Recorded Memories

The Historical Spaces of the Camera
Or Furnishing Fragments with a Narrative

A photograph looks out at us. Hundreds of pairs of eyes are fixed on the observer. But if we take a closer look, their gaze goes past us and roves around the room behind us, waiting expectantly to see what is about to happen at the moment the picture is taken. The installation by the Serbian artist Predrag Terzić makes use of a picture from the first half of the 1930s and opens up a photographic space of time that is rich in paradox. In the image, the group of people we see gathered there – they are all men – are still waiting for the arrival of the Serbian king Alexander I, the "unifier" of the southern Slavs. Transposed into the contemporary exhibition space and enlarged to life-size proportions, the old photo becomes an historical stage and we as spectators are included in a drama that enacts one of the key issues in Southeastern Europe in the twentieth century: the question of Yugoslavian national unity. We stare spellbound into eyes that look eagerly into the future with a sense of keen anticipation.

The seeming simplicity of certain titles and names may turn out to be deceptive: this exhibition is called Recorded Memories / Eingeschriebene Erinnerung and the succinctness of this title carries with it the idea that there is a substrate, a medium that can record memory or assimilate it. Photographic film (and in some ways too the memory chip of a digital camera) is, in fact, a sponge that soaks up the visible and traps it as the past. But memory is an organic process, one that is subjective and irrational, and far more complex than a simple matter of retrieving a stored past or pressing the shutter release button. Record!

The selection of artistic works in this catalogue gives substance to the proposition that the camera media of photography, film and video have a special relationship to the past and are important means of conveying individual rituals of remembrance and cultures of collective memory. Its recording "gaze" transforms the present into the past and yet a narrative is always needed to give these fragments a point of view. In this sense the artists are not far removed from historians, organising the sources from the past and translating them into a story.

This two-volume publication accompanies an exhibition with works by twenty-three artists from eleven countries in Southeastern Europe, a region in which the past with all its many conflicts and wars is still present. In the volume of texts, the various authors present versions of the culture of memory as well as the official policies of commemoration in the individual countries. The illustrated volume brings together artistic works that address various aspects of recollection, memory and commemoration and, beyond that, examines the different uses to which the camera can be put: as a device for producing matter-of-fact recordings or biographical accounts, for subjective documentation or historical analysis, or as a means to capture the vestigial traces of an action.

The Bulgarian photographer Nikola Mihov, to take one example, has a very different way of working from Predrag Terzić. For his series Forget Your Past he has made a record of the grand monument to the Bulgarian communist party on Mount Buzludja. Using precise architectural photography he scales down the massive volumes to the two-dimensional surface of his film, before hanging his work as a large framed panel in the exhibition space. This classical documentary approach can be set against the "refracted" view of Romanian photographer Iosif Király. His reconstructions of urban landscapes in upheaval are multi-perspectival images, space-time collages that convey the idea that there is no one single valid viewpoint and that perception (and also memory) is an extremely aleatory and subjective process. The Serbian artist Ana Adamović, by contrast, takes people into an abstract historical space of her own making. She has the members of a former children's choir strike up an old Yugoslavian song that they used to sing together in the days when the state still existed. Her video is a straightforward recording of this performance and as such it is also a de facto protest against the course of history– recording memories.

The thematic arrangement of the illustrated book acts as a guide and offers various perspectives from which one can view the works on display. Some approaches are defined by their theme, others by their artistic attitude and yet others by the act of reflecting on the medium they make use of; many of the works can be viewed from a variety of perspectives. The diversity of uses to which photography can be put only becomes evident when one takes a comparative overview of all the works on show here.

Perhaps it is the split-second fragmentariness inherent in the nature of photography and film that connects many of these approaches together in spite of their manifest variety and regardless of whether the artists are working with found images or using the camera to document and produce new images. The "fragment" of recorded reality is either the starting point for a wide range of artistic excavations of the past or the articulation of a perspective that sets up an opposing view to confront official historiographical interpretations.

If nothing else photography and film are always media of omission, of blank spaces, much like the description the Romanian artist Ştefan Sava gives to his work on the Holocaust. Referring to the philosopher Walter Benjamin he states that "the vanishing point of the past is to be found not in a long-ago yesterday, but in the present." And perhaps this is the reason why the eager pairs of eyes in Predrag Terzić's installation are still looking forwards.

I would like to thank all the artists and curators that I have met on my travels through the region, who have given me insights into their working methods and told me the history(-ies) of their countries from their perspective. I am especially grateful to Konrad Clewing, who has written an introduction to the recent history of the region as a guide for our readers and in the process provides us with the essential background knowledge that we need in order to view the images.

I would also like to express my gratitude to Nicola Reiter and Andrej Loll for their superb transposition of the photographs and text materials into book form. My thanks too to Manuel Reinartz for his work as technical producer, to Bernhard Tatter for designing the exhibition's mobile architecture and to Günter Cosmann for making it a reality. I am also grateful to Stine Brümmer for her hard work and dedication in setting up the exhibition.

I am above all indebted to Florian Ebner, who not only co-designed the project but was also a constant source of support. And a special word of thanks is due to Juliane Stegner, the book's editor and initiator of the exhibition, for the trust and confidence she has placed in me.

Constanze Wicke
Exhibition curator

     

    Constanze Wicke
    born 1983 in Leipzig (Germany), studied museology/museum studies, aesthetics and art history in Leipzig and Braunschweig (Germany). Together with Florian Ebner she curated the exhibition "Cairo. Open City – New Testimonies from an Ongoing Revolution", which was on show at the Museum of Photography Braunschweig on the occasion of the 5th European Month of Photography, Berlin in 2012 and at the Museum Folkwang, Essen (Germany), in 2013.