From Generation to Generation: Inherited Memory and Contemporary Art at the Contemporary Jewish Museum
Shotgun Reviews are an open forum where we invite the international art community to contribute timely, short-format responses to an exhibition or event. If you are interested in submitting a Shotgun Review, please click this link for more information. In this Shotgun Review, Carlos Kong reviews From Generation to Generation: Inherited Memory and Contemporary Art at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco.
Memories take no singular form. They exist simultaneously as the recollection of thoughts, sensations, and experiences. They stay alive in feelings and as images. That we even remember events not necessarily experienced by us is designated by the term postmemory, which forms the organizing concept of From Generation to Generation: Inherited Memory and Contemporary Art, co-curated by Pierre-François Galpin and Lily Siegel at the Contemporary Jewish Museum.
Theorized by Columbia University professor Marianne Hirsch, postmemory connotes the memories a latter generation maintains in relation to the events and traumas that preceded it. Emergent from Holocaust studies, postmemory frames the process by which experiences that are so affective and beyond resolve become transferred across generations as memories. Without their direct encounter, such memories are inherited through family stories and gifted objects, and might manifest in imaginations, specters, and projections. Postmemory presumes the ethical commitment of addressing the past as well as the educational responsibility necessary for its persistence in the present. Traversing various styles and media, the artists in From Generation to Generation—from Europe, the Americas, Asia, and Africa—draw forth the inheritance of memory as contemporary art’s antidote to amnesia.
What unites the aesthetically and geographically divergent works is their investment in the affective power of (art) objects as bearers of memories. In Silvina Der-Meguerditchian’s photographic tapestries Families I and II (2013), found photographs of Ottoman Armenian families serve as records of a population prior to its persecution and genocide. The artist digitally printed, laminated, and wove the photographs together with fellow expatriated Armenians using a knitting technique the artist learned from her Armenian grandmother, who fled the Ottoman Empire to Argentina. The stories preserved in objects and reanimated through artistic labor form diasporic communities held together as inherited memories that are continually interwoven.
At the center of the exhibition is Chikako Yamashiro’s video, Your Voice Came Through My Throat (2009). The Okinawan-born artist interviewed elderly survivors of the 1944 Battle of Saipan, and their agonizing testimonies form the soundscape of the video. Framed as an extended close-up shot, the artist mouths the testimonies and cries directly into the camera. Oral history thus becomes audiovisually reenacted as the horrors of war are relayed into the museum space. The mimetic relation between the veteran testifiers and Yamashiro as witness is performatively doubled: The artist testifies and the viewer bears witness to the unbearable histories that emerge as voices of the past come through to the present.
As viewers of contemporary art, our call to witness historical traumas and inherit their memories is the most exigent and connective experience of From Generation to Generation.
From Generation to Generation: Inherited Memory and Contemporary Art will be on view through April 2, 2017.
Carlos Kong is an art historian and writer. He is from San Francisco and lives in London and Berlin.