curated by Kate Menconeri
June 1 – July 28, 2002
How do we construct, re-create, and unify a past that is simultaneously now? Inspired by the Italo Calvino novel of the same title, the artists in Invisible Cities, coming from the U.S., Canada, and South America, delve into the slippery territory of memory with visual tools, layers, and creativity. They explore how the past can shape our understanding of self, history, culture, the present, and how memory can shift and change quite readily, dissolving into pure imagination and re-vision.
Magicians indeed, they reveal new ways to think about and visualize that which we carry within but cannot see with the naked eye. If photography is said to endorse the existence of things, this work ironically validates that which cannot be seen, but also calls into question the veracity of the photograph itself and explores our ever changing perceptions of what was, what should have been, and what is.
In Italo Calvino’s novel, Invisible Cities, the young explorer, Marco Polo, is commissioned by the emperor, Kublai Khan to tell him of the cities within his empire. Each story takes us to diverse and vast lands – each one different, each with its own jewel. Soon Kublai realizes that each of these places are in fact the same place – and he begins to question if they even exist at all. I’ve often thought of memory as a fluid part of perception. Places existed in my mind before I had ever actually been there and once I did in fact visit – the places I had imagined continued to exist on their own – while one informed the identity of the other, the new perception became a different place – and both remain embedded in my mind, existing simultaneously on their own. Each piece of information about a place recalled to the emperor’s mind that first gesture or object which Marco designated the place. The new fact received a meaning from that emblem and also added to the emblem a new meaning. Perhaps, Kublai thought, the empire is nothing but a zodiac of the mind’s phantasms. – Calvino, Invisible CitiesContinue Reading...
The past is mediated by memory on all levels – personal, historical, collective, and cultural. And memory is a silent but all encompassing presence, informing our decisions and perceptions, and propelling us forward each moment. One has to begin to lose memory, even small fragments of it, to realize that memory is what our entire life is made of. A life without memory wouldn’t be life, just as intelligence without means of expression wouldn’t be intelligence. Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our action, our feeling. Without it we are nothing. – Luis Bunnel, My Last Sigh
Like Marco’s “discovered” cities, the past is simultaneously unreachable and ever present. While the facts of the past are fixed, memory changes with the filters of time, distance, new experience, knowledge, and desire. It easily shifts, dissolves, and reasserts a new story. We begin to remember things differently and we may have no idea of what has already been forgotten. The past is by nature invisible outside of ones own perceptions – an invisible field – a city – and only in the present does the past (or future) actually exist. As in some of the chapter titles in Cities, signs and our own desires can again alter and reposition the past. Memory becomes both real and imagined. The place that I had re-built in the shadows had gone to rejoin the places glimpsed in the swirls of awakening, set to flight by that pale sign the fingers of the rising day had traced above the curtains. – Marcel Proust, Silent Heights of Memory, Combray, Remembrance of Things Past.
Someone might dream that remembering and forgetting can be acts of will, rather than aggressions or gifts of chance. – Jorge Luis Borges. Memories may exist for some great episode in life – a first kiss, but it is also the corner we passed yesterday, the grocery list we try to remember once we reach the store. Borges wrote, while forgetting purifies, … memory chooses and rediscovers. What we bring forward is sometimes a matter of choice – but often we cannot escape the experiences we’ve had or the stories and events that continue to shape our perceptions today. I am every instant of my lengthy time, every night of scrupulous insomnia, every parting and every night before. I am the faulty memory of an engraving that’s still here in the room and that my eyes, now darkened, once saw clearly. – Borges
Employing photographic based tools to explore this elusive terrain both parallels and questions our historical understandings of photography as the documentation and authentication of what is real. One day I received from a photographer a picture of myself… because it was a photograph I could not deny that I had been there. – Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida. Photographs are said to capture a moment in time forever, preserving the past for as long as the image remains – they are our only “real” visual evidence. The power of photographs thus to trigger memory is widely felt, and often used in media and advertising to prey on our emotions.
Have you ever found an old box of letters and photographs or a diary that once you picked up you couldn’t put down because it completely and blindly transported you to another time in your life – to the people you no longer know and the places you will never again go? Keisha Scarville delves into her past with personally charged objects and narratives. What might appear to have generic or little meaning – a toothpick, a shoelace – carries the force of her past and brings her life lessons forward. Oscar Muñoz shows us the fleeting faces of those lost in historical/political tragedy. In this work you see only yourself until you breath onto the plates, reclaiming the past and thus the importance of remembering. Terry Boddie metaphorically combines personal and cultural symbols, exploring the relationships between knowledge and history and their own regenerative possibilities. Terry’s layers of information, from the portrait of his sisters – (taken annually) to the symbols drawn in mourning – all speak of the passage of time, birth, rebirth, death, and reincarnation. Shauna Frischkorn freezes the duration of the commonplace – where nothing may have actually happened – and shows us absence as the subject itself. While some of the work in the exhibition does in fact trigger memory, it reveals more about how the past shapes the present now.
The past is not always employed to relive or remember, but to reconstruct a dialogue about the now. James Fee juxtaposes his Father’s documentary pictures of Peleliu Island in 1944 with his own current images of the same place not to revisit the past but to better understand his present. Fee’s large color scenes, uncluttered and empty of specifics reveal a present that is molded by absence, inheritance, and imagination. Gayle Tanaka examines issues of appearance and the intersections of time, culture, personal history, and the construction of memory. In her multi-media work, each informs the other, exposing how her identity continues to be shaped by her inheritance.
While painting can feign reality without having seen it, in photography I can never deny that the thing has been there… Photography’s “noeme” [essence] will therefore be “that-has-been”. [which does not mean that which was] – Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida. But while thought to be real, photographs, mirroring memory, can be harnessed to alter the facts, deceive, invent, recreate, and fantasize, and are not necessarily referential to any real event or time. Unseen images of the mind are revealed by the transformative power of the medium and the imagination. What P. E. Sharpe literally shows us is not in fact the item she references in her titles, but that which metaphorically transports us to an unseen past, where the very real visual of absence triggers memory. Gerald Slota’s disturbing and ambiguous scenes of childhood and family reveal something a bit more menacing than the ordinary. Based not in the facts of the past but in the imagination, these deeply layered and marred images may suggest an elusive and unreachable past. His processes mimic the way in which we can distance and separate ourselves from the facts and the past, and while this work is in fact not based in any literal space or time, and is not about memory, it may indeed trigger powerful emotions, fears, and recollections. Carol Golemboski, too, uses visual tools to create a more psychological plane for the objects she pictures. As found objects, the stories she tells are not based on a known or real history, but her own imaginative associations and a response to the energy these mysterious objects resonate. She takes us into the future and reminds us of a sense of melancholy… and a mounting dread that comes with the realization that our own stories will suffer the same fate. In Robert Flynt’s intimate portraits the past and present co-exist and communicate. The found photograph and the artists’ invented image create a jangling dialogue unbound by time, touching upon sensuality and the temporal body, loss, relationships, and our infinite place within the cosmos.
In exploring themes of memory and past and present in their artwork, the artists featured are not looking to “capture moments” to preserve for all time. This work transcends time, creating a dialog about the present and what exists within the invisible cities that surround us. The unseen is seen, the past meets present, and fact meets fiction.
-Kate Menconeri, 2002
… A Man sets himself the task of portraying the world. Through the years he propels a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, instruments, stars, horses, and people. Shortly, before his death, he discovers that the patient labyrinth of lines traces the image of his face. – Jorge Luis Borges