To recall is to mine. Language that is used to describe memory may refer to a geological excavation, a process of extracting from the past.1 Dig through densely sedimented layers of events, unbury the precious minerals of history.
But the past is not constituted by solid ground, does not consist of absolute occurrences. We have a gift for forgetfulness. For rendering. A tendency to inflect previous experiences with the sentiments of the present. Recollection retrieves what is buried, but also destroys and reconstructs.
[Recall attempt #1: words]
If time is open-ended, then a memory might be an enclosed capsule of time, pulled out from the stratum of history. As sediment and dust sifts through the air, their particles eventually fall, cascading towards the ground. Try to catch them with your hands, trace a slow silhouette.
If I try to remember the words that were spoken that day, I can only remember that vowels were tenderised, dwindled through static. I could hear your form solidify with each breath, listened to your voice emit its glow.
Remember how these sentences were articulated in a pattern, repeated several times over for effect. You play this reverie through laptop speakers in your room. Hear them linger and wilt, notice the aftertouches shift over time.
When tunnelling occurs vertically, a deep hole is formed on the surface of the earth. Cracks appear with exhaustion, lethargy is amorphous. As rock is removed, loss is accumulated. Void replaces the geography where there was once matter.
The institutional study of art history can be thought of as a slow kind of unearthing. Another form of excavation, probing for the relics of the past. Criticism as a gradual and interminable process of chiselling, at the hardened foundations of what-has-come-before.
Bore through sedimented layers of previous interpretations, sedimented reading habits and sedimented categories developed by those who inherited the tradition.2 A condition called ‘infinite sedimentary monument not to cities, but to sediment itself.’3
But if the habits of study are sedimented, then this history also fortifies knowledge, forms cultural memory from the same bedrock. It may solidify into stasis, when practised as tautology. Reiterate references, statements, procedures, until their weight sinks heavy on tongues. Loop these narratives until they coil, become signified into routine. This loop becomes not only a method but also a circle, a ring, a parameter.
The historiographic form has been constituted by what has been documented, and what has been left out. As in, the deeper we cut into the cavity, the more we realise is lost.
What have we unconsciously repressed or erased, that leaves no trace? What are the holes left in language? What cannot be contained?
If one were to open a hole into the earth ... Dig the dirt out for a period of time, eventually the earth would turn into an eggshell ... Then [if one] removed its outer layer, the earth would become reversed into a negative [version of itself].4
From 1968 to 2012, Nobuo Sekine excavated various sites, hollowing large sinkholes into the ground. Each layer of rock, soil, concrete is a material record of a point in time. An uncovering of accumulated history, 2.7 metres deep by 2.2 metres in diameter.
After upturning the earth, Sekine recompressed scoops of matter into perfect cylinders. He placed them close to their empty cavities. Through a process of inversion and reversal, the relation between the immaterial and material is made legible. He repeated this project four times.
Sekine’s Mono-ha art collective was guided by the principles of ‘not-making’ and anti-representation. ‘Not-making’, in the sense that nothing is created, nothing is lost, matter is only moved. Rather than representation or symbolism, Mono-ha was concerned with the properties of material itself. It’s continuous potential for deformation, and how process might reveal the shifting relationships between the physical and the metaphysical.
For some time, I have been suspicious of etymology as an explanation. And by extension of this, suspicious of causation as an explanation. But this suspicion has not stopped me from seeking its possibilities.
Mono is a literal and abstract word in Japanese; it names concepts such as ‘thing’, ‘matter’ and ‘material’. Mono has also been used to describe namelessness, to refer to what cannot be represented or fully understood.5 Mono no aware is an empathy, or a ‘pathos’, for the ephemeral life of matter. It is not sentimental nor symbolic, but an awareness of the inevitable passing of things.6
We may place our faith in preservation. In other words, the inability to give up what has already occurred. We store objects from our excavation away from heat, light, moisture. Take images of transitory seconds, hold onto their resonances. Inscribe passing moments, translate experiences into words. Protect the contours of a structure from corruption.
Protect from damage; and by damage, that means from affliction. Prevent decay; and by decay, that means overcoming duration.
Time turns out to be the great destroyer. A deliberate wave of destruction travels over material we might consider permanent. Time corrodes matter ... It is the greatest critic [of what stays].7
If this is true of rock, perhaps it is also true of history. If this is true of history, perhaps it is also true of memory.
[Recall attempt #2: images]
Maybe I will try again. Each time I revisit this memory, the outlines shift. Perhaps this is an attempt at immortalisation; it is also a misrepresentation.
When I try to remember that day, I notice this time that the light was warm, resting on roaming tufts of hair. The day is speckled through the computer screen I stare into, light is poured out in pixels. Sediment and dust are amplified, this study is illuminated with artefacts. The room in the background is filled with books, files, tapes. Or maybe there are no tapes.
I rewind and replay this image in my thoughts. Test the edges of its frame. Adjust its clarity, zoom in on details.
Perhaps memory is a form of failure, in that it cannot represent what will always be unrepresentable.
What is the substance that makes up a memory?
In 1896, Sigmund Freud wrote a series of letters to Wilhelm Fliess.
I am working on the assumption that ... the material present, in the shape of memory-traces, is from time to time subjected to an arrangement in accordance to fresh circumstances — is, as it were, transcribed ... My theory is the thesis that memory is present not once; but several times over.8
The memory of an experience is not a static representation that can be retrieved from the unconscious. Rather, it is constructed from layered impressions that are subject to change, eroded by what occurs afterwards. To recall a memory may be to cycle back to the event, to resurrect and repeat it. But it is also to continually alter each version of its reappearance.
In 1969, conceptual artist Robert Barry sent a fax to a classroom of students, instructing them to invent a secret, immaterial work of art. The work would be a shared idea that would remain in existence as long as the participants kept the secret within the group.
From 2004 to 2006, artist Mario Garcia Torres initiated a new artwork, by attempting to recover the remnants of Barry’s project. In What Happens in Halifax Stays in Halifax, Garcia Torres searched for the former students 37 years later and reunited them at the initial location. He investigated their accounts of the first project by only asking for indirect approximations, in order to preserve the secret. Each participant’s account acted as a ‘layer’ of the shared history, their recollections overlapping and changing each other. He documented the corrosion of their memories, the inconsistencies of stories and the simultaneous creation of new records through their retelling.
Different types of movement have been conflated ... The way we move knowledge forward in order to access things that are far away or otherwise inaccessible, and ... the way things move, in order to keep themselves in existence.9
The properties of time become consolation.
That it is cyclical. Day and night reoccur. The rhythms and thrums of seasons return. Light waxes and wanes. Habits of thought are revisited.
Each time a repetition occurs in a different context, its meaning fluctuates. When it is revisited, it resounds and diffracts, allowing its definition to shift over a continuum. It creates a loop, a circle, a spiral, until the loop breaks.
[Recall attempt #3: voids]
I push up against the limits of the memory this time. The residue is mediated through a computer screen.
The skins of sediment do not give, do not produce. A chasm carves out the space where the earth should be. You ask me: What are you not-saying?
Light pearls into dots, sound wreathes into a hum. Try again, misremember. This narrative is malleable, it rotates like a cycle. It is reconfigured each time I touch it. Did I ask for a prediction of the future? Did you remind me of someone else? I wanted to write an anti-interpretation but ended back at interpretation again.
Memories noiselessly drift, untether themselves from cognisance. Most of them are not made legible, are never interpreted at all.
Where do they go, where do they fall away to?
Hannah Wu is a writer and musician based in Naarm (Melbourne).