Essay by Victoria Noorthoorn on Memory Theater (2001)
Pablo Helguera’s Memory Theater
Pablo Helguera retrieves Guilio Camillo’s Memory Theater of the 16th century from the history of the art of memory to address questions that haunt us all: How can we control the uncontrollable? Is there a limit for our desire to know it all? How has mankind dealt with the impossible fact that we have a limited capacity to know? Once again Helguera puts us on the spot, and evidences the human obsession of holding onto illusions of total control, which throughout history have taken on guises as diverse as the art of memory, the use of drugs, the creation of the press and later the encyclopedia, and nowadays the Internet. Helguera has here chosen the most empowering of all memory systems, Camillo’s Renaissance memory theater, and has accentuated the audience’s participation but allowing it to determine the images that the work presents-images that could be thought of as vehicles for the utopia of total storage and remembrance.
Helguera has literally re-created Camillo’s “memory theater”, a lifelong, never-finalized project in which images and texts placed strategically within a structure that represents the seven pillars of Solomon’s House of Wisdom together become a microcosm and representation for the universe. Camillo proposed that a new form for the art of memory had already existed since at least 500 BC-whereby the orator from ancient times would move in his imagination through his “memory building” whilst he was making his speech, drawing from the memorized places the images he had placed on them.i Yet while Camillo’s memory system recurs a real (rather than imaginary) architectural form (perhaps an amphitheater), rather than have the audience look towards the stage, he reverses roles and assigns the stage to the visitor, who can then look upon the entire set of images and gain access to a revelation of the world, both human and divine. Helguera adds an extra twist in his re-creation, and rather than choosing himself the icons that will best represent each of the concepts in Camillo’s theater, the artist has enacted a survey with his future audience at the University of Montana in order to find out the contemporary equivalent for the images used in the 16th century. In this way, it is the audience rather than the artist who defines the most critical aspect of museums: the process of selection of the images deemed today to represent us in the future.
For if Camillo’s theater included specific images to illustrate certain concepts (i.e. the torch of Prometheus standing for “human intellect” and “docility in learning”), Helguera has asked that the students fill a questionnaire to provide him with the contemporary equivalent for each. Thus, for example, Jennifer Lopez might become the new Apollo, The Rape of Europa is replaced by an oil drilling engine, and Homer Simpson updates the icon for stupidity that was once transmitted through the representation of a girl drinking from Bacchus’ cup. In this way, both chance and the collective unconscious intervene in the definite shape that Helguera’s project will take on; and the images, in turn, will be accessed “in a similar way to a contemporary website, but in a physical manner and stressing individual interaction.” Along similar lines, his upcoming project entitled Galerie Des Alephs: Academic Exercises Towards a Museum of Museums does contemplate the actual creation of a digital search engine for information in the web, the “Aleph Memory Theater,” that will frame the visitor as a true victim of this utopia of knowledge. And if we conceive of the Aleph-as his creator Jorge Luis Borges did for his short story of the same name-as that mysterious point capable of simultaneously containing and seeing all points of the universe, (“I saw the Aleph from all points; I saw the earth in the Aleph and in the earth the Aleph once more and the earth in the Aleph”ii), it becomes clear that Helguera conceives both of Camillo and Borges as sharing a similar path in the search for the acquisition of totality, that leads the artist to comment that Camillo had, indeed, constructed an “Aleph” before its time.
But Helguera’s quest in the art of memory also parallels his quest on the nature and history of museums. Both are actors in the history of human ambition and control, and, according to the artist, one stems from the other:
Although the cabinet of curiosities or Wunderkammer is often referred to as the origin of museums, a more strict examination of its underlying essence may reveal that its real beginning lies not in the moment when we started to see physical collections of objects, but at the time when we envisioned such collections in our minds.iii
By bringing these storage and memory systems together under one stream of thought, Helguera is on the one hand enacting a critique of museums-making them human rather than authoritarian, and vulnerable rather than infallible-and on the other hand, unveiling human ambition, and demonstrating its inevitable failure in the quest for total knowledge. And further, by paralleling Camillo’s theater to the museum, yet not selecting the images that will generate in one case total knowledge (theater), and in the other ultimate representation (museum), Helguera joins a strong tradition in cultural production throughout the twentieth century, of artists who have taken the museum as a site for reflection, and -towards the latter half – as a site of criticism. For instance,
Duchamp, the father of the de-sanctification of the object, would state in regard to the process of selection presented in museum settings:
I haven’t been to the Louvre for twenty years. It doesn’t interest me, because I have these doubts about the value of judgements which decided that all these pictures should be presented to the Louvre, instead of others which weren’t even considered, and which might have been there. So fundamentally we content ourselves with the opinion which says that there exists a fleeting infatuation, a style based on momentary taste; this momentary taste disappears, and, despite everything, certain things still remain. This is not a very good explanation, nor does it necessarily hold up.iv
This view has been shared by artists such as Yves Klein, who went to the extreme of inaugurating an empty gallery in Paris in 1958, Daniel Buren, who will take on the curatorial role in museums yet at the same time state that “I could have done the same work with any other rooms and/or works selected,”v or Allan McCollum, whose practice has been dedicated to expose the social and cultural structures that determine which works are on view in museums, through installations where hundreds of equally-styled frames enclose black (blank) surfaces rather than paintings.
But what is also at stake in Helguera’s work is a reflection upon the mechanisms that compose or determine history, as this is what ultimately the press, encyclopedias, and museums are constructing. In this sense, while Marc Dion traces the origin of the museum to the Wunderkammer as the origin for the museum of natural history in works whereby objects of nature becomes works of art, Helguera traces the origin of the generic museum to the art of memory. In this way, aside from any critical component, Helguera is proposing another set of reflections: on the nature of time as determined by history and on the nature of the images as such.
For museums tend to stretch time in such a way that works most generally produced as a response to current, contemporary, and “present” concerns must suddenly face eternity, a twist that undermines the whole idea of contemporariness. Helguera has responded to the artificiality of such strategy in his recent project entitled Everythingness, where a fictional corporation would sell and commercialize time.
By proposing the museum as the continuation of the memory theater, Helguera thus likens the museum to a theater of utopia of knowledge, and has positioned the puzzled spectators as actors that will attempt to master the ambition. Helguera thus integrates representation with knowledge, and attempts to resolve the contradiction between contemporariness and eternity. His is a project whereby time becomes part of the knowing process, and chance a crucial element in shaping the experience of the viewer.