Memories and Remembrances

Two Thursdays ago, I attended the opening of “Natural History,” my friend Jordan‘s solo show at Underline Gallery. The exhibition is a meditation on memory and remembrance that highlights the ephemeral nature of words and experiences, with collages, photographs, sculptures, and manipulated artifacts. The pieces are beautiful, from concentric porcupine quill circles, stunning in their simplicity, to a World War II era duffel bag printed with salvaged photographs of POWs. The exhibition retains the found, weathered aesthetic that I associate with much of Jordan’s work.

Two of Jordan’s pieces, staged next to each other in the show, struck me and have stuck with me this past week. The first, entitled Memory Study III (For Jill), is part of a series called “protected memories,” in which photographs are mounted on sheets of paper or leather and surrounded by porcupine quills. In an interview with ELLE magazine, Jordan said of the series: “I wanted to create the illusion that something that was actually gone was not, that I could actually protect something like that, or hold onto it definitely.”

The latter, which I found particularly evocative, comprises two WWII medicine bottles with ashes of his grandmother’s memoir suspended in a clear resin. The juxtaposition of the two pieces captures the contradictory ways we deal with memories, or artifacts of memories; in some instances, we cling onto and guard material items to retain a connection to a fading past, while in others, we commit deliberate acts of material destruction to free ourselves from a past that continues to haunt us. I’m something of a hoarder, more inclined to box up memories than to get rid of them, but I found the image of ashes floating in resin a jarring one: in seeing it, I recognize that something created has been lost, willfully destroyed, and that what was lost will no longer ever be known.

The aftermaths of relationships are often marked by such a destruction. In Before Sunset, Julie Delpy’s character says, “Memories are wonderful things, if you don’t have to deal with the past.” Oftentimes, however, memories are not so wonderful; they are terrible things when we become disconnected from or lose access to or incapable of resolving the past. It then becomes a cathartic act, the finality, the entropy of destroying relics that remind us of lost loves. Craig Thompson depicts this in two scenes in his graphic novel memoir Blankets. The first is a familiar, cliched one: Craig burns everything his sweetheart’s given him (with the exception of the eponymous blanket she quilted for him) in a garbage can in his backyard. The second is a devastating, visceral series of images that span four pages, when the mural Craig painted on his sweetheart’s wall is slowly whitewashed over until the wall, the page, is empty, pure negative space.

Emily Gould captures this as well in her memoir And the Heart Says Whatever, when she describes hearing a song her ex recorded for her. She deletes it, knowing full well that no one will ever hear that recording again, then shares with the reader the searing reminder, “The past is not a place you can visit.” In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Charlie Kaufman takes this idea to its logical and emotional extreme, the destruction of not just the relics of a relationship, but the very memories conjured by and associated with the mementos themselves. These writers and artists know full well the tragedy, often a necessary one, that takes place when something beautiful, created, personal is forever, deliberately lost.

Jordan has another piece in his exhibit that I find quite poignant. Memory Study I (Reels & Pages) comprises a set of three burnt audio reels that contain a recording of all the sins he recalls committing. The piece reminds me of one of my favorite scenes in cinema, the final sequence of Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love:

Earlier in the film, Tony Leung’s protagonist shares the following: “In the old days, if someone had a secret they didn’t want to share… you know what they did? They went up a mountain, found a tree, carved a hole in it, and whispered the secret into the hole. Then they covered it with mud. And leave the secret there forever.” There’s a necessity, a catharsis, in creating and sharing something, whether or not there’s an audience to receive it. Letters written into the vacuum of a private blog or penned and left unsent, photograph overdeveloped to white, songs plucked on a stringless guitar, what is created, is never shared, never known.

During the course of the exhibition, there is a sound booth at Underline Gallery where visitors can record their own personal histories or significant memories in two-minute audio files. These recordings will be available to access and share online as part of an interactive project for Memorial Day, May 28. While the aim of the project is to highlight how we collectively preserve the past, I can’t help but wonder what stories we would choose to tell if, like the ashes of a memoir or the charred audio reels of one’s confessions or the words whispered into the hollow of a tree, the culmination of project is not the remembrance but the sending off of memories. Sometimes what is lost is more profound than what is kept.

“Natural History” is on display until June 30. Check it out.

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