Sunday, February 29, 2004
History is a collective enterprise.
Books, oral records and personal memories tell part of the story. Art, too, has long been a tool for recording, reporting and criticizing moments in time.
"Conflicting Memories," a new exhibition at the Spencer Museum of Art, focuses on the relationship between art and cultural memory.
"It really invites a discussion of how artwork can participate in the setting down of history or the correction of history or the revisiting of history," says Stephen Goddard, senior curator of prints and drawings at the Spencer, who organized the show with Saralyn Reece Hardy, director/curator of the Salina Art Center.
Memory becomes the primary lens through which most of the artists explore history. These aren't the "misty watercolor memories" of "The Way We Were." Instead, the Vietnam War, the Holocaust, South African apartheid and other manifestations of racism and discrimination occupy the spaces of the prints, mixed media and multimedia works in the show.
Several of the artists address history through personal recollections. Among them are Roger Shimomura, Michael Krueger and Tanya Hartman, all members of Kansas University's art faculty.
Shimomura's contribution is "Memories of Childhood," a suite of 10 color lithographs that literally represent his first 10 memories.
Shimomura, a third-generation Japanese-American, spent several years as a child with his family at Camp Minidoka, a World War II internment camp in Idaho.
One of his memories is of his third birthday. The print that depicts it consists of a simple birthday cake topped with three burning candles, sitting on a small table inside a stark room. Innocent enough. But outside the window, two strands of taut barbed wire stretch across the blue sky.
By depicting the moment objectively and honestly, the startling truth of the circumstances comes through crystal clear, reminding viewers to remember a dark period in the American past that's still not widely taught in history classes.
"When I went to grad school in Syracuse in 1967, no one believed me," Shimomura says of his experience at Minidoka. "Students there were primarily made up of people from the East Coast, but fortunately there were a couple from Portland, Ore., who remembered the camps."
Avoiding cultural amnesia
Goddard and Hardy structured the exhibition, which includes items culled from the Spencer's collections and borrowed from artists, in three parts. The first includes historical prints of mnemonic aids and memorials. The third displays images of ruins dating from the Renaissance to modern times.
They bookend an impressive body of contemporary work by artists like Shimomura who often feel compelled to lift up the proverbial cultural rug and sweep out forgotten or repressed histories.
Some of the works also point to conflicting versions of history. Take Dinh Q. LÃ's "Persistence of Memory" series. The Vietnam transplant literally weaves together photographs of distinctly different representations of the Vietnam War.
"One of the sets of parallel strands in the kind of warp and woof will be war reportage, actual photographs, usually ones that are really emblematic in people's minds if they lived through that era," Goddard explains. "And the other strand woven into the image will be still photographs taken from Hollywood treatments of the Vietnam War.
"In a way, he is insisting that we not forget what really happened and what the actual events were in lieu of the Hollywood version or the popularized version."
Krueger's work also addresses the Vietnam War, but from the perspective of a child growing up during the era (he was born in 1967).
A few years ago, he stumbled across a collection of his high school notebooks in his mother's attic. They contained the doodles and scrawls of a teenage boy.
"They're adorned with all the kinds of pathetic heavy metal band imagery and stuff like that, and all the little drawings and doodles I did in school when I was trying not to pay attention," Krueger says.
He scanned the notebooks into a computer, printed them and manipulated them in subtle ways, making new drawings on top of them. He calls the resulting series "The Full Metal Journals."
"It became this kind of dialogue with my past self, kind of updating who I was at the time and who I am now," he says.
In what Goddard describes as a rare opportunity in the Midwest, visitors to the exhibition can view a short film by South African artist William Kentridge.
Kentridge created "Felix in Exile" by drawing, erasing and continually reworking a series of charcoal images and photographing the process each step of the way. He then combined the collection into an animated film that shows, again and again, corpses being folded into the landscape.
The artist has said the film relates the "human act of disremembering" to the terrain's tendency to blot out events through the natural processes of erosion, growth and dilapidation.
Another chance for viewers to sink their teeth deeper into the exhibit comes Thursday, when artist Willie Cole, whose triptych "Man, Spirit, and Mask" is hanging in the show, talks about his work at the museum. Cole uses the image of a steam iron to explore the ideas of black servitude, branding and deliberate scarification among African tribes.
"But it's cranked up a notch higher and made even more articulate by his actually having burned the paper to do this," Goddard says of the printing process of applying lemon juice and then torching it. "I don't think that's just facile or clever. I think it's a way of being very consistent in what he's doing."
The exhibit was on display Oct. 25 through Jan. 22 at the Salina Art Center. It remains on view through April 4 in the Spencer's Kress Gallery.