We're working on a reminiscence project alongside Gallery Oldham, devising new ways of working with reminiscence boxes. A reminiscence box is typically filled with themed objects dated to within living memory, which are used to help older people remember the past.
But boxes of memorabilia aren't just the territory of museums. For the last century or so, artists have used objects, especially boxed objects, as a tool for creative expression, alchemising powerful and subtle associations, often out of bric-a-brac. Perhaps the the most famous of these boxmakers is Joseph Cornell, whose cabinet works contain toys, photographs, pages from books, newspaper articles, star charts and a tiny world of personal icons.
Cornell has been a touchstone for us, in thinking about the boxed memory. But there are many other box makers too, in fact some of the most famed Western artists of the last 100 years – Marcel Duchamp with his museum in a valise, for example. And speaking of Duchamp, there are the artists who use 'found' objects as their art. Duchamp is the grandaddy of all this, with his bicycle wheels and bottle racks. Joseph Beuys used fat and felt to reconstruct the memory-sense of his wartime aircrash and rescue as a Luftwaffe pilot in Russia. And what about Susan Hiller and her cabinets of bottles of holy water? Then there's Damien Hirst with his medicine cabinets – initially a portrait of his dad, made by gathering his father's prescription medicine packaging. And Mike Kelley with his installations of bedraggled toys – measuring too many love hours to ever count.
There's another strand that has come into the weave – writers. In the 20th century the idea of trying to write a whole life in all its minute detail was revisited many times. The trail starts with Proust, who famously begins his epic account of the memory-self with the taste of childhood – a Madeleine cake. This one prompt is the first step of a huge novel of numerous volumes full of interior echoes among which the reader begins to lose their own lifetime, In Search of Lost Time. (I was told of one reader who, unable to stand any more Proust, took the book outside and beat it with a stick.) Proust hid himself in a draped room, turning away visitors, turning in towards himself, hopelessly pursuing the taste of the Madeleines like Hansel and Gretel following their lost breadcrumb trail.
Ezra Pound also attempted to write his life in the equally enormous, erratically brilliant Cantos that dwarfed other comers in 20 Century poetry. Building a maze of literary, historical and personal allusions, Pound erected a monument to remembering as complex as a synaptic map. Pound bumped up against many of the greatest artists and poets of the 20th Century (Joyce, William Carlos Williams, Yeats, Jacob Epstein, for starters) peregrinating across the US and Europe. In trying to make his 'poem containing history' he asserted his will onto the flow of the world, but it refused to change course for him. Like Proust he also lost grip on his own present while mythologising his life – and became further derailed by his belief in fascism, which cost him imprisonment and breakdown.
Pound's self-myth segues into Derrida's writing on the function of memory – and his speculation that it is there not as a documentary of the past, but to feed our self-made myths of identity. Memory is the ash of the past, burned to nought and unavailable except as the tall tales we tell ourselves. Adjacent to Derrida is Wittgenstein and his thinking around private language – his sense that a language shaped wholly for our own experience can never fit onto the tongue.
Lyn Hijinean has more recently collapsed her life story into a written sequence, far more modest than Pound's grandiloquence, but penetrating and haunting, her life rewritten as she ages, each time growing more lines to accommodate the growing number of years – and the sentcent scencetense seentun sentences reformulated in an argot that hints at Wittgenstein. Interestingly, her work reads to me a little like the conversations I've had with people who have to reinvent what it means to remember through the filter of dementia.
Proust is interested in what it is that makes memory arrive – the Madeleine that fires up recollection. It's the same impulse that Cornell plays with in his magical evocations of the ballerinas and opera and filmstars who he obsessed over, unable to possess them, only to attempt to divine their aura. How to make them come alive, for him? And Beuys with his heaps of fat and felt, who somehow hopes to spark within us an idea of his history.
We too are trying to spark associations from those who use the boxes we make – and that is why we're looking further afield than museums and reminiscence experts for our ideas. Because art is one of the most powerful conduits we have into the past – and that is where we must travel, both to celebrate it and to leave it behind us.