Making Memory Matter: Strategies of Remembrance in Contemporary Art

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In an ancient account of painting’s origins, a woman traces the shadow of her departing lover on the wall in an act that anticipates future grief and commemoration. Lisa Saltzman shows here that nearly two thousand years after this story was first told, contemporary artists are returning to similar strategies of remembrance, ranging from vaudevillian silhouettes and sepulchral casts to incinerated architectures and ghostly processions. 

Exploring these artists’ work, Saltzman demonstrates that their methods have now eclipsed painting and traditional sculpture as preeminent forms of visual representation. She pays particular attention to the groundbreaking art of Krzysztof Wodiczko, who is known for his projections of historical subjects; Kara Walker, who creates powerful silhouetted images of racial violence in American history; and Rachel Whiteread, whose work centers on making casts of empty interior spaces. Each of the artists Saltzman discusses is struggling with the roles that history and memory have come to play in an age when any historical statement is subject to question and doubt. In identifying this new and powerful movement, she provides a framework for understanding the art of our time.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226734071
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 9/1/2006
  • Pages: 128
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Lisa Saltzman is associate professor of art history at Bryn Mawr College. She is the author of Anselm Kiefer and Art after Auschwitz and a coeditor of Trauma and Visuality in Modernity.   

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Read an Excerpt

MAKING MEMORY MATTER Strategies of Remembrance in Contemporary Art
The University of Chicago Press Copyright © 2006 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-73407-1


An Introduction

Enough and more than enough has now been said about painting.


"All agree that it began with tracing an outline around a man's shadow." The object whose beginnings are affirmed here is art, the art of painting. It is a coming into being that, like a primal scene, is witnessed, belatedly and repeatedly, through its narration and depiction, in this case, within the history of art, or indeed, within the history of art history. It is a tale of conception in which a potter's daughter traces the shadow of a human figure upon a wall. This myth of origins is made known through an extensive body of canonical texts and images, first and foremost, Pliny the Elder's Natural History. As Pliny recounts the origin of painting, explicitly relinquishing in this tale any privileged or unique claims to the event as it might be located in time or space, in a past that we might call history:

The question as to the origin of the art of painting is uncertain.... The Egyptians declare that it was invented among themselves six thousand years ago before it passed over into Greece-which is clearly an idle assertion. As to the Greeks, some of them say it was discovered at Sicyon, others in Corinth, but all agree that it began with tracing an outline around a man's shadow and consequently that pictures were originally done in this way.

Pliny then goes on, in an account that no longer concerns itself with painting but with "the plastic art" of sculpture, to repeat and expand this tale of the Corinthian potter's daughter tracing the shadow cast by the human figure:

Enough and more than enough has now been said about painting. It may be suitable to append to these remarks something about the plastic art. It was through the service of that same earth that modeling portraits from clay was first invented by Butades, a potter of Sicyon, at Corinth. He did this owing to his daughter, who was in love with a young man: and she, when he was going abroad, drew in outline on the wall the shadow of his face thrown by the lamp. Her father pressed clay on this and made a relief, which he hardened by exposure to fire with the rest of his pottery; and it is said that his likeness was preserved in the Shrine of the Nymphs until the destruction of Corinth by Mummius.

As I will contend, both in the course of this introduction and throughout the book that follows, the tale of the Corinthian maiden may be enormously productive as a paradigm for considering the art of the present. A story in which anticipated absence inspires and grounds the birth of pictorial, and then sculptural representation, Pliny's tale presents that mythic moment when imminent loss drives the impulse to record and remember. A body, soon to be borne off by the forces of history, into war, into exile, if not also into death, is commemorated through a sequence of decidedly visual strategies and inventions. In that primal scene, visual representation takes shape, takes form, takes place as a ritual of remembrance.

If I am compelled to return to a tale of painting's origins in the aftermath of painting's postulated end, it is neither to reify origins as a recuperable site of knowledge nor to insist upon memory as an essential category of visual representation. Rather, I invoke this story for its allegorical potential, for its striking ability to organize an account of aesthetic preoccupations of the present, of art at the end of one millennium and the dawning of another. For I am convinced that this tale of loss, in which lamps and shadows, outline and relief, walls and shrines are put, by a daughter and her father, toward the task of remembering an absent and desired body, presents us with a paradigm for theorizing the representational strategies of the present. Projection, silhouettes and casting, such are the representational strategies described in Pliny's tale. And such are the strategies, the techniques and technologies, evinced in the present, a moment in which forms of photography, video, and installation have all but eclipsed painting as the preeminent form of visual representation.

Conjured in Pliny's tale are techniques that, unlike painting, bear something of a relationship of physical contiguity to their subjects. A luminous flame as a means of casting the shadow of the body before it, a drawn outline as a means of capturing the evanescent image of that body, a sculptural cast as a means of reconstituting and concretizing something of that lost body: in Pliny's tale, much as we may see the seeds of an iconic form of representation, namely, drawing and figure painting, we are also presented with an art of the index, with strategies of representation that structure the visual object as the material trace of a fugitive body.

It also bears underscoring, before advancing any further, that the central protagonist of Pliny's tale is a woman, a daughter. In a reversal of cultural conventions both generational and gendered-cultural conventions that have irrefutably shaped the practice of both art and its history-it is a neither a father nor a son, but a daughter, poised at the mythic moment of aesthetic origins. Even if the father will go on to cast a relief, a sculpture, a three-dimensional likeness that will be preserved (until its subsequent destruction) in the consecrated space of the shrine, the father's position in the origin myth is secondary, not primary. It is she, the daughter, who produces the first image, whose act of drawing holds within it the very future of figurative painting. And it is she, moreover, who forges with her tracing of the shadow that foundational conjunction between the work of remembrance and the visual field.

That it is a daughter who determines, with her anticipatory gesture of grief, the link between representation and remembrance, certainly provides a means to think productively, perhaps even, differently, about the visual field and its history. For difference does structure the tale, even if that difference may not, in the end, be a question of gender but rather, of genre. Where the daughter's drawn silhouette may be seen to acknowledge loss, offering no more than the inscription of a line around an empty center, the contour of an immaterial shadow, the father's sculptural cast might be said to disavow loss, seeking to bring the body back, if not to life, and if not to her, at least to sculptural form. In other words, though both father and daughter offer figurative forms of commemorative representations, her anticipatory aesthetic act of tracing a shadow ultimately refuses the fetishistic function of representation, where as the father's compensatory work of sculptural casting attempts to restore a certain material, if not, in the end, bodily fullness and presence.

Here I should pause to acknowledge that I am by no means alone in returning to the figure and story of the Corinthian maiden. There is a long textual and pictorial history that precedes, and in many ways, predicts my own encounter with the classical text. Over the centuries, Pliny's tale of the origins of painting has captured the imaginations of many a philosopher, aesthetician, artist, and art historian. After Pliny, versions of the tale appeared in such textual sources as Quintilian, Alberti, Leonardo, Vasari, and Diderot, and in such pictorial sources as Murillo, Joseph Wright of Derby, and Daumier (figure 1). Interest in the tale has persisted into the present, with some art historians particularly concerned with pursuing the significance of the tale's reemergence in certain historical moments. For example, Ann Bermingham, as a historian of artistic modernism, uses the treatment of the tale in late eighteenth-century Britain to explore the gendered distinctions between fine arts and craft at the moment of the founding of the Academy. And Geoffrey Batchen, as a historian and theorist of photography, explores the late eighteenth-century interest in the tale as exemplary of a moment when the idea, if not the effect, of photography was born.

Batchen's account is explicitly indebted to a set of theoretical engagements with the legend, foremost among them Victor Burgin's essay "Photography, Fantasy, Function" and Jacques Derrida's Memoirs of the Blind. For Burgin, who is deeply indebted to psychoanalysis, the tale is a means of placing desire at the origins, ultimately collapsed in his account, of painting and photography. For Derrida, who produces an evocative account of the tale as it pertains to memory, an account of memory that is also deeply indebted to Baudelaire, Pliny's tale is a significant, though by no means exclusive, point of departure for his wide-ranging rumination on self-portraiture and the activity of drawing. In Derrida's text, the tale is taken up in the service of a larger account of artists' impotence and blindness and art's incapacity and failure. For, on Derrida's account, to draw is to look away, to shift one's gaze from oneself or the object of one's gaze to the subject, the task, of representation.

It is as well the question of drawing, particularly, of the trait (mark) of drawing, as it was pursued first by Hubert Damisch in his Traité du Trait, that motivates Michael Newman's philosophical engagement with the Corinthian maiden's tracing of the shadow in his essay, as the title makes manifest, on "The Marks, Traces and Gestures of Drawing." And it is then specifically the shadow that is of organizing concern in the work of Victor Stoichita, who uses Pliny's tale, along with Plato's allegory of the cave, to theorize the foundational role of the shadow in both aesthetics and epistemology. Stoichita discusses the fact that the first act of visual representation was the result not of direct observation of the human body, but of the capturing of the body's projection, in profile, the circumscription of a shadow, a representation of a representation, a copy of a copy. And while Stoichita briefly suggests that this resulting form might serve as a memento, a "mnemonic aid" with a propitiatory value, his larger claim is to suggest the ways in which the paradigm of the "shadow stage," one founded in a relation to the other, a love of difference, comes to be supplanted by a specular relation of sameness, by the Ovidian myth of Narcissus, by the love of the same, by what we would call, in the aftermath of Lacan, the mirror stage.

For all of the ways that I am indebted to the accounts that precede mine, what distinguishes my invocation of the story of the Corinthian maiden is my attention to its unanticipated and, as yet, unexplored relevance to a set of aesthetic concerns and practices in the present. That is to say, my interest in the tale is in its potentially paradigmatic status, the model it provides for isolating and interpreting the various visual techniques and technologies through which the work of memory is performed in contemporary artistic practice. In a cultural present that is consumed by the concept, if not always the actual work of memory, Pliny's tale allows us to understand something of how and why memory and visual culture are conjoined in the present, how and why it is through certain types of visual objects that we are able to bear witness, even if only belatedly and obliquely, to the histories that at once found and confound our identities.

Certainly, the representational strategies at stake in the account that follows are not the only visual means of encountering history in the present. There are instances in postwar practice when painting itself takes up the task of approaching, even if asymptotically, the subject of history, moments when painterly practice comes to function as an active agent in the cultural production of memory. Where Frank Stella's obdurately abstract, minimalist black paintings might be understood to have refused figuration as a means of expressing the impossibility of producing history paintings in the aftermath of Auschwitz, painters like Anselm Kiefer and Gerhard Richter have found in painting and its acknowledged incapacity the very possibility of figuring something of their nation's catastrophic history, albeit in vastly different forms and terms. And, from Andy Warhol's single and serial silkscreens of the divisions, deaths, and disasters that marked America in the 1960s to Leon Golub's unflinchingly realist representations of violence and its victims, the stretched canvas has continued to function as a site for historical, if not always also memorial encounter, at once contesting and continuing a painterly tradition that flourished under such foundational figures in a history of modernism as David, Gericault, and Manet.

What I seek to address in this book are those moments in the present when visual practice departs from the convention of what might still be called history painting, and, using representational strategies at once archaic and advanced, makes history its explicit yet also, always, necessarily elusive subject. Although I use the term history in discussing this fundamentally historical work of the present, I want to make manifest here the degree to which this book, and, indeed, the art and artists it considers, emerge in the aftermath not just of the "end" of history, which is to say, in the aftermath of a certain Hegelian notion of history as a single, universal, evolutionary social process, but also, in the aftermath of historical events so catastrophic that history as a discursive form may be seen to have reached its limits. That is to say, while I use the term history, I mean to embed in my discussion from the outset something of the impossibility of what it means in the present to represent, and in turn, to know history. I mean to embed the degree to which history can no longer be understood as straightforwardly referential, but is instead, to invoke here the words of Cathy Caruth, an "oscillation between a crisis of death and the correlative crisis of life: between the story of the unbearable nature of an event and the story of the unbearable nature of its survival." At the same time, when I use the term history, I do mean to conjure something of the range of experiences and events that ground our understanding of the past and, in turn, found our relation to the present. These experiences and events are variously individual or collective, local or national, everyday or traumatic and are retrieved or resubmitted to the present through their reconfiguration in representational, or, given the specific concerns of this book, visual form. And it is those visual forms, the particular visual strategies that are used to give the past a place in the present, the aesthetic inheritances that are mobilized to make memory matter, that are the structuring subject of the book that follows.

* * *

If any work of visual art has come to emblematize and influence the cultural activity of memory in the present, it is Maya Lin's 1982 Vietnam Veterans Memorial, conceived and received as a public architectural project of commemoration 19 (figure 2). At once beholden to and yet a departure from high modernist practice, that is, from the visual language of minimalism inaugurated in Frank Stella's eponymous black paintings and solidified in Donald Judd's industrially fabricated boxes, the dark marble surfaces of Lin's monument are buffed to a mirrorlike sheen, the once insistently self-reflexive modernist object now a site not only for literal but for metaphorical reflection. In Lin's spare yet monumental sculptural work, the logic of minimalist seriality is transformed by and into the chronological form of the timeline. The vertical object, the triumphant form of the obelisk, the insistent and hulking presence of the minimalist object, and the historic monument all find themselves razed, recessed, interred in the earth of the nation's capital.

Lin's monument is a formal acknowledgement of the incommensurability of a figurative commemorative practice. The prematurely extinguished lives of soldier after soldier can only be registered as a refusal to represent them visually, their identities acknowledged instead in the unrelenting inscription of name after name upon the unforgiving surface of the marble funereal slabs. These inscriptions bear witness to each individual whose death contributed to the escalating American losses of the Vietnam War, and, as such, the inscriptions rescue the lost bodies of the war dead, if not from the ravages of political and military history, at least from anonymity. Like the trauma to the body politic of the nation that will never be redeemed, the black form of the monument cuts into the landscape, at once wound and scar. A wall transformed into a national shrine, a site for reflection, grief and mourning, if not remembrance, its formal language refashions the "objecthood" of minimalist sculpture into the form of a "counter-monument," as James Young has aptly described the antifigurative, antiheroic monuments of the present.


Excerpted from MAKING MEMORY MATTER by LISA SALTZMAN Copyright © 2006 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Table of Contents

1 Notes on the Postindexical An Introduction....................1
2 When Memory Speaks A Monument Bears Witness....................25
3 Negative Images How a History of Shadows Might Illuminate the Shadows of History....................48
4 What Remains....................75
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