The Art of Memory

In Woody Vasulka’s The Art of Memory (1987) and Gary Kibbins’ Mead Lake (1992), the distance between the memory aids of Western Culture (photography, film and print mediums) and landscape is incommensurable. The Art of Memory is composed of a hypnotic flow of images of marching soldiers and faded anonymous portraits framed against the backdrop of the desert canyons of the American Southwest. Like the angel in Wim Wender’s Wings of Desire, a winged creature perched on a cliff presides over a visual eulogy for the ravages of twentieth-century European wars that so incongruously disrupts the sublime grandeur of the landscape. In Kibbins’ Mead Lake, an arcane linguistic deconstruction of a Globe and Mail article about Third World poverty takes place against the scenic backdrop of the Hoover Dam. Here desert canyons are transformed by a monumental man-made artifice and the clever obfuscation of rhetoric masks an economic disparity as vast as the dam itself. Just as the images in The Art of Memory mirror the great divide in industrial society between a culture of domination and a disavowal of nature, so the words in Mead Lake flail against the sheer presence of the dam and the acute absence of the visible traces of oppression.

In stark contrast to the above tapes, Inuit artist Arnait Ikkajurtigiit deploys a documentary simplicity in Qulliq and Starvation (1992) to communicate a symbiotic relationship between culture and nature, representation and experience. The camera as a recording tool of oral history and storytelling as a contemporary act of resistance are combined to create a compelling evocation of landscape as the source of remembrance. Conversely, Stuart Marshall’s Desire (1989) and Julien Samuel’s City of the Dead and the World Exhibition (1995) combine archival images and contemporary interviews to explore a landscape scarred by the memories of Europe’s fascist and colonial past. Set in the idyllic German countryside, Desire examines the complex intertwining of back to nature movements and homosexuality in the Weimar Republic and Nazism’s pathology of natural and unnatural sexual relations. City of the Dead is a wide-ranging visual essay about the violence of cultural dispossession that Europe inflicted on the Middle East in both its colonial settler policies and its Orientalist imaginary.

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