The Memorial Art Gallery's new exhibit, "Memory Theatre," opened on one of the recent bright and brisk autumn evenings, when the daylong sunshine was punctuated by evening temperature drops and the fragrant decay of leaves, dipping us into that wistful ache of another year's departure. The show is a collection of works that speak of the passage of people and of time, of shifts in culture and of shifty memory. The works are gentle when sorrowful and ultimately a reminder of the bittersweet brevity of life, and the role of the museum as a central memory-keeper of human culture.
In addition to the many contemporary works of art, "Memory Theatre" brings together works that span many different periods in history. It features a 1920's Shoshone painting on an elk hide that was created to commemorate both tribal traditions being forcibly lost and as a memorial for the three artists' uncle, Chief Washakie. A case of commemorative medals includes historic figures both heroic and inglorious, and events both tragic and victorious, all depending upon your perspective.
Represented in bronze are General Douglas MacArthur, Mark Twain, Charles Lindbergh, the flag raising at Iwo Jima, President Dwight Eisenhower, and the lot of them is tidily summed up by Berthold Nebel's "World Unity or Oblivion Medal," a disc preserving in relief a doomsday blast and mushroom cloud, the entire ground a horror-field of fallen bodies. Sneak a peek around the corner of the case to view the obverse: a soldier cradling the form of a wounded companion.
Deeper into the exhibit is a section of wall text with examples about the compulsion to deny memory through the destruction of physical evidence of people or events, which has manifested during revolutions and times of political turmoil. Statues are pulled down, individuals are burned from photographs, and histories are rewritten with the omission of certain names. This subject alone — of the efforts to control cultural memory, of censorship and the various reasons behind it — would make a fascinating exhibit.
Near the entrance of the exhibit are two massive photographs from David Maisel's "Library of Dust" series, which are enlarged images the artist shot of the cremated remains of Oregon State Hospital patients not claimed by their next of kin. Maisel photographed 100 of the 5,121 copper canisters that hold the remains, which had been stored for decades underground in a chamber prone to flooding.
The images are arrestingly beautiful. Chemical changes in the canisters brought out richly hued patinas, and blooms of what might be mold create the effect of sand paintings shaken up by that obstinate child, Time. Maisel's works are sweet tributes to unnamed and forgotten strangers, and portraits of life inevitably arising, phoenix-like, from the ashes.
Nearby, another collection of strangers floats like suspended snowdrops just overhead. Judith G. Levy's "Memory Cloud" is a collection of 35mm photographic slides in hundreds of small, frosted white viewers, hanging at different heights by delicate ball chain. These bitty portals to the past tell us something of the specific decades through the faded tones of the images and the styles of clothing and hair. A woman forever pulls a turkey from the oven; a jubilant horseback-rider will never dismount an indifferent, grass-munching equine; and three small blond boys, presumably brothers, lean close together, squinting in the eternal sun. A crowd forms at what seems to be a funeral as people in dark garments exit a cluster of black cars in an oppressively damp and gray atmosphere. Two women in the foreground look out at the viewer, a moment of weary grief distilled.
Metaphors for memory abound and increase with time spent amid Levy's installation. It can be tricky to relocate specific images among the masses of moments scattered in the ether. Many of the viewing vessels were too distant for me to pull toward my eye, and accepting that I couldn't access some of these memories, I had to ask a taller gent what he saw there.
While "Memory Theatre" as a whole explores themes of recollection and loss that are common to us all, some of the works address the subject of death more intimately than we are wont to, and contain taboo triggers. Methods of coping with loss and commemoration that were once in vogue now seem alien and curious, even morbid, such as the elaborate Victorian jewelry and art made from the hair of loved ones, and a Victorian portrait of a deceased little boy propped up and posed as if reading a book. Yet, this may be the only image the parents ever had taken of their son, their last opportunity to solidify his precious presence in their own temporary lives.
In times past, deaths and funerals took place largely at home, and people had fewer means to diminish its heavy presence. Arguments both for and against our tendency to buffer ourselves against the reality of death flow easily. In response to our culture's commercial anaesthetizing of the ravages of AIDS, Barton Benes created "Brenda," a powerful installation of dozens of wall-mounted AIDS ribbons coated with the cremated ashes of his friend, an addict who died of AIDS in 1989. Reclaimed from slick, numb exploitation, the almost-infinity symbol is represented here as gritty reality, gray and textured with fragments of bone.
Elizabeth Siegfried's "Termina" is a poignant look at childlessness, and focused specifically on the acute awareness of being the endpoint of a branch of the family tree. This is a weight that many women bear heavily, and a subject that is often framed as a feminist or female issue, but is in fact a genderless issue of denying (or being denied) life's basic yet complicating compulsion to procreate.
Siegfried's installation of black-and-white photographs depict generations of her female kin, reveling in the company of family. Beneath each woman's photographs are her name, lifespan, and details of generations of progeny. Last is the artist's grid, with some happy memories, some somber self-portraits, and a lot of blank, black areas standing in for what will never be come to be.