How have artists explored childhood memories and the complexities of recounting experience?
In this essay, I will explore the link between language and memory, and the memories of childhood by interviewing some immigrants from Czechoslovakia and looking at published sources.
This recalling of the past can be prompted by triggers such as a chance meeting, smell, sound or photograph, famously known as the Proustian moment, which occurred in the book "À la recherche du temps perdu," or "In Search of Lost Time" by Marcel Proust. Proust’s narrator recalls involuntary childhood memories that are triggered when he eats a madeleine cake dipped in tea.
Walter Benjamin said ‘True memory must always be involuntary’ I want to explore this statement alongside Joan Gibbons who stated
’Memory, of course, is inherently selective and there is a proven tendency to rework the original facts of an event or experience in a way that coheres around the wishes or values of the person remembering.’(Gibbon 2007 p12)
By having conversations and discussing events that happened many years ago that have not been talked about for a while, I’m hoping the memories of the immigrants will be revisited with fresh insight that will inform my sense of history.
I will do this by discussing memories of language as experienced by artist Tereza Stehikova, who came to live in London when she was 16. Tereza Stehlíková’s practice is concerned with film and she researches how the media can be used to communicate embodied memory.
I will also talk to the animator Peter Lang who came here in 1968 when he was 13 from Czechoslovakia, Peter Lang has worked on numerous Children’s TV series including Sesame Street, Ludwig and Pigeon Street.
Then I will speak to Eva Poole, who came to live here when she was 20 in 1968 (she is a retired BBC world service journalist). By focusing on creative people who spent their childhood in former Czechoslovakia, I aim to show their memories of being displaced.
I’m also looking at the work of Andre Tarkovsky, who was a Russian film director. He only made seven films but all his films have a poetic sense of memory, which he demonstrated by shooting long scenes. He famously said he wanted to sculpt time and that it was up to the viewer to work out the meaning for themselves.
Then I will look at the work of Anne Enright, an author who wrote a fictional account of looking back on childhood, Roland Barthes the French philosopher who wrote Camera Lucida, and at Naeem Mohaiemen, the British artist and film director who was shortlisted for the Turner prize in 2018, Mohaiemen investigates the histories of decolonisation and explores political utopias by rewriting memories. Drawing on autobiographical histories, he explores film archives and the way these archives can be lost, invented and retold.
Lastly, I’m discussing the film ‘Tonight the world’(2019) by the American artist Daria Martin whose practice addresses the internal and external, dreams, feminism, mythology and time.
It is this looking back and re-evaluating through the eyes of an adult that I’m particularly interested in, because I think this recalling gives you peace of mind. Andre Tarkovsky ( p.128) recalls how ‘Childhood memories which for years had given me no peace suddenly vanished, as if they had melted away, and at last, I stopped dreaming about the house where I had lived many years before when I finished making ‘The Mirror’.’
Dream sequence, ‘The Mirror’, (Tarkovsky 1975)
Louise Bourgeois also referenced childhood memory in 1974 with ‘Destruction of the Father’ in which she imagined cannibalising her father whom she feared. This Bourgeois found cathartic and it helped her face up to her fears and conquer them (Gibbons ( 2007, p16)
I’m doing this because I want to develop an understanding of how memory is portrayed in the times we live in and how reconnecting with memories from childhood helps you to see where you fit into the world, especially now that the world has changed so much since childhood.
Memories of Language
In the film Tripoli cancelled ( 2017) Mohaiemen N, there is a portion where the narrator recalls how his father ‘ spoke better English than the English’ and when I interviewed Naeem Mohaiemen at Tate Britain (Dec 2018) he commented that I was one of the few people who had picked up on this. I think this was because my mother used to say this and I used to repeat it to friends as a way of trying to gain acceptance for her as an immigrant.
When I interviewed the artist TeresaStehikova (2019), she said that she regrets not talking more to her daughter in Czech. Her daughter speaks only English as she was born in the UK. Teresa went on to say ’it’s almost like I can’t completely share myself with her.I connected strongly with this reflection because my mother only spoke English to me, and I have to rely on my Slovak relatives sharing their memories in English.
When I interviewed Peter Lang (2019) he said he speaks Czech when he goes to Prague but ‘they say its old fashioned, it reminds them off other times… and I look like an idiot.’
It is as though his language has frozen at the time that he left (in 1968) and as Tarkovsky said ‘These remembrances can run alongside the time of now’. Tarkovsky also said that all moments are ‘ co-equal.’ I think he meant that all the moments add up together to bring us to the present time and that all experiences are valid.
Involuntary Memory and Partial Memory -How do we remember?
As discussed, language is a strong identifier of who you are and maybe doesn’t need a visual stimulus because it is a sound. Photographs can facilitate visual memory and sometimes involuntary memory, but I think involuntary memories take us by surprise, so this happens more rarely. But photographs can also trigger partial memory as Roland Barthes states when recalling his mother ‘According to these photographs, sometimes I recognized a region of her face, a certain relation of nose and forehead, the movement of her arms, her hands. I never recognized her except in fragments ‘(Camera Lucinda p 65-68) and Ann Enright in her book ‘The Gathering’(2008) says
‘Some days I don’t remember my mother. I look at her photograph and she escapes me.’
These quotes show that while photographs record history, they don’t bring forward involuntary memories.
I think we remember events in fragments, as Enright also states while remembering her siblings
‘I remember Kitty’s hair rags, though I cannot, for the life of me, turn the memory of my sister around to look at her 6-year-old face. I cannot, for the life of me, remember Liam’s face, though I will never forget his nine-year-old hand touching Charlie's dead hand.’
I think even though memories inform your identity and sense of self they only tell half your story as some memories can be distorted, as mentioned at the beginning of this essay by Gibbons (2007). I think it is of paramount importance to have memories backed up by archival materials if you are to trust them, because then you can prove them.
The film ‘Memento’, which is about a man, called Leonard, who has anterograde amnesia, which is the inability to form new memories. He has no short-term memory so leaves notes to himself to remember. The film is cleverly shot by revealing bits of the plot backwards, so you have the confused feeling of not knowing what is happening, which was the director’s intent to build an understanding of the main character. The scenes shot in colour are in reverse order and the black and white scenes are in the order in which they occurred. He says ‘Facts are not memories, that’s how you investigate,….look, memory can change the shape of a room, they can change the colour of a car, memories can be distorted, they are just an interpretation, they are not a record and they are irrelevant if you have the facts.’ So during my research, I have become more aware of this and to accurately record memories it is helpful to have facts to back them up, such as photographs, objects which in turn facilitate and trigger partial and involuntary memories. For example, In Daria Martin’s film ‘Tonight the World‘ (2019) she has interpreted her grandmother, artist Susi Stiassni’s, diaries. Stiassni fled from former Czechoslovakia in 1938 due to the imminent invasion of the Nazis. She kept dream diaries over 35 years and she revisited her memories of her childhood in Brno through her dreams as she could not go back and visit due to exile.
Martin has reinterpreted five dreams from the diaries, which recall anxiety and intrusion, depicting a metaphor for intergenerational trauma, resilience, and loss. Four actresses play Susi and the sense of dislocation is apparent. According to Simon Ings (2019) ‘Now and again, points of view are established before the characters doing the looking step into the frame. It’s a neat trick and one that’s quite difficult to pull off: the same bit of film grammar Andrei Tarkovsky played with in The Mirror.’
When I watched the film, I had this same feeling, as it reminded me of Tarkovsky for this very reason and as Tarkovsky (Sculpting in Time p.57) stated ‘Time and memory merge into each other: they are like 2 sides of a medal. It is obvious enough that without time, memory cannot exist either … Bereft of memory, a person becomes the prisoner of an illusionary existence; falling out of time he is unable to seize his own link with the outside world, in other words he is doomed to madness. So Daria Martin has used the factual diaries of her Grandmother but distorted them for her practice.
I think events are remembered in fragments and, depending on how many years have past and your life experience to date, these fragments get moved around and restructured. As discussed with Peter Lang (2019), when he goes back to Prague his grasp of the language hasn’t kept up with modern times and these remembrances can run alongside the time of now. Tarkovsky also said that all moments are ‘co-equal.’ I think he meant that all the moments add up to bring us to the present time and we wouldn’t be who we are now without all of them.
Even though migration can be a difficult process to go through, it can also enrich one’s life and build up a person’s character.
Understanding how past involuntary and partial memories sit alongside each other informs my practice in ways that are unique to me but also have a collective feel of the immigrant’s story and histories of migration.
Peter Lang (2019) said ‘I don’t feel English …people realise that I’m not from here. I do feel that where you’re born it has nothing to do with you really, it was an accident, you do not have a say in that. There are some things that make me different because of that, I find patriotism and xenophobia have come very close to each other, I find pride in what people do around you very strange, I never expected to go back.’
Eva Poole (b.1948) a Czech immigrant who came to live in the UK in 1968 said it was easy for her to adapt to living in the UK as she was 18 years old and it was a different time then and everyone was friendly.
Daria Martin has interpreted her Grandmother’s dream diaries. Her grandmother wrote them as she could not go back and visit her birthplace as a way of remembering. By making these dream diaries into a film, Martin has attempted to give a voice to the displaced, not just by simply recalling her Grandmas dream diaries but giving them an unsettling, unreal sometimes silent atmosphere. When watching the film, I felt confused and felt I could only half grasp what Martin is trying to say before it moved onto the next frame. This I thought was because Martin not only wants to show the displacement and loss felt by her Grandmother but wants the viewer to feel it too
I want to show in my practice that everyone has, as quoted by Tarkovsky, ‘his individual stream of time’ which contains ‘dreams imaging’s , memories and even flashes of newsreels.’(Tarkovsky 1989, p.168)
Andrey Tarkovsky (1986) Sculpting in time, Reflections on the cinema. The Bodley Head Ltd.
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Hunter Blair, K. (2014) Tarkovsky: Artistic Kinship between Arsenii and Andrei ( 2014) Tate Publishing
Barthes R. (1980) Camera Lucinda Vintage Publishing
Enright A. (2008) The Gathering Vintage Publishing
Gibbons J. (2007) Contemporary Art and Memory Tauris & Co Ltd.
Ings S.(2019) Financial Times
Turovskaya M. (1989) Cinema as Poetry Faber and Faber Ltd.
Andrei Tarkovsky (2012) The Collector of dreams Layla Alexander-Garrett
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Daria Martin (2019) Tonight the World Barbican.
Andre Tarkovsky A ( 2014)
Streatfield (2018) conversation with Naeem Mohaiemen 3 Dec
Streatfield( 2019)Conversation with Tereza Stehikova. 31 Jan
Streatfield(2019) conversation with Peter Lang. 11 Feb
Streatfield(2019) Conversation with Eva Poole. 5 April
Streatfield(2019) Conversation with Gabriela Svidran. 1stFeb
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