Contested Memory by Michaela Crimmin


‘It is through returning to past histories that pulls the past into the present and begins a new conversation.’


In looking at the work produced for Sites of Collective Memory, Jimmie Durham’s Humanity is not a completed project, produced in 2006, came immediately to mind. Employing the simplest of means, the words hand written for an exhibition poster and with a hand-drawn barcode beneath them, the artist comments on a past that begs a better future. Confronting and rethinking the complexity of the contexts and issues of former events is at the heart of work by Gustav Metzger, Willie Doherty, Rabih Mroué, Steve McQueen, Emily Jacir and Krzystozof Wodicsko among so many artists. Joined now by this new work, there is an extraordinary and steadily growing canon of art that is, as Durham says of his own approach, primarily investigative in intent. Artists addressing the unfinished business of how histories are formed, distorted, retold, amended, disturbed, and constantly re-presented afresh.

2014, marked by the swathe of World War 1 commemorative events and projects, proceeds against the background of the constant drumbeat of current wars, from the Central African Republic to the battles in Syria and Iraq; the ongoing Israel-Palestinian conflict; the situation in Egypt, Afghanistan and Palestine, each of which could tip in any direction; the killings and persecution in South Sudan, Waziristan and Ukraine. It is therefore not surprising that the subject of ‘collective memory’ should be infused by the artists in Sites of Collective Memory with such a significant focus on conflict, and a refusal to let certain events and injustices be airbrushed from history or told from a hegemonic perspective. In the presentation of new commentaries on the humanity and the inhumanity that inevitably feature in the responses to a traumatic event, or the treatment of a marginalised culture, each artist presents fresh takes on the subject of remembrance, using the extraordinary richness not only of film, but the reach that technology enables.

Historically events, including conflicts, have been memorialised in bronze or stone, such as Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington and Charles Sargeant Jagger’s Royal Artillery Memorial at Hyde Park Corner. Given that memory is almost always contested, these are exceedingly fine and incredibly well known examples of remembrance that eschew a single viewpoint, a hero or a victory, but instead portray conflict as imbued with something of the lost, rather than the gained or trumpeted over. There is no sentimentality in the work, and most importantly there is no preaching. Remember the famous sentence of Harold Pinter’s, written in praise of Samuel Beckett: ‘I don’t want philosophies, tracts, dogmas, creeds, ways out, truths, answers, nothing from the bargain basement.’ Such is the quality of the best of art, that it ducks the easy response, leaving moralising and answers to others. The films in Sites of Collective Memory present no finite solutions. Yet they are moving, revealing, tantalising, and an open-ended prompt for discussion, with the ambiguity that despots, bigots and the people who see the world in black and white find so profoundly irritating.

It is through returning to past histories – the use of the atom bomb, the effects of a terrorist attack, slavery, the designation of a group of people as inferior to ourselves – that pulls the past into the present and begins a new conversation. So it is that when Willie Doherty, who has lived in Derry for his entire life, produces work about the Troubles, or Larissa Sansour as a Palestinian, references the Settlements, there is a new perspective. Doherty’s empty roads and bridges trigger an unsettling confusion of emotion. He wrong foots a viewer’s preconceptions and undermines any lazy stereotyping. Sansour’s satirical imaginings of the Occupied State of Palestine reduced to a single building in her film Nation Estate, almost unawares has us reconsidering the injustice of their situation, yet without sinking into a maudlin helplessness.

Even with John Berger’s caution in his seminal book Ways of Seeing, the heavy cloud of anesthesia can too easily be enveloping in the daily confrontation of the countless images of ruins, crying children, limbless bodies, victims – the spectacle of conflict and persecution – fed through by the media. Art has the capacity to closes the gap between these so-remote individuals and places, and more secure lives led. It is a tough call to encourage people to ponder the personal and collective devastation wrought by the bomb on Hiroshima; or the genocide of the Roma of Southern Poland and their ongoing maltreatment; or the trauma of the 7/7 London bombings. Yet art is an enticement and in these four films you suddenly realise you have been pulled into other worlds and other lives, and that although the events portrayed are appalling, their impact on the individuals portrayed devastating, yet there is so much that is unexpectedly positive. Of course ‘Project Humanity’ will never be completed. There is no chance that Jimmie Durham and John Berger’s wisdom will become redundant. And yet art never leaves you wallowing. There is the sheer pleasure of possibility.


Michaela Crimmin is co-director of Culture+Conflict; a tutor and research associate at the Royal College of Art; and an independent curator.