Photography and Remembering
Memory Holds the Future ::
This is an edited version of a speech given by Alasdair Foster at the opening of ‘A Conversation of Memories’ at the Krasnodar Institute of Contemporary Art (КИСИ) on 15 October 2015. Curated by Alasdair Foster and presented by PhotoVisa festival, the exhibition brings together work by seven artists from around the world to explore the festival theme of ‘The Language of Memory’: Patricia Casey (Australia), Erika Diettes (Colombia), Tomoko Hayashi (Japan), Paula Luttringer (Argentina), Suk Kuhn Oh (Republic of Korea), Wendy Sacks (USA) and Diana Thorneycroft (Canada). The exhibition runs until 25 November.
SO, WHAT IS IT WE DO, we people who love art and photography…?
The Nobel-Prize-winning French novelist Jean-Marie Le Clézio said:
“Art consists of bringing the memory of things past to the surface. But the author is not a passéiste” [meaning the author does not have an excessive attachment to tradition]. “He is linked to history; to memory; which is linked to the common dream.”
For, while our memories are each individual and particular, they are also part of a larger memory of the communities to which we belong. Memories shared cement relationships; they confirm our mutual condition of being human.
This is an exhibition about memory: of distant love and of haunting trauma; of loved ones remembered and sins we’d rather forget; of memory written in the body and grief denied the closure of a corpse.
It is called ‘A Conversation of Memories’. And it is important that this is a conversation. It is not a set of disconnected reminiscences, or a series of monologues or some kind of didactic homily delivered by the past. It is a conversation: that most basic and human form of communication.
I believe that conversation is our most important use of language.
In a conversation, no one speaker has total control of the way the dialogue unfolds. What I say will be shaped by what you said before me. What you say next will flow on from wherever I took the dialogue as I spoke. No participant in a conversation drives it to the exclusion of the others. Although each may be steering in a direction they choose, progress depends on all of us working together. If one side drives the conversation in totality then it is not a conversation but an interrogation or a monologue.
And, importantly, conversations do not reach conclusions. They may have pauses and breaks; they may have their high points or peter out, but they do not conclude with any fixed notion of truth. Conversation is always living, exploratory, contingent…
OUR MEMORIES are not like jigsaw pieces, with each individual’s memory fitting neatly together with others to create a larger coherent picture of the past. Memories are like chameleon threads that weave among the taut unyielding warp of time to create a rich and constantly elusive weft. The fabric of memory folds and stretches – sometimes translucent, sometime opaque – its patterns shifting with the stress and strain of events, and the angle of view.
Memory lives among us; it connects us in a shared experience of the world. It can nurture empathy and support ethics.
Of course, it can seem comforting to forget: to perceive the world as though it is always new – disconnected from the past. But when we give up our memories, we lose our moral compass. To remember can be painful, but it remains always a duty to ourselves and to our communities to keep our memories alive.
I am currently having something of an intellectual love affair with the Canadian writer John Ralston Saul. In his book ‘On Equilibrium’ he describes memory thus:
“Memory is not the past. It is the water you swim through, the words you speak, your gestures, your expectations. […] We use [memory] every day. From it we grasp a context – for our thoughts, our questions, our actions. For our lives. Without a context there is no civilization, no society, no profound relationships with other individuals or our families or within our communities.”
It is my belief that the future of the world lies not with governments, or ideologies, or economics, or technology, but in our communities. In the way we, as human beings, relate to each other and build on those relationships to shape, little by little, the world in which we live – the world we share. And it is our memories that connect us as we continually re-appraise the past, navigate the present and together imagine our futures.