Academic journal article Afterimage

Christian Boltanski: Representation and the Performance of Memory

Academic journal article Afterimage

Christian Boltanski: Representation and the Performance of Memory

Article excerpt

Memory studies at the turn of the century are in a boom; struggles with the concept of memory increasingly occupy contemporary artists, writers, historians and theorists across fields as diverse as cognitive sciences, cultural studies and psychology. Artmakers such as Christian Boltanski have become a familiar focus for the problematics of understanding personal and cultural remembrances and their relationship to history, identity and memorial, yet they also offer us new ways to map the performativity of memory. His theatrical installations highlight the engagement of memory and art to body and cultural space. Boltanski's works point to memories as continuously recreated events, based on the past, but understood through the present. Through re-examining Boltanski's 'performances', we can therefore find optimism in the crisis in memory that grips modern society. Boltanski's work seems to seat memory comfortably in its uncertain twilight space. Rather than rushing to ineffectually freeze-frame the past, Boltanski seems happiest articulating, questioning and unsettling the conceptions of mnemonics through the complexities of the photographic medium. Revisiting Boltanski it is thus possible to map memory not just as a host of floating signifiers nested in fragile physiologies, but a performative form, a set of concurrences which hover between original and copy, a theatrical source of creativity.

Replicating Memories

Andreas Huyssen locates the millennial critical and artistic obsession with memory in "a deepening sense of crisis often articulated in the reproach that our culture is terminally ill with amnesia." This is a crisis, born of the dangers to memory, perceived in the growth of technology, the image-laden spread of mass communication and the rapid acceleration of modern living. Memory may have been continuously and obsessively archived, memorialised, monumentalised, recorded and mapped through the photographic and filmic image, but time, as Scott McQuire says, "for judgement [between one flicker on a screen and the next] disappears."

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     Huyssen goes on to claim that,
     ... the memory boom however is a potentially healthy sign ... a
     contestation of the informational hyperspace and an expression of
     the basic human need to live in extended structures of temporality
     however they may be organised. It is also a reaction formation of
     mortal bodies that want to hold on to their temporality against a
     media world spinning a cocoon of timeless claustrophobia and
     nightmarish phantasms and simulations.

Jay Winter maps the strengths and the weaknesses of the contemporary fascination, even "obsession with memory" when

     he notes that,
     [t]he study of memory is one of the most fashionable branches of
     scholarly inquiry in a wide variety of disciplines. ...
     Consequently, we have a dazzling array of inquiries into memory,
     postmemory, counter-memory, traumatic memory, collective memory,
     collected memory, national memory, testimonial memory, witnessing,
     repressed memory, distorted memory, underground memory, deep
     memory, cultural memory, and so on. No pair of these terms can be
     equated; indeed, there is no consensus at all on even the
     rudimentary elements out of which some kind of conceptual ordering
     of memory studies could be built ... He questions the vagueness
     as "the term memory becomes a metaphor", but for what is unclear.
     For melancholy? For nostalgia? For the "uncanny"? And what's more,
     the term memory does not mean the same thing in German or French as
     it does in English. Metaphors multiply in this field at an
     exponential rate.

Without delving too deeply it is possible to see that memories are potential, simultaneously irretrievable, instable, fluid, transient poignant, melancholic and goldenly nostalgic. …

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