to the esoteric or naïve, childlike worlds. Another problem is that it seems an object destined to fail. How can a compilation of little objects, paper cuttings and material stuff even attempt to convey an era or unique moment, given the complexity of life’s experiences and their representation?

Three peripheral subjects –the ruins, cinema and ghosts– were quickly incorporated to my research on the representation of time. Ruins embody the exact point where space and time collide and become one, a testimony of how one affects the other. A ruin belongs to the past, we can almost see the ghosts of the former tenants that inhabited that space and the dramas that were staged between those crumbling, decaying walls. On the other hand, cinema and the moving image also expanded my research. Especially the figure of Andrei Tarkovsky, who came up with (and wrote profusely about) the metaphor of film-making as ‘sculpting with time’. Film has traditionally been understood as the perfect vehicle for conveying time. But what happens with other forms of visual or aural arts? Are they qualified to portray the subtleties of passing time? Can they successfully extract and transmit the slippery characteristics of personal memories?

Tarkovsky is, no doubt, an author haunted by the desire of retrieving the past. Most of his films, like ‘Mirror’, ‘Solaris’ and ‘Nostalghia’, explore directly the ideas of recurring memories and how they materialize in our present. “Time and memory merge into each other; they are like the two sides of a medal. It is obvious enough that without Time, memory cannot exist either”2. Another key reading for this show was Jacques Derrida’s ‘Specters of Marx’3, which was to become the seminal text for a new cultural critical trend called ‘hauntology’. In said book Derrida talks at length about the spectre, or ghost, as a non-object, a non-present presence. Where Derrida speaks of ghosts and the politics of memory, Tarkovsky speaks of nostalgia and poetics of memory. It all amounts, as far as ‘Time Capsules’ is concerned, to the question of re-accessing the past, its remembrances and souvenirs, some more welcome than others, but all of them haunting the artist and, thus, his/her audience.

The time capsule invokes, evokes or convokes the ‘Other’. For the audience, the invoked ‘Other’ (a person, a thing, a place, a feeling) of the artist may remain unknown. Thanks to that, the artist’s ‘Other’ morphs into the spectator’s ‘Other’. If that happened, we would be opening a successful time capsule. What is the fate of the time capsules that fail?

The aforementioned conceptual problems associated with time capsules (lack of consideration in intellectual circles, childlike connotations and the difficulty of the task they face) are the starting point of the exhibition and taken as exciting artistic departures rather than conceptual dead ends. Thus, I decided to work by commissioning, inviting artists to freely respond to said proposal of the artwork as a time capsule by creating a new piece.  The tensions generated by these problems are meant to feed into the works, to make both the artists and the viewers reflect on the success or failure in fulfilling the commissioning brief and, most importantly, if that has any relevance in terms of the artistic experience at all.

The one piece that existed prior to the exhibition is David Ferrando Giraut’s ‘Ruin Builder’ (2008), but it tackles the issues at stake in such a strong way that I felt it was inevitable for it to be part of the exhibition. ‘Ruin Builder’ explores the notion of technology as a time-warping device, offering in the present time an event, experience or person that belongs to the past. The idea of the ghost (something or sometime present in absence) haunts Ferrando Giraut’s practice, and obsolete (or ‘retro’) technology is his favoured way to represent that rupture within the contemporary realm. The installation is formed by twelve found objects, twelve vinyl records, plus a female voice recorded also on vinyl by the artist himself. The twelve LP records hanging on the walls become both an anthropological display of ruins and a glimpse of somebody’s personal memorabilia. The recording, an attractive ghostly voice that addresses the listener with strange familiarity and places herself at some point before 1982, tells us about different moments in time colliding through technology, a metadiscourse on the actual experience taking place.

anak&monoperro are deeply invested in the healing qualities of art. Art becomes a tool to explore and improve the life of both the artist and the audience, via catharsis, play or meditation. Almost atavistic in its symbolic attitude, the work of this duo inserts an ancient use of art, that of the magic and the ritual, within a very contemporary and conceptual practice. ‘The Treasure of Fears’ (2010) is the work that makes most literal use of the idea of the ‘time capsule’, juxtaposing it to the figure of the ‘hidden treasure’, also buried and made of physical objects heavily charged with symbolic meaning. ‘Treasure of Fears’, as much of anak&monoperro’s work, sits in a space between the performance or action, its documentation and the subsequent display of a resulting object. They always place higher value in the action itself, in the powers and sensations that were unleashed there. In that sense, they are highly idealist, almost playing alchemists, rather than artists. In ‘Treasure of Fears’ the remainder, a framed map where the treasure can be found, places the whole responsibility upon the viewer’s shoulder. It is up to him/her to buy the map, travel to a mysterious landscape and unearth and defeat his/her primal fears. It is up to the viewer to believe, to purchase this ticket to freedom as a piece of art.

For this show Julia Mariscal has created ‘The Mirror Says’ (2010), a complex installation comprising several parts (sculptures, kaleidoscopes and drawings), in which she plays with the archetype of the time capsule itself. This is a work that draws heavily in psychoanalysis figures, such as the ‘I’, the ‘Other’ and the world of ‘Dreams’ and how they converse with the Rorschach test as an almost theatrical backdrop. While the artist’s (I) main concern is to prevail in time, driven by the needs of her ego, the ‘Other’ (the viewer) is a presence and a force within the production and reception of the work that has to be acknowledged and incorporated into the process. If the work of art is a time capsule made by the artist in order to triumph over time, it will be down to the viewer to open it and make sense out of it, in a future time frame that Mariscal places within a dream, which she identifies with the ‘mirror’. Instead of loading the work with concrete time, she engages in a self-reflective game: what are her intrinsic aspirations as an artist while making the work, and her own projection of the situation in which it will be opened. Mariscal’s practice, always profoundly engaged in the process and physicality of the materials she painstakingly selects, attempts here yet another ‘fold’, one of her signature strategies.

Pablo A. Padilla Jargstorf’s ‘Resonance of Things to Come’ (2010) is a space built within the gallery. A sound installation where real-time and recorded sound, children’s tales and quantum physics co-exist, creating different time frames of different people that coincide as remembrances of something that never really happened. Inspired by the mathematical concepts of the ‘Hilbert space’ and the ‘multiverse theory’, architect-cum-artist Padilla Jargstorf explores the idea of the relativity/subjectivity of time experience through sound. And if there is an acoustic phenomenon with the potential to confuse and expand the perception of both space and time it is, surely, the echo: the reflection of sound. Keenly interested in the phenomenological experience of art, Padilla Jargstorf has created a room for us to enter and explore, in what he compares to entering a hotel room for the first time and envisioning all the events that took place there, before one’s arrival. To facilitate (or to complicate, maybe) these ‘unknown visions’, he has covered the walls and floors of the shed with shattered mirrors (again, the idea of reflection), pictures, letters, flowers and other types of debris and memorabilia, producing an uncanny sense of trespassing coupled with a growing curiosity.

The idea of the reflection, of the mirror, is recurrent in all the pieces of the exhibition, especially in the works of Mariscal and Padilla Jargstorf. The mirror as a reflection of the artist within the piece, but also as a distorting device, warping the given time-frame and the perception of reality, providing multiple viewpoints. In keeping with the influence of Tarkovsky upon the preparation of this exhibition as well as its relation with the shown pieces, ‘Mirror’, his masterpiece from 1974 will be screened, as a conceptual backdrop. As the film critic Ryland Walker Knight says: “Instead of simply reflecting, Tarkovksy’s ‘Mirror’ refracts light through the prism of memory, itself a condensation of time. Its editing performs an odd alchemy of memory that proliferates identities as much as converges them. Like in a prism, or kaleidoscope, mirrors are everywhere in the film (adorning walls or registering in windows) forever multiplying realities and planes, forever furthering the refractive inward reflection, or meditation.”

‘Time Capsules’ attempts to unfold this plethora of situations, identities and memories too, but it does so without turning to the moving image. The five artists have channelled time through very different paths: sound, installation, drawing and sculpture. Let’s see where they will take us. Or shall we say, when?

London, October 2010

——-

1 Jorge Luis Borges: ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’

From ‘Ficciones’ Emecé Editores Buenos Aires, 1956

2 Andrei Tarkovsky: ‘Sculpting with Time. Reflections on the Cinema’  University of Texas Press, Austin, 1986

3 Jacques Derrida: ‘Specters of Marx’ Routledge London, 1994

4 Rayland Walker Knight: ‘Making the Mortal Immortal’. ‘Reverse Shot Journal’. Issue 20, 2007

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About Lorena Muñoz-Alonso

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