From Generation to Generation: Inherited Memory and Contemporary Art at the Contemporary Jewish Museum explores Marianne Hirsch’s work on “postmemory,” which posits that even without direct experience, we identify so strongly with some historic events and ancestral stories that we take them as our own. Hirsch’s work and the exhibition examine the role of imagination within memory and the way that it shapes contemporary identity. In a dramatic range of striking works by twenty-four artists, the exhibition invokes the trauma of wars, genocides, and injustices from around the world, while also heralding many forms of resistance. Underlying the exhibition’s conceit, many works create speculative collisions of time and place that position historic moments within the present, moving beyond memorializing to making history resonate in today’s world.
Born in 1944, near the end of World War II, and informed by his father’s stories of being a Ukrainian Jew hiding from the Gestapo, Christian Boltanski has spent his career exploring the Holocaust. In Scratch (2014), the artist presents yearbook photographs of smiling children from a Jewish school in Berlin, many of whom were likely Holocaust victims. The shape of Boltanski’s work is suggestive of a figure; ten images are arranged in a vertical rectangle, topped with a centered image of a single face. A column of empty black frames in the middle creates a void that alludes to the incompleteness of his work, a subtly powerful indication that there are more children than are pictured. This dark column also implicates the viewer’s presence, such that with no faces pictured, one’s own image is reflected in the glass and surrounded by the children of the Holocaust.
Resonating with Boltanski’s work is the nearby piece by Hank Willis Thomas, Amelia Falling (2014). Here, Thomas appropriates Spider Martin’s 1965 photograph of Amelia Boynton—a leading figure in the march from Selma to Montgomery during the Civil Rights Movement—after she was brutally beaten by police officers on Bloody Sunday. In Amelia Falling, the artist has reprinted this iconic image onto a mirror, making viewers present in the work through their reflected image. In looking at the photograph of Boynton, a historic image that the world witnessed through pictures, viewers also confront themselves. Thomas creates a form of pictorial time travel, where the past and present collide, making all of us witnesses to history.
Nao Bustamante also references pioneering women in Kevlar Fighting Costumes (2015), which pays homage to Las Soldaderas, a group of women resistance fighters during the Mexican Revolution (1910–20). Bustamante reimagines these women’s tailored dresses with their pleats and puffy shoulders using Kevlar, a modern fabric used to make bulletproof vests. As dresses, Bustamante’s costumes bely gendered notions of combat gear; some Soldaderas unabashedly challenged gender norms in taking up arms, even cross-dressing at times to do so. By framing her work as costumes, Bustamante suggests that Las Soldaderas were playing roles that are as relevant today as they were a hundred years ago. With Bustamante’s material transformation, she seems to travel back in time to provide Las Soldaderas with the protection of modern technology. Or perhaps Las Soldaderas have traveled to the present—continuing their battle for justice and gender equality—and the artist has equipped them with modern protection for today’s fighting. Bustamante’s proposition suggests that as we care for our ancestors, our ancestors cared for us.
In Fabio Morais’ Bandeira (Flag) (2012), the artist draws upon Brazil’s protests against the country’s military dictatorship (1968–85). Morais presents a flag with photographs of funerals printed on both sides. On one side, Bandeira memorializes the funeral of Edson Luís de Lima Souto’s, a student the military killed at point-blank during Brazil’s 1968 democracy protests. On the opposite side, the artist prints an image of the services for Tancredo Neves, who in 1985 was the country’s first democratically elected president. Morais compresses time symbolically, in the form of a flag, where two funerals bookend Brazil’s seventeen-year fight for democracy—which, with the 2016 impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff, continues to be tested to this day.
The show explores the speculative aspects of memory most directly in a science-fiction thread of works, like Rä di Martino’s diptych, Every World’s a Stage (Beggar in the Ruins of the Star Wars) (2012). In this work, the artist revisits the Tunisian site where Star Wars (1977) was originally filmed. For the film, the crew constructed adobe homes modeled after the region’s traditional architecture for Luke Skywalker’s home planet, Tatooine, which they left behind after filming, and which local residents repurposed as their own dwellings. Di Martino presents two photographs of a beggar with the Star Wars set in the background. The artist documents the poverty in the area, which was most likely present during the filming but not included in the popular Star Wars narrative that was burned into the imaginations of fans around the world. The Star Wars set has become a living stage, and di Martino alludes to the tangled web of historic, futurist, real, and imaginative layers of memory in this work.
While many of the works in Generation to Generation speculate on memories and history, both gravely solemn and fantastical, the exhibition also alludes to immigration, diasporic identity, and global identities and places. In invoking wars, genocides, and injustices from around the world, this show could not be more timely, as the U.S. and world appear to be pursuing a more isolationist stance to conflict resolution and immigration—specifically in regard to the Syrian refugee crisis and Mexican immigration. In addition, the exhibition honors the resistance and protest of the Civil Rights movement, Las Soldaderas, and the Brazilian democratic movement, among others. These historic forms of resistance poignantly reverberate with the Black Lives Matters movement and with the protests that will be staged across the U.S. in response to the impending Trump administration. This show draws upon history to remind us that we are part of a continuum where our actions will become the history that future generations will inherit—both our tragedies and our models of resistance.
From Generation to Generation: Inherited Memory will be on view at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco through April 2, 2017.