Published at ArtSelector on 11/11/2011
At an exhibition talk at Modern Art Oxford, Kerry Tribe spoke of her fascination with the idea of the human body as a ‘recording device’. Tribe’s installations use the material of film, – ‘a technology always for indexing and recording’ – to explore how we remember and how we forget.
Behind the complex narratives and in depth research projects that create the structure of her work, there is a constant examination of the physical construction of memory through human experience. Memory, like film, can degrade over time, can be corrupted, or can simply be untruthful. In extreme cases the machine of the mind can even be broken. Additionally, personal memories are always subjective, whilst the collective memory of history – documented in writing, in pictures and in film – can be equally inaccurate. Both can be manipulated; an idea that informs the ambiguity and doubt inherent in Tribe’s work.
This exploration of how we construct knowledge and memory is a thread that also runs through the work of Abraham Cruzvillegas. Cruzvillegas has created a body of work for Modern Art Oxford in response to his own personal exploration of the city of Oxford and the surrounding area. Through his ‘hybridized symbolic structures’ Cruzvillegas shows how our concept of a place is constructed. As Tribe points out, what a place, time or event was like ‘depends (on) who is drawing the map’.
In the process of discovering a city herself, Tribe approached members of the public at LA airport and asked them to draw the city. The resulting drawings depended not only on a person’s particular experience of the city, but also reflected where they were from themselves. The compilation of all these drawings in her 2002 book ‘North is West/South is East: 32 Maps of Los Angeles’ exhibits an astounding variety of subjective understanding of the same place and very different ideas of how that understanding is to be visually communicated to others. The book as a whole brings together all these different versions of a city. This idea of the representation of place as communally constructed is at the centre of Cruzvillegas’s work.
The ongoing discipline in Cruzvillegas’ practice is ‘auto-construccion’ or ‘the self constructed city’. Taking inspiration from his childhood experience of urban living in Mexico, Cruzvillegas’ work shows the living space of the city as not only physically made and maintained by its inhabitants, but as defined by them. Whilst his response to the city of Oxford is a personal one, the need to communicate that experience and connect to the experience of others, is all important. For example ‘Blind Self Portrait as a Post-Thatcherite Deaf Lemon Head’ is a wall of found paper items collected by the artist. If we could see the writing or the pictures on the paper we might know more about his specific story. However, these elements have been almost totally obliterated by blank, glossy paint. We are faced only with the physical structure; a city wall or a cobbled street laid with other people’s memories, reflecting shadows of colour back at us.
This overlapping of subjective experience is also explored in ‘The Simultaneous Promise’ which is comprised of a haphazard looking tricycle weighed down by a portable PA system, amp, horn speakers, car battery and an array of mirrors. The tricycle plays a recording of Cruzvillegas whistling tunes from his childhood. As the vehicle is ridden around Oxford, the whimsical and nostalgic music is brought to a place completely detached from its origin. And yet, as they are introduced into a new space, who knows whose memory they might creep into or who might recognise something in those tunes as their own.
In very different ways both artists combine memory with materiality. Tribe reflects her consideration of the materials of memory (the fabric of the mind as much as film, sound and text ) in the ‘phenomenologically destabilising’ way she presents her work. As one enters the U-shaped gallery that houses ‘Milton Torres Sees a Ghost’, a continual static noise fills the space. A reel-to-reel player and oscilloscope are placed against the wall. The sound grows in intensity, projected from a white, flat square on the ceiling and bears down on the viewer while a single dot quivers on the oscilloscope screen. Following a loop of 16mm film around the space, one comes to a mirror image of the same reel-to-reel player, but now the oscilloscope wavers in conjunction with a monologue being played from the speaker above. It is only when standing almost directly under the speaker that it is possible to listen to the story without the blank sound of static swallowing up all other sound. The story itself, one of doubt and UFOs, is continuously recorded and erased by the installation, slowly degrading over time until the static subsumes it entirely.
Whilst in ‘Milton Torres Sees a Ghost’ an individual memory is lost over time to be re-written by those who doubt or disagree with its validity, in ‘The Last Soviet’ the segmentation between individual and collective memory is harder to define. Based on the story of a Soviet astronaut marooned in space whilst the Soviet Union collapsed back on Earth, the narratives and images of the film refuse to line up. It is only after watching for some time that one realises that the current images might relate to a dialogue heard earlier. This complex, non-linear concept of memory is reflected in Cruzvillegas’ piece, ‘The Optimistic Failure’, hanging in the opposite room. The carefully balanced mobile is an abstraction of Cruzvillegas’ path around Oxford, joining together trajectories like a family tree. The mobile lightly turns as shrunken heads cleaved from the mud of Port Meadow twist upon its ends. A reflection of repeated journeys over time, the structure fluctuates; you can walk down the same street over and over again, but it will always be slightly different each time.
Memory and experience are made up of bits of things, rooted in images and objects, sounds and smells, and are always limited by the act of recording. Un-knowability is a theme of both bodies of work. For Cruzvillgas that un-knowability gives plasticity to space which can be used to positively create the connections that give it meaning: to become place. He brings his memories – his pin-points of local knowledge – into the present space of the gallery, literally carving into the walls to draw a map of his journey and seeks to bridge the gap between his experience and the experience of others. This same flexibility, or even fragility, of memory, of documentation and what is knowable – what we can say happened, what it was like – is evident in Tribe’s work.
However, the effect of both bodies of work currently showing at Modern Art Oxford is that of concentration on one’s present experience. Both artists show us how the details form the bigger picture. This mirrors the relationship between individual and collective memory as well as the that between our overall understanding of the world and the intensity of present experience. They draw a complex map: it is ‘hard to remember when the history of the earth is so long’. In combining these artists the gallery gives us equal quantities of individual, critical doubt and creative, productive collaboration: an essential combination.