Sculpting Memory

Sculpting Memory

by Monica Patrice Barra


In his book Present Pasts Andreas Huyssen writes about a sculpture work by Colombian artist Dolores Salcedo, The Orphan’s Tunic (1997) as an example of a recent trend in cultural and artistic work he calls “memory sculptures.” Such works create a dimension of embodiment between the viewer, museum space, and the piece, a divorce from a representational function of artwork and memorials in public spaces. This highly individualized affect of art manipulates space in such a way to reconcile the things remembered with the processes of remembering. Anish Kapoor’s 2008 installation Memory works within Huyssen’s definition of memory sculpture as a staging of memory in an art piece that uses space to undo the viewer’s ethics of memory through the conflation of spatiality, perception, and the corporeal.

I would like to locate Memory within a discourse of memory that creates a particular condition for an ethics of memory. In Foucault’s essay “What is an Author?” he questions how the author is a function of discourse but, moreover, he examines the function of authorship (something that an author as well as a work can “do”) in fashioning the conditions through which discursive practices are possible.1 It is Memory’s position as “transdiscursive,” an initiator of a discursive practice of memory discourse, that makes the condition for way of altering how we come to know memory (Foucault 131). If we consider the ethics of memory not in terms of characterizing the nature of memory discourse but through the frameworks that guide it—the “interplay of signs regulated less by the content it signifies than by the very nature of the signifier”—than our attention is turned towards the process of authoring and the limits through which the discourses authored are produced, an action always “testing the limits of its regularity, transgressing and reversing an order that it accepts and manipulates” (Foucault 116). Within this act of authorship, the “possibility of discourse” is established (Foucault 131). The process of authored writing is mirrored in the work of Kapoor as well, producing the possibility of the conceptualization of memory.

“Objects that performs the processes of memory,” as Huyssen calls “memory sculptures,” rely on an interplay of absence and presence, aggrandizement and conflation, that exposes the humanizing function of memory. But what is entailed in the process of making human and how does this relate to memory? Memory is dependent on the human in a biological sense: we perform the automated process of memory, with or against our desires. Any metaphoric application of memory always implies the measure of the body, despite its psychological nature. The social milieus in and through which we are taught what memory is and how to remember, participate in a social construction of the practice of remembering within particular cultural and historical contexts. Our memories and the faculties of our memory socialize us, teaching us how to be a person within both particular and generalized environments.

There are a number of seminal texts emanating from the humanities and social sciences that have attempted to elucidate the origins and function of memory. Marcel Proust’s In Remembrance of Things Past (1913) stands out, in particular, as one of the first literary works to look at the emergence of individual memory in family/home environments and the mnemonic devices and practices that facilitate remembering. In sociology, Maurice Halbwachs’ extended work on memory, The Collective Memory (1950), took the familiar spaces of family and proximal social context, tracing the pathways through which an individual develops memory within ever-expanding social and material circumstance. In history, the transmission of memory into history-making process—the tension between history and memory—is most thoroughly interrogated (in a late twentieth century context) in Pierre Nora’s investigation of the two in the context of French nationalism. In “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Memoire”(1989), Nora tracks how the individual and social production of memory came into conflict with history, specifically the paradoxical nature of historicity in the late twentieth century, where places and objects had to become the sites of history, instead of milieus or narratives of history. Ultimately taking us back to the body, Nora concludes, the historian becomes the “lieux de memoire” (Nora 24).

The ethics of memory, than, emerges within a social matrix of forces mediated between singular moments within expansive historical and authorial narratives. The body cannot help but be both the site and the conductor of memory as it collaboratively produced within what the body does and how it is manipulated by social and discursive contexts, migratory inter/dis-connections that act in concert to stage memory.

Memory, memory, and hyper-corporeality

Memory, as a sculptural piece, and memory, as psychological substance and concept, create an inter-textual pedagogy on its interlocutors. In her writing on Memory, curator of Asian Art at the Guggenheim Museum Sandhini Poddar aptly uses the term gestalt to describe the experience of Kapoor’s piece. From the German meaning ‘form’ or ‘shape,’ gestalt (in English) implies to perception as it relates the construction of an object through configurations of its pieces—a “resolvedness” as Kapoor has called it. To have gestaltqualität, characteristic of gestalt, spacing is necessary. From the nodes of individual forms, shape emerges through an interlocutor who finds a certain scale of measure through which to map the form. There is an inherent fracturedness and coalescence, a tenuous interrelationship between the two, that anyone or thing that engages with gestalt must dance with and through. Gestalt has no master plan nor origin point through which to assess what is either a proper or improper perception of it: it is a liminal notion that continually forms but is never formed, thus placing anyone confronting gestalt, or anything bearing ‘gestaltqualitat,’ at the limits of her or his own faculties. As an entity that dwarfs its space, Memory does not just invoke gestalt, but is gestalt, a “reminder of the body as measure [and] the idea of something inside that is bigger than the outside” (Spivak 60).

Limits of the body

This overcoming of the horizon reaffirms the limit—a limit which, in the end, shows itself to be not altogether insuperable, but at the same time is neither inexistent nor fatuous (Tazzi 104).

Memory reminds us that all is conducted through the limits of physical perception (including biological as well as psychological) although not necessarily fit to scale. Despite the corporeal awkwardness the scale of Memory imposes on viewers, Kapoor’s sculpture is not dis-embodiment (although arguably felt as one). It imposes a hyper-embodiment through magnification that ruptures the architectural and social spaces that have been scaled to fit our particular bodies, and our bodies as scaled to fit those architectures. It functions as a process that simultaneously renders palpable hyper-corporeality and corporeal disintegration. “Suspension of a priori thought,” as architect Steven Holl states, “that can then function as a form of knowledge in itself” (Holl 80).

The extent to which scale is understood through its relationship to body has a particular salience when the object of scale is both memory and Memory. As Gayatri Spivak theorizes, Kapoor configures a space for the dissonance between trace and sign to echo and reverberate. He manufactures trace piece by piece, meticulously placing it the gallery, manipulating the function of each bit of sign as it becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Thus, trace becomes a detectable sign through a manufacturing of gestalt by the artist made tangible by the doubling of the viewer in her ability (albeit limited) to piece-together Memory. Space conducts and refracts both the work of the viewer and that of the piece, actively forming and dismantling memory and Memory in a triangulated “gestalting.” But this is tenuous. In his attempt to elucidate the ‘traciness’ of memory the slippage between man and body, sign and trace, Memory and memory is, as Spivak notes, Kapoor’s gesture towards, “catching trace [which is] the oldest problem in the book” (Spivak 58). The trace can never be caught, for it is only trace by nature of its elusion. Memory gives viewers a way of imagining the possibility of conceptualizing memory, a quality of trace, that cannot help but be momentarily sustained before passing into form (sign). But what is this trace that Kapoor so longs for? “A sign promises meaning, trace does not” (Spivak 58). As Spivak observes, Kapoor’s Memory inhabits a double-bind that longs to, “keep the freedom of trace [from meaning] and still see if you can glean linguisticity’s promise of meaning” (Spivak 58). Kapoor expresses the impossible desire of capturing the double-bind of sign and trace: to give remembering meaning without memory. He wants both the meaning and the freedom: the freedom to not mean, the meaning to not emancipate.

Like moving between the apertures in the gallery, the viewer is confronted with the inverse of what we want memory to be. Space usurps the possibility of Memory being the memory we know, stripping it down to the body, that of a blunt biological-mnemonic function that forces the system of measure (the body) into confrontation with repetition (the sign) instead of memory (the desire for trace). As the gallery/Memory (for Memory is everywhere, no?) forces one to repetitively move between entrances to view parts of Memory, the process of remembering edges closer and closer to that of repetition as the viewer dances between the image and the memory. Memory foils quotidian memory to eidetic memory: memory maintained through remembering to memory based on repetition. Somewhere between the two is the illustriously liberating substance of humanity shuttling between its limits, performing Foucault’s “transdiscursive.”

Sculpting space

But let’s back-up a bit. Spivak’s reading of Memory weaves literary theory through the scale and sensation of the work. She encounters it as a “impossible dream of globalization attempting ‘worldliness,” of the hyper objectified that longs to be supplely gestative; sign towards trace (Spivak 60). Emphasizing the allegory of the piece’s making as allusive, rather than representational, enables Memory to have the guiding force of sign towards meaning without quite becoming sign as such. Kapoor’s sculpture of void alludes memory’s force when it becomes a signifier of time and space. Within a contained space, memory acts as a guiding force to the measure of time (fashioned by humans in their particular historical contexts). Memory is constantly saturated and changing as it moves through time, but the experience of Memory compels the viewer to feel anything but fullness. Lacunae, gaps in memory, are underscored in this particular spatial arrangement. Moving from one end of the gallery to the other, only to return again to the first vantage because we forgot, overwhelms the viewer with an acutely discernible loss: one that is all-encompassing and liminal. As Poddar eloquently states, Memory enables the viewer “[to] be inside nothing and feel it as something” (Poddar 44) A void open to fullness, not emptiness. Like the process of convection that transforms the states of water from liquid, solid, and gas, the void is akin to an evaporated signifier that has the sensation of trace but is still marked as water. His ability to make his own absence, or at least minimize his interference, is indicative of Kapoor’s use of space as a medium through which to reveal the porosity of binaries: sign and trace, time and space, object and subject. Memory is distinctly affective in use and inversion of signs, employing the linguisticity of sign as Spivak notes, to denote what is not there. The void becomes filled and empowered as it replenishes and depletes memory.

Truly making the invisible: conceptualizing the truly made

For their design of the 9/11 memorial a the Pentagon—a two-acre piece of lawn with a sleek steel benches designated to each victim—the architects Keith Kaseman and Julie Beckman wanted to make a new form of though, a kind of unscripted thinking, that could represent the place of a person but not the person (herself): “an invitational as opposed to representation,” in Kaseman’s words.2 Memory deploys a similar ethos as it represents the abstract through the physical. In its configuration of space, Memory makes a place between object and subject, a crafted fiction that is able to circumnavigate the binaries of being a work of authorial intention and an autonomous fictional work; it makes “fiction [as the] feature of the ‘truly made’ object” (Poddar 47). It is a work that simultaneously demands and undermines perception, one that recasts perception as a passageway not a tool of analysis, but a condition of seeing. In passage, Memory suspends time across the field of the gallery, effacing its convenient organization of perception without negating perception. The work compels the viewer to experience the, “paradoxical space of the other, exposing viewers to the interior and unframed memory, before representation, commemoration, or celebration” (Lustiger-Thaler 18). Memory is not “unframed” per say, but rather the frame itself comes under close scrutiny; memory is perceived because of the scale of its dissonance that floods and overflows the gallery space. The freedom the artist has to manipulate the space is a second dimension of the piece beyond the Cor-Ten steel. Object and environment—Memory and the gallery—collaboratively disrupt space and memory in elegantly unscripted presumption.

The reflexivity of a mirror—think of the high-polished Cloud Gate (2004)—is performed by the darkness of Memory’s interiors. When looking into the void the viewer is confronted with herself; a reflection of the limits of her perception not unlike that seen in a mirror—an uncanny self-othering. Material is central to this transformative power, especially as it transforms the composition of the space and perception. The making enters as a manipulation of materiality—light, metal, pigment, finish—whose collaborative utterance sounds in modulation with the viewer. As Homi Bhabha writes:

Truly made works are apparently out of balance in a sense more profound than any immediate visual experience or physical description can convey. For what is ‘out of balance’ in form is, ironically, a result of what is out of sight, yet integral, to the transitional, shaping spirit of the material […] materials are there to make something else possible… the non-physical things, the intellectual things, the possibilities that are available through the material.’ Material, then, is like living tissue, a contingent and relational medium; its transitional powers reside in an on-going temporal process (Bhabha 18).

The making of object is always being in a sense of action versus that of ontology. The object-making is defined by Kapoor’s use of space, but beyond that, it is the threshold of space that makes his work resonate. The performance between the viewer and the artwork is Kapoor’s substantive practice. Kapoor’s objects, like memory, are part of the making, never beyond or outside, above or below, but collaborative with the audience. This lateral move is indicative of conceptual authority established by the “sovereignty of form” that is Kapoor’s work (Bhabha 27). The move is a translational one that exhibits agency but not hierarchy of meaning, an authority that “depends less on it aesthetic genealogy than on its ability to catalyze a fissionary process across a field of objects” (Bhabha 27). The resistance to the transcendental brings Kapoor’s work back down to earth, back to the body, grounding other worldliness in utterly familiar territory. Kapoor’s invocation/evocation of ‘doubling’ written of so much in the criticism of his work flirts with this affective haunting—the translated other—that is incredibly embodied, marked as it is, by the limits of our selves (our bodies) that we know only within those very limits. There is no outside, only side by side. Translation, not transcendency.

The ability of the piece to “make” its viewers is one of the more uncanny resemblances to memory that Memory underscores. The viewer becomes a made object of Memory in translation rather than passing in front of, behind, and around it. In passing through the work, it finds its balance in the fragility of vacillation” (Bhabha 23). As a work that “never reveals itself completely,” Memory is indicative of a “truly made emptiness,” as Homi Bhabha states, that is neither a “process of the figuration of absence or presence,” but is rather distinguished by the process of making and effacement, memory and forgetting.

Redemption through memory

A century of unprecedented trauma and hasty memorialization compels memory and forgetting to take on the political work of securing a possibility of a past and future in the face of the “active forgetting,” according to Andreas Huyssen, “that demands the need for need “productive remembering more than productive forgetting” (Huyssen 6 & 27). The “globalization of memory,” as Huyssen terms it, produces a new form of forgetting couched in a discourse of memorialization that is in direct contradiction with the function of remembering. The globalized memory illuminates how intimately forgetting—the manufacturing of invisibility through memorialization—becomes characteristic of the redemption that memorialization is expected to contain.

Huyssen draws our attention not so much to how the transformation of time via the global has changed our relationship to memory or events, but rather how temporality and forgetting have exposed the need for memorial and memory to make a new spaces for remembering to occur. To articulate his point, he turns to artists and arts-works as the inter-texts of memory that produce a space of redemption through their un-monumentalizing of places and events. In looking at Cristo’s wrapping of the Reichstag, Huyssen suggests that the hyper-visibility of veiling creates a redemption from a historicizing that can render pasts invisible, making a space for memory. This design of memory deploys the power of the monument in space not to be a memorial as such, but through drawing attention to and crafting a space—an echo of “truly made” object—for the function of monument to come through.

The wrapped building makes a void reminiscent of Memory. Herein lies the strange paradox between the two that can perhaps give us a sense of the how to frame the question of ethics and memory. While Huyssen does not outrightly name it, redemption implies a moral positioning that directly interfaces with the ethics of memory that defines what that redemption could possibly be. If the globalization of memory has compelled nations to sap memory for its perceived redemptive function, than surely this poses a moral position. It seem we have an ethical responsibility to remember, an action that redeems, in order to secure a future with our blood-stained hands. But is this the same as the ethics of memory? Does such a thing even exist?

Memory in the museum

The work of memory in the museum asks the beholder to trace in a way that is different than public monuments. “It enriches the beholder by drawing us into its slow work on the indissoluble relationship among space, memory, and bodily experience. Luis Bunuel once said: ‘You have to begin to lose your memory, if only in bits and pieces, to realize that memory is what makes our lives” (Huyssen 120-121). The gallery facilitates this relationship in a way public or open-space cannot. The museum allows the artist a measure of control to curate Memory as it interfaces with the audience.

Such spaces, according to Huyssen, are the only ones that can host “memory sculpture.” As he states:

[This] is an artistic practice that remains clearly distinct from the monument or the memorial. Its place is in the museum or the gallery rather than in public space. Its addressee is the individual beholder rather than the nation or the community. In its handling of materials and concept, it relates to a specific tradition of installation art, and in its emphatic reliance on an experiential dimension it is much less confined by generic conventions than either the monument or the memorial would be (Huyssen 110).

Memory sculptures function singularly in the museum environment as a space that links its unique materially in a one-to-one correlation. Huyssen reads Doris Salcedo’s Unland: The Orphan’s Tunic (1997)—its stretching of thin, fabric-like interwoven matte of hair, over two halves of different-sized table wedged inharmoniously together—the viewer is drawn into the work, expanding through its frayed edges into the museum space. It does not mark a moment or event in time, despite its documentary or “witnessing” function, as Huyssen indicates. It evacuates the presumption of making monument to a memory or even, desiring instead to facilitate a process of suspended confrontation, engagement, and immediacy. The Orphan’s Tunic, “lives off its temporal dimension as much as it relies on its spatial presence” (Huyssen 116). Kapoor’s own words echoes with this: “The art-object emerges as a ‘presence’ in the world by generating a kinetic movement that inaugurates a new space that is both open to the future and open to interpretation” (Baume 52).

Salcedo’s work is exemplary of Nora’s tracking of memory as it slowly migrates from milieu to lieu, transforming history into and upon the body subject to same erosion of temporality as the history it bears. “It is about memory in the literal sense,” Huyssen remarks, “both the content of specific memories of violent acts and memory as process and as structure as the work enters into dialogue with the viewer. And it is about memory in a spatial sense, approximating it, never quite getting to it, compelling the viewer to innervate something that remains elusive” (Huyssen 118).

Memory metaphor, memory practice

Does Kapoor’s sculpture present a new way of knowing memory? Is this the correct discourse through which to engage it? Kapoor’s Memory presents a way of knowing memory that can comparably stand alone. Its didactic nature, a term normally applied to the realm of language but whose pedagogic function is pertinent to Memory, uses space as a synapse between the object itself and the viewer, creating a triangulated production of memory, confronting viewers with the paradoxical nature of symbiotic relationship between remembering and forgetting, space and body, art and audience. Thus Memory does not merely reveal but is the process of remembering as a vital component that is defined by, and definitive of, what is remembered through bodies and space. “Artists don’t make objects,” Kapoor states, “artists make mythologies, and it’s through the mythologies that we read the object;” and these mythologies understand that “space itself is a philosophical entity and not simply where things happen” (Baume 31).

It functions more than just a metaphor for memory. Like music and architecture surround the body, so does “memory.” In its composition of space, it compels the viewer to re-arrange her/his self, (re)making the body in a way in order to begin to engage another way of knowing memory.It transposes the humanizing function of memory into a discursive practice. Human is known through memory and memory through human: sign through trace, trace through sign. This is not a reduction of the human but a reminder, or practice, of the boundaries that mediate production between beginnings and endings. To be simultaneously dwarfed by scale and inflated by a sense of humanness, Memory is a pedagogy of memory, of human-ing.

Works Cited

Bhabha, Homi K. “Anish Kapoor: Making Emptiness,” Anish Kapoor. London: Hayward Gallery, 1998.

_____ “Elusive Objects: Anish Kapoor’s Fissionary Art,” Anish Kapoor. London: Royal Academy of Arts, 2009.

Baume, Nicholas. Anish Kapoor: past, present, future. Nicholas Baume, ed. (Boston: Institute of Contemporary Art, 2008).

Foucault, Michel. “What is an Author?” Language, Counter-Memory, Practice Donald F. Bouchard, ed. New York: Cornell University Press, 1977.

Holl, Steven. “Perception before Cognition,” Anish Kapoor: Memory. Sandhini Poddar, ed. New York: Guggenheim Foundation, 2008.

Huyssen, Andreas. Present Pasts: Urban Palimpsest and the Politics of Memory. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003.

Lustiger-Thaler, Henri. “When Empty is Full,” Anish Kapoor: Memory. Sandhini Poddar, ed.

New York: Guggenheim Foundation, 2008.

Nora, Pierre. “Between Memory and History: “Les Lieux De Memoire.” Representations 26, (1989): 7-25.

Poddar, Sandhini. “Suspending Disbelief: Anish Kapoor’s Mental Sculptures,” Anish Kapoor: Memory. Sandhini Poddar, ed. New York: Guggenheim Foundation, 2008.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Sign and Trace,” Anish Kapoor: Memory. Sandhini Poddar, ed. New York: Guggenheim Foundation, 2008.

Tazzi, Pier Luigi. “Journey,” Anish Kapoor. London: Hayward Galley, 1998.

Wigley, Mark. “The Architectural Cult of Synchronization.” October 94, no. Autumn (2000). Cambridge: MIT Press, p. 31-61.

1While Foucault does not explicitly address sculpture as such, he does engage a discourse about made works, which I believe facilitate a critical examination of Anish Kapoor’s sculpture.

2Comments made in a discussion with architects, November 2010.

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