MEMORY AND NARRATIVE
My initial inquiry was whether or not family based images could communicate a consistent message to an audience with shared semiotic systems and codes. In my journal I have written about issues such as "the importance of forgiveness and compassion in the on-going survival of the family unit" and "the experience of trust and closeness in the family and its impact on the development of a person". I wanted the artworks created from the slides to convey meaning to the viewer of deeper issues beyond the two-dimensional, static image depicted, in this case the original snapshot, by the addition of metaphoric layers.
As I began to experiment with creating artworks that used the "family" as subject matter in a narrative autobiographical context, I became more convinced that it was a pathway for meaningful communication across a range of media. This contention recognises that the definition of family in contemporary terms is shifting and negotiable, evident in today's broken, re-welded, composite, extended, non-traditional or same sex partnerships that have for some become equally valid, fulfilling and meaningful family contexts. The definition of "family" is elusive in current psychological texts, and even traditional sources such as dictionaries describe a variety of domestic arrangements under the heading family. I have defined the family as an individual's historical primary relationships, in order to provide a framework within which to develop my theory on my current studio practice.
As time has passed, and I have been able to see my childhood era in terms of social history. I have begun to see that the stories I tell myself about my past defines my perception of who I am today; my identity or self. I believe that the realms of memory, recollection, narrative and story telling can be a powerful vehicle for transposing meaning into my current life. In turn I believe that these stories have the potential to become parables and myths for others to reflect on and may add meaning to their lives.
Although our memories lack in accuracy (Neisser & Fivush, 1994, p. 4), individuals are free to re-sample their past and re-construct events as their needs and emotions shift in the present. Remembering enriches our daily lives, and "increases our intelligence and creativity by giving us access to the thousands of images and ideas that were once ours. It allows us to inhabit our lives more fully - to be present to the whole range of our experiences and not just dwell on the hotspots" (Houston, 1998, p. 95).
This perspective reinforces the assertion that stories are important, add to the richness of the fine weaving of experiences, and reduce the potential sense of isolation in today's socially dispersed cultures. Stories are capable of re-telling common truths about love, longing, fear and triumph, and also of elevating everyday experience to the realm of myth and legend. I believe that every social situation, from dealing with a bully, to the goal of the spiritual quest, has a story to engage, educate and enlighten us, in every culture and time across linguistic history. People derive meaning and value from the milestones in the various narratives, because they can relate to the emotion and significance in those moments, based on the experience of their own turning points. My own narrative, constructed and projected through my art practice, invites viewers to visit my past realities and interpret and apply the meaning they experience in the story to their own personal life journey.
Through the depiction of the narrative and of autobiographical imagery I intend to communicate meaning through the story. It is accomplished through visual metaphor, symbols, signs and representations. I have concluded that the success of the communication depends on the viewer sharing a visual language, as well as cultural conventions and history, with myself, the artist.
"From the first place of liquid darkness, within the second place of air and light, I set down the following record with its mixture of fact and truths and memories of truths and its direction always toward the Third Place, where the starting point is myth."
If I am looking for truth and fact in the family album, the recorded image presents a supposedly empirical record of my family history, and the state of the relationships and emotions within the family.
For instance, everyone seems very happy, everyone is smiling in hundreds of photographs throughout the collection of images (Fig. 1). Does this mean that we were in fact a happy family? Freud, who developed many psychoanalytic theories, compared memory and recollection to archaeology, "a science that retrieves genuine fragments from the past and constructs essentially valid scenarios of past events" (cited in Neisser, 1994, p.6). This likens recollection to peeling back layers of the present, to discover the truth about ourselves in our past, so we can better understand how we became the people we are today. Shotter states that "our remembering is, so to speak, 'embodied' within us as a part of who we are, rather than 'external' to us and dependent upon signs or representations" (cited in Barclay, 1994, p. 56). This echoes the positivist view that we can derive knowledge of independent material things from the appearances, or sense-data, which are directly present to perceptual consciousness. This would imply that I can accept the material photograph, in this case the family snapshot, as evidence of what is represented as "truth" or a valid interpretation of the past.
However, I have substantial experiential evidence that my family was not so happy, that we suffered common family ailments such as parental infidelity and separation (there is a gap in the slide collection at this point). The presentation of those hundreds of happy moments took me by surprise and I had difficulty in reconciling the evidence of the photograph with memories of my childhood experiences. These "discrepant memories" challenged me to re-evaluate the construction of my memories and renegotiate the construction of who I actually am today, based on those memories (Neimeyer & Metzler, 1994).
The discrepant memories confirm my belief that the term "historical fact" is an oxymoron. There is no questioning that past realities exist, yet interpretations of these events vary greatly from one individual to another. Extensive research has been conducted on the tension between objective or positivist historical facts, and the subjective or constructed representation of the individual telling the story. Veronica Tozzi, in Past Reality and Multiple Interpretations in Historical Investigation (1999), approaches the "enigmatic question of how must we approach a discipline that provides us with a great amount of information as well as multiple interpretations about the human past". She contends that history is more prone to be perceived as a philosophy or text, rather than as a science. She constructs an argument that logically unpicks the reading of history as fact, as follows:
This implies, not only that the historical text is a literary device, but also that the very past, as an effect of the narrativisation, is "invented and reinvented by every new narrative". I agree with this in that, as a visual artist, my artwork becomes a retelling and an opportunity to recreate the narrative of my autobiography. The artwork allows my invention to extend to my future, which can be seen as "not a static thing or a substance, but a configuration of personal events into an historical unity which includes not only what one has been but also anticipation of what one will be" (Polkinghorne, cited in Barclay, 1994, p. 56). In this way I can view my life as a ballad, or an epic poem that has yet to be concluded, and I am free to embellish my tale with colour and drama if it suits my present needs and my audience.
However, I will not fabricate without limits for the purpose of entertainment; my "self" must achieve legitimacy and integrity through the telling in order to apply deeper meaning to my current identity and the ongoing ballad of my expected future self. In this respect, my memories function to create a "protoself" which has the ability to improvise and "interrelate my thinking" (cognitive) "and feeling" (perceptual) "processes, which becomes intrapsychic", so that I can experience the wholeness of my self in the fullness of time (Barclay, 1994, p. 67). In this way I do not have to jettison discrepant memories; I can respond to them artistically in keeping with my present relative truth and self-view of my identity.
Therefore, it seems there is a middle ground between the constructivist assumption that "recollections change as people revise the past to satisfy their present concerns and reflect their current knowledge" (Bartlett & Mead, cited in Ross & Buehler, 1994, p. 206), and the positivist's assertion the "all memory is permanently recorded in detail, but that that information is not always readily available to the rememberer" (Loftus & Loftus, cited in Ross & Buehler, 1994, p. 207). The gaps in my memory about events and feelings in my family history certainly exist. I have documentary data and experiential data that do not totally agree, yet I am willing to allow my beliefs about the inherent good in my family to direct my speculation on the actual historical truth (Bellezza & Bower, 1981, cited in Ross & Buehler). In conclusion, I surmise that recall is a constructive process and my beliefs affect that process and my interpretation of remembered events.
The origin of an artist's experience begins with the self, and the accumulation of moments over a lifetime that contain inspiration for creating works of art. I believe that the importance of the expression of this inspiration is an essential aspect of the creative process in releasing ideas. Memory is essential in facilitating the expression of these artistic ideas, and the exploration of our "remembered selves" (Vytogsky, cited in Fivush, 1994). The recorded images in my family album encapsulate these memories, and heighten their importance as nostalgic nerve-centres for my psyche.
I believe that our autobiographies are self-definingl, and are canonical in that they give a particular form and meaning to our lives. Fivush continues to comment:
Specifically, narratives provide a linear and often causal structure to life events. Good narratives are not simple chains of actions following an arbitrary temporal order; narratives are emotionally meaningful, causally connected sequences of actions that provide both temporal and evaluative cohesion to life events. Particular events become important parts of our life story because they provide some meaningful information about who we are, and the narrative forms for representing and recounting these events provide a particular structure for understanding and conveying this meaning. It is the evaluative and emotional aspects of life stories that link these experiences to the continuously developing sense of self.(1994, p.135)
As an artist, recollection for me is a self-reflexive process and new memories are created in the remembering. The more I remember, the more I reflect, and the inspiration for creating artworks continues. Also, recollection allows me to maintain intimate relationships with others, such as parent-child and brother-sister relationships. Whether they are living or dead, distant or near, I can engage in collective and interactive remembering with them (Barclay, 1994). Even though my father is no longer alive, I am continuing, and renegotiating, my relationship with him in a concrete and tangible way through my art, just as I am renegotiating my identity as I interact with my memories.
I have discussed the relative nature of truth in personal history, and have concluded that as memory shifts, so does my current experience of myself, and my identity. My perspectives alter daily, based on the information I receive, and the events around me. However well-founded in socially established family traditions, my identity will never be fixed and predictable.
One of these family traditions can be the family photo album. The recorded image, which includes the photographic, cinematic and digital, freezes and preserves moments, memories, sounds, and personal interactions and reactions. Recorded images do not depict a singular truth, but an avenue through which to explore an artist's autobiography. Many people have access to photographic images of their early family life; they are usually treasured and anchor us in our family traditions and values. I have found that I measure myself against these images with my own grown-up family, and make judgements about how I am doing, compared to my parents. I have noticed that many people behave as their parents did, for better or worse, and find it difficult to break free of their family-based constructed values. I believe that our inheritance of social conventions, belief systems and values are facilitated and perpetuated by the recorded image, and this can make it more difficult to escape the boundaries, and re-create ourselves as individuals beyond our family, even if one is dislocated from his or her native culture, as I am, halfway around the world.
In pre-photographic times, many people's childhood memories must have slipped into oblivion. It is generally accepted that memory is enhanced by the recorded visual image (Albright, 1994). Images that present an emotionally powerful signifier are more evocative and therefore more memorable. When the images are of significant family members who shaped our lives, they are loaded with meaning and significance.
Research has shown that non-literate societies have a tendency to experience more examples of amnesia, where prior events that "contradict current ideas and values are either erased from the collective memory or altered so as to be consistent with present understandings" (Ross & Buehler, 1994, p.205). This research highlights the records of British officials working in recently colonised non-literate societies. Over a sixty year period records show discrepant memories from one generation to the next, based on the current political needs of the group in question. The foundation of memory in language systems and codes accounts for "infantile amnesia", where a person cannot recall early childhood events (Albright, 1994). Albright continues, "a few people, including Salvadore Dali ...claim to remember experiences before they were born; and, with the popularity of the sonogram, [he expects] fetal life to become increasingly memorable - photography is an immense aid to memory" (ibid., p.27). He also states that early childhood is a "juvenile senility, Alzheimer's other disease, a frustrating inconsequential nearly meaningless set of stray impressions" (ibid., p. 26). As I look through the family photographs, I have this experience, and most vividly recall threshold moments, such as my first day of school, or emotional events such as being bullied. The album becomes a comfort that affirms my existence where my memory fails me, building bridges between remembered events and moments.
Our parents give us our language systems, and have a definite influence on how we remember. This develop-mental perspective of semiotic codes and systems adds to our understanding of how we construct our memories and learn "culturally appropriate narrative forms for recounting the past" (Fivush, 1994, p. 136), and reiterates Neisser's claim that "remembering is a skill, first learned by young children in social settings", and "memory is where social constructionism and de-velopmental psychology meet" (Niesser. p.11). With the introduction of the family photograph album, parents pass on skills and tools for remembering visual codes. It also gives parents great power over what is remembered, in their role as photographer and editor of what was captured for the albums. Hence, we rarely see family arguments or unhappy moments in photograph albums (Fig. 2). The parent has supreme authority in interpreting the past, which will always be more influential than "a therapist as an adult" (Neisser. p.12). This assertion focuses on the parent's privileged position in perpetuating understandings about a child's past, in my case via the family album.
An extension of the written literate society is a visually literate society that is capable of deciphering the semiotic codes and signifiers in a visual image as well as text. Today, western society is highly skilled in the art of reading images (Fig. 3), due to the quantity of commercial marketing, advertising and popular visual culture we are subjected to through the media. For example, in the detail of Traces, I provide several references in the subject matter to my American heritage: the map, toys, shoes and girl scout uniforms. The juxtaposition of these elements create referents to the experience of my narrative. The hands are feeling the past, including objects and memorabilia and photographs. These feelings are synesthetically interpreted in the textures and colours within the painting .
I would like to comment on the issues photography has created since its invention regarding the question of historical truth in documentary evidence in the context of fine arts. The winter 2000 edition of Aperture magazine featured an article on William Henry Fox Talbot, an "Englishman who dabbled in botany, chemistry, mathematics, ...ancient languages, ...and almost as an afterthought, invented photography." The article focuses primarily on the technological changes in the practice of art, and the challenges to the traditional framework of fine arts and the "authenticity of the art object". In discussing the technological advances inherent in the photographic media, a quote from Paul Valery (from The Conquest of the Ubiquitous, 1928), foreshadows the impact of photography on our social values and beliefs. He states that "we must expect great innovation to transform the entire technique of the arts, thereby affecting artistic invention itself and perhaps even bringing about an amazing change in our very notion of art" (Valery, cited in Aperture, 2000). From this early point in the age of photography, these thinkers were forecasting the impact of a new technology and of how it might transform the way that society would see itself and others. This reference does not include discussion of the family album, but it is obvious that it is a good example of a subject (family member) being given a visual method by which they can observe themselves and their environment, and examine the cultural context in which they are living and operating as a social being, in the past or present tense.
The ability to miniaturise one's familial existence to a book makes it much easier to analyse. This smaller, more private view of the family in the album is commented on by Susan Stewart in On Longing. She says "the photograph as souvenir is a logical extension of the pressed flower, the preservation of an instant in time through a reduction of physical dimensions and a corresponding increase in significance supplied by means of narrative" (1996, p.138). Although the photograph loses its connection in real time with the viewer and is "a mere representation of the original", in this case an adult who cannot even remember the holiday being depicted, the significance is still powerful and induces nostalgia. The souvenir becomes important beyond its material worth; it is a memento which has the capacity to become "emblematic of the self's capacity to generate worthiness" (ibid., p. 138). If these family photos are understood to be "worthless", it would undermine the identity of the self remembering the family history. Therefore we give great emotional, if not material value to these souvenirs that promise, and "yet [do] not keep the promise of, reunion" (ibid., p.138). This seems to be the ultimate goal of the memento; that we can, perhaps, be magically transported back to that family holiday, that day with Dad at the beach. That I can magically re-experience eating ice cream at Revere Beach when I was three (Figure 4), or the hundreds of other moments photographed throughout my childhood. These moments are so wrapped in significance in the miniaturised world of the photograph album that we forget about the question of reality, we just want to swim in the sweet ocean of feelings we experience in the nostalgia. To create works of art from these images (Figure 5) multiplies the significance, creating a temple shrine devoted to the nostalgia and the impossibly sweet reunion with our memories and our past.
In conclusion, I have discovered that the family album has allowed me to remember, reconstruct and evaluate the framework of the cultural values and belief systems within which I was raised. I have also established that recording enables a greater capacity for a shared visual language as cultural products in the family albums. I have also examined my role as an editor of my past, just as my parents were an editor of what I would be allowed to remember, by their control over what was photographed. I have also recognised that I can and do remember moments that serve to add cohesiveness and stability to my sense of self and identity. But I have also achieved a new understanding of the power I have as a conscious individual to not slavishly adopt my clichÃ©d photographed past with its associated values, but to select those that will make me a better person today and in the future. This power extends to the responsibility I have as a parent in teaching my child skills in selecting his methods for remembering, and the style in which I deliver my storytelling about his past and our collective family past. Neisser writes "parents cannot help interpreting the world for their children; indeed they must do so if culture is to be transmitted to the next generation" (1994, p.12). In Figure 4 and 5, I am connecting the image from the album with my artistic interpretation of the memory. I have edited the image to what is most important to my current identity on the day I created the image; the memory of my grandmother and I eating the ice cream (Fig.5). The hand nudges the memory, while my current self flies overhead, in a state of metacognition of the memory construction.
"When we speak of a canvas of Picasso, we never say that it is arbitrary; we understand quite well that he was making himself what he is at the very time he was painting, that the ensemble of his work is embodied in his life."
I have learned that in the act of making autobiographical artworks, I am allowing an emotional self to express deeper non-linguistic responses to my memories. I acknowledge that I have edited my memories for the viewers of my artworks and play a part in shaping their subjectivity. I also acknowledge that on any given day, depending on my mood I select different memories to explore for my artwork, whether or not it is family based or autobiographical. As T. S. Eliot said in his Ph.D. dissertation, "...the soul is, in fact, the whole world of its experience at any moment, and furthermore, the soul varies continually with its experience", and "I am always turning into someone else" (cited in Albright, 1994, p. 30). I have discovered that my remembered self is not linear, but "a matrix ramifying backward in all directions, a garden of forking paths that converge in the present" (Albright, p. 31). I have discovered that I am perfectly healthy, being neither neurotically rigid about my definition of "self" or so fluid that I border on a multiple personality disorder. I have also learned not to define my self to myself, as it can create a "potential prison which will inhibit my self-development" (ibid. p. 31).
I have noticed that memory makes me both a "spectator and an actor" (Borges, cited in Albright, 1994, p.35), and when applied to creating works of art, my self as subject becomes an object. When I paint a portrait of myself and my family in a distant, dislocated past time, I feel I am watching the movie of my life. I am constructing the view I wish others to perceive about my life. I am the baby, the child, the girl scout, the teenager of the seventies, the university art student, and so on until I meet my current self. I am exploring those selves while I share them with an audience, not at all unlike an actor. I am attempting to explain to my audience how I arrived at being the self I project to them as a living breathing person, not as a painting or collage.
But unlike acting, the art object once created is fixed and invites analysis, while the self continues to shift, defying study and analysis. I have frozen a vision of my self that is an aggregate of "me's, the totality of all the predicates that have gathered themselves around the rememberer, the I" (Albright, 1994, p.35). Albright continues to say that
...all models of the self derived from portraiture, sculpture or photography are misleading, because an image can be treated as a genuine object. But the remembered self can never be opaque as a scientist would like; instead of remaining fixed in one place as a sensible thing, susceptible to study and analysis, the remembered self is disturbingly translucent (1994, p.35).
I would like to think that my remembered self is an object, because then I could control it, I would have power over it, I could manipulate it. But like the illusion of reality that the painting is, the self as an object is equally illusionary. It occurred to me that I could demonstrate the indefinable nature of my remembered self, and my lack of control over it, by painting the same autobiographical image every year for the next ten years. Using metaphoric layers in these images would reinforce the description of the remembered self, "since memory itself is only a metaphor, a dim surrogate for past time that can never be recovered, never embodied, never made to sit still" (Albright, 1994, p. 39) (Fig. 6).
Figure 6 shows four paintings that explore specific events in my memory. The vertical formats induce a feeling of falling, reinforced by the striations within in the mark making, which invokes a lack of a stable viewpoint. They do not present any facts beyond the reactions I experienced while viewing my source of motivation, which was the photograph. I am not attempting to recover the past or embody it; I am responding to it. This entails an objectification of internal thoughts and emotions. Objectification is defined as "the process of making private feelings public... and made available for the consumption of others", and subjectification as "the process of internalisation whereby objectified feelings are assimilated by the person", in my case, the artist (Obeyesekere, cited in Barclay, 1994, p. 59). It is through this transactional process that my historical culture will not only be preserved but created and perpetuated. In addition, it is essential in encouraging the self-reflexive art making processes I have employed in this series of works.
I have realised that the goal of my creating works of art based on my autobiography is not to paint a history lesson but to facilitate my self-realisation. My painting speaks in the first person; this is my story, these are my people, this is the cultural language I have learned to communicate in; here are visual symbols for you to interpret about my life. As I create, I grow and learn about myself, in the full spectrum of time: who and where I came from, who and where I am now, and clarify where I wish to go and who I wish to become. This perspective is a luxury I gain through my art practice.
I realise that I am a product of my culture and now I am creating products of my identity. This in turn invents a new hybrid culture for my audience to view. I also realise that my intention to re-define myself and examine my culture is necessary for the process to occur, and be beneficial and effective. My aim is to understand my past self and transpose meaning to my present and future selves. I am aware that I am creating heirlooms (Fig. 7), loaded with family significance. Figure 7 is a detail from a painting that depeicts several photographs reworked from their original context through the screen printing process. The images are of tender and precious moments, where I detected an extra sense of contentment on the faces of the family members. I recognise that my urge to document my origins and my genealogy is a way of grounding myself in my culture and a way of creating a dialogue that explains my self, to myself and others. The art objects I am creating carry the narrative of the possessor; the artist, and perhaps a viewer who can find a common grain of personal truth in the experience of the artworks.
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