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Contemporary Art and Memory: Images of Recollection and Remembrance

My tutor encouraged me to do further research into the use of memory in art, as it is an area of interest emerging in my practice. This included reading Joan Gibbons’ book, Contemporary Art and Memory: Images of Recollection and Remembrance.

The book provides insights into the subject of memory as it appears in contemporary art and also insights into the nature of memory itself. It is an exploration of they way a range of artists have reflected ideas of memory in their work. At first, I was puzzled about the reason for a lengthy book on this subject matter – surely memory permeates all human activity, so it goes without saying that memory plays a part in art, as in everything. Effectively, would the book just become a different way of categorising art?

However, for the most part, I found the book interesting and enlightening – how concepts of memory are reflected and challenged through art. How abstract ideas are translated into art works.

The book is split into the following chapters and within each the work of several artists are used to explain how the memory concepts are interpreted. The chapters (or memory concepts) are:

  • Autobiography (externalising personal memories/experience)
  • Traces (on memory and indexicality)
  • Revisions (reassembling of history – to give different or new perspectives on mainstream telling of history)
  • Postmemory (referencing Marianne Hirsh’s concept of history being interpreted or worked through by people not present at the original events)
  • Enactments and re-enactments
  • The ordering of knowledge (institutional representations and misrepresentations of memory)

The book discusses and interprets the work of artists in some depth. But here, I note some of the ideas that I find of interest for potential application in my own practice:

  • ‘The claims that are made and the stories that are told in the name of memory can alter people’s understanding of the world and, of course, alter the ways in which they act in or upon that world.’ (Location 174) This statement cuts to the root of the importance of story telling and its impact on the world. Art can be visual story-telling.
  • Within self-portrait, Gibbons discusses the work of Rembrandt, ‘Rembrandt may be said to present us with mementos of his ego-ideal … which act both as a conscience and as a counterpoint to the baser realities of his life. By extension, the ‘thinking’ self that Rembrandt portrays can serve as a kind of collective ego-ideal, and, as such, may be a key factor in his undeniable popularity.’ Self-promotion by showing people what they want to see. Perhaps this should not be underestimated in the in-life-time success of an artist. Gibbons uses the example of van Gogh’s self-portraits as a counterpoint to those of his fellow-countryman. Van Gogh painting his own tortured soul, rather than a ‘collective ego-ideal’.
  • The concept of ‘Nachträglichkeit’ is important. Gibbons explains as, ‘a psychical process mentioned many times by Sigmund Freud, whereby an original experience is reconstituted, retranscribed or rearranged in relation to ongoing circumstances’. So selective-memory or memories recalled to suit the perspective of the story-teller.
  • Gibbons suggest that in all autobiography, there is the ‘inescapable issue that applies to all manifestations of autobiography: the relationship of the private to the public, which brings with it the associated issue of the relationship of the personal to the political.’ There is the underlying tension of boundaries of what art artist chooses to share or exploit in their work and the subjectivity in determining what lies either side of the boundary.
  • In the context of indexicality and memory, Gibbons discusses the power of music and how some artists have combined visual and auditory art forms. She says, ‘Here, I would argue that the rhythmic and emotional charge of music and lyrics has a particularly tenacious hold on memory, which, as with photography, is due in a large part to its indexical nature.’ Music provides a trace of what we have heard and the artist making the music; as photography does for the visual. An area I would like to explore in my own work is the combination of photographs and music.
  • The concept of postmemory for me has become associated with traumatic events, notably work relating to the holocaust. Gibbons , explains ‘postmemory carries an obligation to continue that process of working through or over the event or experience and is not yet a process of reply … secondary memory is not just the work of an ‘observer-participant’ but a meeting of the primary participant and the secondary witness, who is better able to do the critical work on primary memory.’ This is very serious work that involves difficult ethical decisions and great sensitivity in dealing with traumatic experiences. Not something easily undertaken as part-time work (note to self).

I will take some of these concepts for my final C&N assignment for a constructed image.


Gibbons, J. (2007).  Contemporary Art and Memory: Images of Recollection and Remembrance. I.B.Tauris. Kindle edition

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