Facing memories that are not ours, dealing with Postmemory
Interview with Pierre-François Galpin
According to Dr. Marianne Hirsch postmemory is “the relationship that the ‘generation after’ bears to the personal, collective, and cultural trauma of those who came before—to experiences they ‘remember’ only by means of the stories, images and behaviors among which they grew up. But these experiences were transmitted to them so deeply and affectively as to seem to constitute memories in their own right.”
Through their work, the twenty four international artists in this exhibition search, question, and reflect on the representation of truths related to ancestral and collective memory—ultimately attempting to deal with their own past. They remember and recall stories that were never theirs and assemble them in a variety of media to be seen, heard, and experienced by others. At once intimate and shared, the memories they work with are second-hand experiences, culled from a photograph they saw, or a story they heard, or even a once subconscious memory. The artists are secondary witnesses to the past events they use in their works, and it is precisely this distance in time and space that allows them to offer powerful narratives open to a wide range of interpretation and expression.
The exhibition is co-curated by CJM Assistant Curator Pierre-François Galpin and independent curator Lily Siegel.
Working in a variety of media the artists featured are:
Christian Boltanski, Nao Bustamante, Binh Danh, Silvina Der-Meguerditchian, Bernice Eisenstein, Eric Finzi, Nicholas Galanin, Guy Goldstein, Fotini Gouseti, Ellen Harvey, Aram Jibilian, Loli Kantor, Mike Kelley, Lisa Kokin, Ralph Lemon, Rä di Martino, Yong Soon Min, Fabio Morais, Elizabeth Moran, Vandy Rattana, Anri Sala, Wael Shawky, Hank Willis Thomas and Yamashiro Chikako
Pierre-François Galpin talked to Eleni Zymaraki Tzortzi.
E.Z. The exhibition’s point of departure is the concept of postmemory as coined by Dr. Marianne Hirsch.
What was the curatorial vision when you first started to organize the exhibition along with Lily Siegel? Does the final outcome fulfill your vision?
The exhibition had multiple beginnings that felt like coincidences. I have always been interested in how stories are shared from a family member to another (older or younger), and how these memories stick, or don’t, on one’s mind.In the fall of 2014, I heard Dr. Marianne Hirsch speak at the University of California, Berkeley about her groundbreaking work on postmemory. This inspired me to research artists whose work dealt with inherited memory in a variety of contexts. Coincidentally, my colleague at the time Lily Siegel came back from a trip to Israel where she met with contemporary artists dealing with these same issues. The two of us started talking about these ideas by bringingartworks that we had on our mind relating to the topic of inherited memory, or memories that are not one’s own. We began withAnriSala’sIntervista, FotiniGouseti’sKalavryta project, and Guy Goldstein’s EidistEid, and went on nearly two years of research, studio visits, and conversations with artists, curators, historians, etc. While we were working on the catalogue, then installing the show, it felt like a great accomplishment of our initial vision for the show, most especially how the works installed next to each other instantly create a dialogue of very distinct voices in the gallery.
E.Z. What is the role of postmemory in terms of dealing with the past individually and collectively and especially with the traumatic events of the past?
In the context of the exhibition, we consider Dr. Hirsch’s definition of postmemoryas “the relationship that the ‘generation after’ bears to the personal, collective, and cultural trauma of those who came before—to experiences they ‘remember’ only by means of the stories, images and behaviors among which they grew up. But these experiences were transmitted to them so deeply and affectively as to seem to constitute memories in their own right.” Our interpretation of “inherited memory” gathers memories that are formed from familial stories, popular culture, history and literature, experiences, etc. Some of the artists in the exhibition have created works inspired by these postmemories, very often blending both personal and collective memory. Also, creating this exhibition at The Contemporary Jewish Museum lead us to research extensively worksin Holocaust Studies about the way this specific memory is passed down from parents to children. The title of the exhibition embraces an important phrase found in Judaism, l’dorvador—the call to pass tradition from one generation to another.
E.Z. Could you talk to us about your choice of the artists participating in this exhibition? What is the value of the postmemories shared and visualized by them?
Starting with a few artists and artworks that Lily and I had in mind, we expanded our research with conversations with other curators, historians, and artists, while also looking at past exhibitions and many books. We both wanted to build an exhibition gathering strong and powerful works, where each artist’s voice would be heard equally. We also wanted to represent a large range of histories at a global scale (we have twenty-four artists from twelve countries) as well as a diversity of medium: video, photography, textile, sound, sculpture, painting, etc. As we were researching and building the checklist, themes emerged from the artworks themselves and lead us to group some of the works in the gallery, not around the content of their memories (narrating a same historical event), but rather how they connect with each other through different common threads, such as they way they retell these memories or the materials they use. For instance: the use of found photographs in the works of BinhDanh, Fabio Morais, and Hank Willis Thomas; the exploration of ancestral history in the works of Eric Finzi, Yong Soon Min, and AnriSala; the representation of remains of memory in the works of VandyRattana and Lisa Kokin; or memories from a near-future in the works of Ellen Harvey and Rä di Martino.
E.Z. It has been pointed out that there is the risk for the “generation after” of appropriating postmemory for turning the attention to itself and not just sharing the memory;what is your opinion on this? Have you encountered such instances?
In repurposing past memories into works of art, the artists show how much memory is subjective and a constant work in progress. I think that the works in the exhibition not only share a story or a memory, but they also allow a time for reflection on what history is and who gets to tell or write them. Lily in her catalogue essay writes also about the responsibility that comes with using postmemories: “If [postmemory] is a space that still defies narrative reconstruction, there is just enough of an opening for imaginative investment. Memory often leads to myopia and self-possession, especially in the event of trauma. […] Postmemory allows for the indexicality to break down—first there is the memory, finally there is the physical manifestation of the memory as event, often a retelling. Here, instead of myopia, a space opens for empathy or, feeling with.” After the memory has been created and passed down to their generations, the artists create experiences to be felt by an audience. The artists are secondary witnesses to the past events they use in their works, and it is precisely this distance in time and space that allows them to offer modified narratives, and as I writesensory memories.
E.Z. What was the audience’s response to the postmemories “heard” in the exhibition? Do you believe that the people visited the exhibition so far managed to empathize with the artists’postmemory?
In my catalogue essay, I write about the multiple sensory experiences that the artists have created through their work. “Sensory experiences recall memory like no other medium. Taste, smell, hearing, touch, and sight are all avenues by which memories can be brought back to our minds. […] Although the works in From Generation to Generation are dealing with memories that belong to a past before the artists’ times, they become multisensory instruments of memory and meaning because of the potential impact they have on visitors’ senses.” While visiting the exhibition, the gallery becomes a space for multiple feelings while looking at, touching, or hearing the works: sadness, incomprehension, discomfort, compassion, or sometimes hope. Since most of the works deal with human history, often narrating traumatic events such as massacres, displacements, wars, but also some moments of triumph and reflection on heritage, they have a potential for empathy and introspection. Since the show opened in November, our visitors comments book is filled with notes that showcase all kind of feelings, at times praising some works in particular for sharing a story visitors never heard about, at other times re-stating the necessity to pass memories of struggle from a generation to the next, and finally some other times expressing distress on the state of the world’s violence. The artworks in the show prompt these feelings.
E.Z. What is the relation between postmemory and historical truth?
The relation between memory itself and historical truth is already complicated. Memories are very subjective and are different from a person to the next, depending also on their age or situation in life. Past memories as they are narrated in history books have a somewhat neutral tone, but they also are written by human beings, historians whom we have been trusting for decades, sometimes centuries. We rely on both this personal and collective knowledge to learn from the past. Postmemory complicates historical truth in that it allows for various expressions and interpretations, and an extensive imagination. The artists in the show use historical ‘facts’, gathered fromthe collective such as archives and books, to the personal such as family photo albums and stories told by ancestors, to create imaginative works of art. As Abby Smith Rumsey writes, “History is the best, if not the only way of understanding the full dimensions of human nature, because it is the record of all that we have been and done. We cannot unknow that past, let alone change it. But we can change its meaning to us, and by making it meaningful, we can find purpose and hope.” This is exactly what the use ofpostmemoryachieves: change the meaning of history and ‘truth’ from one person, the artist, to a multitude, visitors and beyond.
CJM, From Generation to Generation: Inherited Memory and Contemporary Art, https://www.thecjm.org/current_exhibitions
Marianne Hirsch, The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture After the Holocaust, 2012
 Lily Siegel, “The Presence of Memory,” in From Generation to Generation: Inherited Memory and Contemporary Art, 2016
 Pierre-François Galpin, “Memory as Sensory Material,” in From Generation to Generation: Inherited Memory and Contemporary Art, 2016
 Abby Smith Rumsey, “The Frames of Memory,” in From Generation to Generation: Inherited Memory and Contemporary Art, 2016