"The Future Seeking Memories"
Assumption College, Worcester, Mass.
Memory, I think, is a substitute for the tail that we lost for good in the happy process of evolution. It directs our movements, including migration. Apart from that there is something clearly atavistic in the very process of recollection, if only because such a process never is linear. Also, the more one remembers, the closer perhaps one is to dying.
Joseph Brodsky, Less than One: Selected Essays. 1986
I have always been sure that among the “beautiful evils” released by Pandora from her box was the gift of a bright, strong, unfailing memory: the type of memory that never releases us, screening us from the present behind a scrolling bas-relief of images and recollections of physical sensations of the past. Possession of this type of memory can make us close our eyes and sink into the past until we forget the present.
I have a memory for the minutiae, and for many years I did not know how to include it in my art. My dilemma was how to use the everyday memories, events, and stories crowding in my mind, while at the same time I knew myself to be a single person living on the periphery of the world – I could not reconcile how to monumentalize the ordinary around me in artistic language.
My mother’s family album became, upon her death, a parade of photographed activity among people, not a single one of whom is alive. Among the images of my own family’s past I found photographs of ancestors in war uniforms, women and children on picnics, promenading on beautiful alleys, splashing each other in the warm sea, celebrating holidays that have ended a long time ago in images of Soviet resorts, and out of this collected ephemera emerged the question – why should I use only my family?
I am sure the odd sensation of looking at old photographs is not a new one, but after living in several countries and different cultural spaces, I found that the private photography of the 20th century contains an amazing similarity of themes. Private lives, family lives, education, holidays, relaxation, service in the army – despite the pressures of propaganda in the last hundred years, wherein nations were encouraged to run from each other and divide, images of individual lives resemble each other to a startling degree. As I sorted through photographs from friends’ archives, flea markets, bookstores and antique shops, I realized that I could make a record of the collective space, through years, nations and wars. My motivation was both the desire to give anonymous photographs a second life and to project the future through artistry of the not-so remote past.
Photographs are the most likely material for this type of activity. As Roland Barthes postulates in his Camera Lucida, “Perhaps we have an invincible resistance to believing in the past, in History, except in the form of myth. The Photograph, for the first time, puts an end to this resistance: henceforth the past is as certain as the present, what we see on paper is as certain as what we touch. It is the advent of the Photograph…which divides the history of the world.” Photographs alone, collected and catalogued in a completed archive, could be its own form of art, but this would lead the viewer on another path, and in this body of work I used the language of painting to strengthen the photographic object into a monumental presentation.
Found photographs have impacted this work dramatically, and one photograph in particular illustrates the project as a whole. In the Budapest flea market I bought a small black and white photograph, which showed eight young girls striking a dancer’s pose in gym class, in white dresses, on a sunny day, holding over their heads eight matching volleyballs - a happy and somewhat ordinary image that could have happened in any school of the era. What struck me, however, was on the other side is the handwritten caption: 30 August 1939, Budapest – and in that confrontation of banal school photographs and the date, memorable because in twenty four hours World War II begins, the result of which a million people and tens of cities will be ruined, and in that city where this photograph was taken, that is the birth of this project. When looking at this photograph, I started to think, and wanted my audience to wonder with me: did they know about the preparations for the war, from the newspapers, radio, and cinema-scopes? Did they celebrate with their families the opportunity to return territories lost in the First World War? Or were they terrified, perhaps some among them knowing they would be leaving soon and their families were scared; and for this photograph are they closing their eyes to concentrate only on the present day, which in this case, was August 30, 1939?
St Augustine wrote, “What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.” The moment the painting I made, created from the real object of the date on the photograph, was named “August 30, 1939,” I gave my audience to understand that as a subject, the painting’s subject will have a relationship to time. The painting itself can be touched, transferred to digital format, printed in catalogues, exhibited; but our imagination of the event in the painting will always be channeled to 1939. But the date when this photograph was taken, the painting was created, and even the moment this text is read, those moments slide into the past. My motivation as an artist is the desire to freeze a moment that prognosticates the future, and it is almost unbearably hard to achieve.
Lado Pochkhua, October 13, 2009