[CW: This article discusses racist violence, murder and the Holocaust.]
As a cognitive science major, I’ve spent a lot of time learning and thinking about the topic of memory. I’ve learned about its different types, the function memory serves for us and various theories about how our brains store the information we take in. But something else I’ve learned through studying the mind is that while science can take us far in understanding something like memory, we also can look elsewhere to deepen our understanding of it. One way to do that is through art, which is part of the reason why I was excited to see the “Memory and Oblivion” exhibit at the Vassar Art Library. Though it’s housed in a small display case, the exhibit is packed with stunning meditations on the title topic from a variety of different angles.
At the front is “Encyclopaedia,” a dilapidated encyclopedia. The pages are torn more and more closer and closer to the center, causing the words to be indecipherable. Sometimes jumbled together, sometimes broken apart, the book almost doesn’t look like a book anymore but rather some artifact. Wrapped around the bottom of the whole display case is “The Geometry of Memory,” an accordion-folded booklet showing various images of a flower. According to the exhibition’s guide for visitors “This publication seeks to address the architecture of the brain and its ability to experience time as a function of memory through a series of folded loose leaves.” Though I couldn’t immediately see the connection between the piece and the neurological side of memory, I loved the idea of representing memory through something that can literally be collapsed and stored in a box, the piece’s simple beauty only further engaging me with the work.
The works in this exhibit vary significantly in subject matter, though they’re all tied together by a common thread. Some, like the ones I’ve just described, offer reflections on memory itself. Others explore specific realities that are often forgotten or twisted, shedding light on how urgent the topic of memory is. For example, Mimi Tempestt’s poetry book “the monumental misrememberings” is about the oppression and death that Black women and femmes face in a racist, patriarchal society. In the exhibit, the book is open to a poem titled “melissa mckinnies,” named after a Black woman whose son Danye Jones was found dead in 2018. Though it was ruled a suicide, McKinnies has advocated for further investigation into the case because there is reason to believe Jones was actually lynched. The poem is in the form of a game of hangman, and through the medium of the well-known game Tempestt calls attention to society’s normalization of the murder of Black people. And, as the title of the book suggests, the reader is asked to consider the historical and ongoing evidence of injustice that is misremembered because of the prevailing societal white supremacist narratives.
Many works specifically reflect on memory in the context of historical atrocities. “Respite” by Harun Farocki displays chilling images of a train station during the Holocaust. Text interspersed with the photographs explains that the Nazis used the trains to send people to concentration camps. I was struck by the violence behind the images, even given their superficially non-violent content. A note in the booklet from the publisher of the book reads, “At a time when the last surviving Holocaust witnesses will soon be gone, a possible route for commemoration is to ask what testimony images can give.” This question motivates the work, expressing the importance of finding alternative spaces for societal memory of the Holocaust when it can no longer be held by the people who experienced it.
“Himmelstrasse” by Brian Griffin also uses images to document the Holocaust, this time using contemporary photographs. Griffin’s work depicts the train tracks like the ones in “Respite.” The photos are deceptively simple, showing just empty tracks in the midst of seemingly serene nature, but the knowledge of what they represent completely changes their meaning. By making the viewer aware of its horrific context, this work highlights how easy it is for historical memories to slip away into oblivion, even when it is of the utmost importance that we do not forget them. Of both exhibits, Art Librarian Thomas Hill writes, “These artists are motivated not to just accept the past as something over and done with, any more than healing is a mere blotting out of trauma, but to recontextualize the past in a lived, embodied present.”
The idea of memory as having a life in the present is something that can be applied to almost all the works here—by putting them all together, the exhibit grounds memory as a vital and salient topic in our fast-moving world. And as Hill writes in the guide, “the polarities of memory and forgetting in human experience take place in a mutual embrace.” The exhibit invites the viewer to consider how memory and oblivion co-construct each other as time passes, and it does so in thought-provoking and powerful ways.