Historical Journal


Mnemosyne or the Art of Memory

March 13, 1988
James D. Campbell

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“…Und es starben
Noch andere vieL Am Kitharon aber lag
Eleuthera, der Mnemosyne Stadt.
Der auch als
Ablegte den Mantel Gott das abendliche nachher loste
Die Locken. Himmlische nemlich sind
Unwillig, wenn einer nicht die
Seele schonend sich
Zusammengenommen, aber er
musse doch; dem
Gleich tehlet die Trauer.”
-Holderlin, Mnemosyne
“And many others died. But by
Cithaeron, there stood
Eleutherae, Mnemosyne’s town.
From her also
When God laid down his festive
cloak, soon after did
The powers of Evening sever a
lock of hair For the Heavenly when
Someone has failed to collect
hi’s soul, to spare it,
Are angry for still he must;
like him
Mourning is in default.”
(tr Michael Hamburger)
The penetrating gaze of Mnemosyne, the muse who maintains and retains, marks us out.
-H.G. Gadamer
There are feelings which tax our powers of expression and seemingly defy explanation. Why should certain things in later Schoenberg-that crescendo of an abstract classicism based on pure form -make me think of Gerhard Merz’s Italia MCMLXXXVI? Why should reading certain passages of Sofficci’s First Principles of Futurist Aesthetics send my thoughts wandering through the four floors of Merz’s staircase installation in Munich’s TRV building? What was it in the pellucid blue in Mondo Cane that flashed before my eyes the blue of Giotto’s Arena Chapel frescoes? Again, and further, why should this artist’s Dove Sta Memoria evoke with wonderful clarity the multiple oddities-the rectangular hollows over the tabernacles, the isolated triglyphs – of Michelangelo’s anteroom to the Laurentian Library in Florence?
Gerhard Merz operates under the aegis of Mnemosyne, the muse of memory and recollective appropriation. Ancient Greek Mythology celebrated Mnemosyne as the goddess of memory and mother of all the Muses- of all art. It is a sad truism that modernism has largely forgotten Mnemosyne- but Gerhard Merz has not.
For the early Greeks, Mnemosyne as the muse of remembering and Lesmosyne as the muse of forgetting were an indissoluble pair but Mnemosyne always seems to subsume Lesmosyne. We should perhaps remember that to be transported into the past is also to be able to forget the traumas of the present tense. But in the art of Merz, we do not forget the present we remember the future.
He reopens the text of memory for us- one very different from what we might anticipate. His species of ‘memory’ is fundamentally different from the voluntary, quotidian memory we all know. It is the memory which reveals, in its very dislocation, the true vision of something past as it vaults temporal strata and inverts its own significations.
Merz’s work is characterized with a profound continuity with the lost, formal language of the past that only mnemonic, affective sensitivity in his viewers can unlock; memory traces and tones which enliven the silence that surrounds us as we immerse ourselves in the work. Merz transforms the art of the past- not only the more familiar aspects of a movement like Futurism but the less familiar ones, too, like the work of Otto Freundlich-but in a living way. These are not petrified fossils excavated from the depth-strata of a bygone era but an infusion of art-forms and feelings from Merz’s own consciousness that fructify within the work-and in the fullness of memory.
Merz’s use of memory is cultural -but it is also personal and autobiographical. To some extent, Merz is working with the fruits of a lived perspective on his own past: the influences of Italian Futurism and Italian Fascist architecture, Ezra Pound’s poetry (especially the Pisan Cantos), late de Chirico and a myriad others that have fermented in his memory.
In terms of the actual subjective experience of the work, it is clear that an installation institutes a zone of indetermination that is unthematized and perhaps unthematizable. Where the remembering of his viewers begins and ends is impossible to judge or predict with any certainty. It is precisely because it is unthematized that this zone has such singular efficacy. A context is created so laden with remembering- with the measured aura and immeasurable atmosphere of memory -that the viewer finds himself in the buried archive of Mnemosyne that Merz is excavating. That archive becomes our archive, just as much as it is Merz’s, his memories become our memories, Mnemosyne our Muse as much as his. This is, to use an overworked but apt superlative, his specific genius.
Another form of the auratic presence of a given work by Merz is its atmosphere which is not some marginal phenomenon but one which pervades the whole space in which the work is installed. Instead of circumscribing our memories, this is the atmosphere that suffuses and shapes our remembering; that instills a mood, elicits an emotion and institutes a meaning.
When we speak of the memories, however indefinable, that a work like, say, Dove Sta Memoria elicits from us, and cite as “sad”, “tragic”, or even “heartrending” our feeling impressions, we are referring to the specific atmosphere that Merz has invoked. That atmosphere is always emotional, as the viewer, in the act of remembering, lives through in present experience the particular emotion associated with a given memory.
Merz’s great love for Ezra Pound’s Pisan Cantos stems from the fact that it is also a Mnemonicon, a poetic environment for remembering. It is an attempt to penetrate the past and make it contemporary; to enter memory itself in search of ancient wisdom. Memory was not on only integral to Pound’s technique but to his understanding of the proper role of poetry. Great art not only recollectively appropriates its precursors but renders them new, thereby renewing itself, and revivifying a tradition.
Merz’s poetic environments, too, find completion in his viewers, in their memories for fulfillment of meaning. His concern for the historical depth of consciousness through the operation of memory is incontrovertible.
Merz seems to be working towards what Hans-Georg Gadamer called a wirkungsgeschichtfiches Bewussein – or “effective historical consciousness” The interpretive potential of his work is seemingly limitless because each viewer’s interpretation is predicated on his own lived-experiences; his own tradition. The process of assimilation is co-extensive with the extent to which viewer and work intermingle so that their horizons can fuse together in a seamless whole. The viewer then is able to revise his interpretation according to how far the work succeeds in reactivating “images” and “places” impressed on the memory.
The life-world of the viewer and the lifeworld of the work cross-fertilize and fuse within the horizon of memory. Our anticipations are fulfilled more frequently than thwarted because of the work’s uncanny capacity to encompass a wide spectrum of possible worlds.
In the installations, a synaesthesis is created through color as the form of memory – calling on that ineffable symbolic power of the psyche whereby phenomena in one sphere of experience meld with those that exist in others to become a living synecdoche for an entire group of affections, hence gaining immensely in mesmerizing force. Merz’s colors elicit kinesthetic responses, as well. The hue of a given color becomes an implication of weight; an impression of emotional temperature; an imprint of Being. Feeling tones pervade the work. Color as memory is, for the viewer, the memory not only of a mood; a meant remembrance, but of a place-name.
And Merz would agree with the Futurists in holding that color is the first and last of emotions. His colors are always odd, always at odds with color as used by his contemporaries. He wants- and relishes- that strangeness. He has said, “Color is a memory.” It is that belief, and indefiance of canons of accepted taste, on which his wholly original and distinct color-sensibility is based.
In Merz’s sculptural environments the central viewpoint is not a specific surface, an image, a text, but the structural integrity of the space itself. The whole space a work is situated in is appropriated, subordinated to and enhanced by the artist’s vision. A room itself takes on a sculptural volume, an auratic presence that pervades any sustained viewing of the work, and one that must be occupied by the lived-body of the viewer in order to function properly and be fully appreciated. And there is no arbitrariness whatsoever in Merz’s stratagems. Conceptually speaking, each work grows out of a piecemeal progression of precise choices. A programme, certainly, but one that is, paradoxically, wholly intuitive.
Merz, more than most of his contemporaries, is aware that, as he stands within the horizon of human civilization, the very horizon he lives and works within, there is a need for commemoration. Always conscious of the tem- temporal horizon he occupies, he appropriates only what interests him. We all stand within a historical horizon, though we may know only a little about it in a definite way. Merz knows more than most. This awareness has made him realize that his own work is predicated on an immense storehouse of memory; not a hermetic tradition but a history of watersheds.
Merz is conscious of the need to remember anew all the things he refuses to suppress by schematization. He knows that, in memories, a fulsome historicity can be found. Tradition is always open to continuous inquiry. Hence, the plenary openness of his own work, which extends even to its interpretation.
Merz’s appropriative recollection is one in which past experience is lived through again in a new and active way–never becoming mere nostalgia or sentimental deja vu-that becomes the pure fulfillment of his own most radical intentions. Merz’s ‘signs’ succeed in awakening within us familiar significations as passive meaning-patterns are regenerated anew through active production. His form of memory, then, offers the possibility of communalization.
But one must remember that Mnemosyne is not a conventional but a subversive Muse, while still the paradigm of truth. Memory itself is easily subverted: consider how difficult it is to remember, how much is forgotten never to be recovered or only at great cost, with great difficulty. Then, too, the considerable moral courage required to remember. Merz’s virtuosity of recall is accomplished only at great risk. He does not seek to plumb some static reservoir of memories but successfully and dynamically appropriates a dimension of ‘pastness’ that contributes to the intelligibility of the present. And he does so unbeholden to “chronology.” Tenses themselves are often inverted and there is a dislocatory intensity as memories from deep strata bump up against those from contemporaneity.
He has always followed his own singular path, and it is a tribute to him that his ‘sculptures of environment’ invariably result in widespread reverberations that build up a rich impasto of commemorative thought in the living present. Seized as he is with “the Bacchic transport”, Merz may well be a peerless practitioner of the forgotten art of memory – but his work is very much part of the living present -and future.
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