Memory as Medium
"It is always something else — water, Diana, the woods — which one must first contemplate in order to be filled with an image of one's self." 1
The very essence of Madelon Hooykaas and Elsa Stansfield's work could not be more simply revealed. How does one become permeated with an image of oneself? In what way is contemplation intimately linked to an image of oneself? What is this image? Defined as a construct made and often unmade through how we gaze at what surrounds us, identity is interpreted as a structure undergoing constant mutation and informed, often without our knowledge, by experiences arising from various temporalities.
We have many senses besides the basic five:
hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting and touching.
We all have insights, we pick up feelings
like shortwave radio signals, from
places, people, dreams and atmospheric energy.
Sometimes places give us a sense of foreboding,
while some people make us feel happy and relaxed.
We pick up these yet-to-be-named feelings
and with them we fine-tune our 'picture of reality'
and even sometimes intuitively
we catch glimpses of the future. 2
Memory, the in-between space, the transitory, the invisible are the favoured themes of Madelon Hooykaas and Elsa Stansfield, co-creators of a single body of work since 1972. Their videotapes, sculptures and installations deal with time, duration and contemplation. These two artists are concerned with natural phenomena such as tides, the cycle of seasons, principles of physics such as magnetic fields, the circulation of radio waves, of electricity. They film natural elements: wind, rain, the sea's movements, the light and shadows it generates. Certain objects — magnifying glass, magnetic compass, telescope, dry compass, are used recurrently; whether they are instruments for observation, measurement or direction, all refer to time and to space.
True to the aesthetics of Seventies' structural experimental cinema, these artists' work relies on close equivalences between the title of the piece and its underlying structural principle. Thus in Running Time (1979) a man is seen running in a landscape; the longer he is observed running, the clearer his silhouette becomes. In Split Seconds (1979) logs of wood are being split by an axe; with every blow of the axe, the screen momentarily and almost imperceptibly splits in two. Vanishing Point (1993) evokes various endangered species; the title's vanishing point refers not to the space images come from but rather to the space that swallows them up. A similar principle of literal and metaphoric association between work and title occurs in Time Machine (1996). As its title indicates, this recent piece, conceived for the Redpath Museum, suggests a voyage in time.
Time Machine speaks of passing time: visual and aural images, fragments of history both archaic and contemporary open themselves to our gaze and transit from one temporality to another. The presence of a mummified woman's body, acquired by the Redpath Museum in 1859, is the main anchorage of this dialogue between two eras. On their first visit to the museum, Hooykaas and Stansfield glimpsed this XVIIIth Dynasty Egyptian mummy while the curator of ethnology was having a series of X-rays made for purposes of analysis and classification. Thus two elements essential to these artists' practice come together: an archaic presence, a museum object, revisited by modern technology, the X-ray. It should be pointed out that X-rays hold a fascination for Hooykaas and Stansfield, as many of their videos and installations incorporate these radiant images.
Museums, institutions dedicated to memory, are places of conservation and preservation of the past. Displacing objects, images, is a task many contemporary artists engage in. Madelon Hooykaas and Elsa Stansfield excel in this practice of fixing the gaze upon objects or their images to make them appear new, different in our eyes, thus making them accessible, visible to us, often for the first time. Their entire practice rests upon an understanding of memory as museum: a network of complex ramifications integrating the present, the past and the future in a pendulum movement between the private and the public, without prizing a hierarchical order of experiences.
For the historical index of the images doesn't simply say that they belong to a specific time, it says primarily that they only came to legibility at a specific time. And indeed, this "coming to legibility " 3 marks a specific critical point of the movement within them. Every present is determined by those images which are synchronic with it: every now is the moment of a specific recognition. In it, truth is loaded to the bursting point with time. [...] It isn't that the past casts its light on the present or the present casts its light on the past: rather, an image is that in which the past and the present moment flash into a constellation. In other words: image is dialectic at a standstill. For while the relation of the present to the past is a purely temporal, continuous one, that of the past to the moment is dialectical; non of a temporal, but of an imagistic nature. Only dialectical images are genuinely historical, i.e., not archaic images. The image that is read, I mean the image at the moment of recognition, bears to the highest degree the stamp of the critical, dangerous impulse that lies at the source of all reading. 4
Time Machine, a piece which proposes the recontextualizing of an ancestral body, is articulated around the concept of constellation provoked by the encounter of Then and Now discussed by Walter Benjamin. In this work, the Then strangely yet familiarly cohabits with the Now. This Then is updated by the fact of the X-ray's 'take'-over of the mummy itself, of its material presence. Radiology thus defies the surface to give us access to an otherwise invisible interior now made legible. This passage from outside to inside is not only a strategy to make a body visible (what lies beneath the mummy's wrappings), but evidently suggests other types of passages: from body state to image state, from life to death, and from there to what happens after death. This metaphysical questioning is constantly present in Hooykaas and Stansfield's work, but it manifests mutedly, to whomever wishes to grasp it.
But what does this X-rayed interior reveal? Nothing that we do not already know. Nothing spectacular, just the body and its prosaic manifestations: masses and bones. Nothing spiritual, in appearance. Which led Elsa Stansfield to say that radiography provides "an image of the inside without insight." 5 This observation arises as a statement of fact: the image at a loss. Through a skillful "mise en abyme" of time, Madelon Hooykaas and Elsa Stansfield suggest we look at things more closely. And in this rapprochement between two temporalities, by this juxtaposition or redoubling of two realities scrutinized by the same technology, the artists evolve a lucid critique of the image. By juxtaposing inside and outside, they create an imaginary space where identity dissolves. And so this journey, composed of oscillations between mourning and expectation, is transformed into a philosophical quest.
Ever faithful to their working method, the videomakers employ metonymy to make us aware of a presence. Fragments or separate parts of the mummy are exposed — her feet and ribcage. Echoing this manifest absence are fragments of another body, a contemporary one. Juxtaposed to these references to another era is the X-ray of a ribcage dated Spring 1996, as well as a video loop showing bare feet moving across a floor. Fitted into a rectangular metallic shape recalling a telescope — whose inner surfaces have been polished so as to create a mirror effect —, the action is consequently reproduced in a vast number of fragments. This prism effect makes it difficult to read the foot movement, which has become almost abstract due to the splintering of the images on the instrument's insides.
And so the allusion to time travel cristallizes around the telescope, seat of an odd temporal short-circuit: seen through this singular visual apparatus, the nearby present takes on the appearance of a bygone past due to the distance in which this device encases the filmed action. In addition, its status as observation instrument is cleverly diverted, for here it is treated as a device where the reading of an image is blurred. Splintered, fragmented to (near) disintegration, this simple movement henceforth attracts the gaze, but still does not reveal what there is to see. In this sense, these two images — one glimpsed through radiography, the other through video — exert the same power over the spectator: they defy her/his gaze. X-rayed, the body is made of shadows; filmed, the moving body is also perceived as a sequence of shadows.
There are several women in this installation. The reading conditions of any work are intimately bound up with the conditions of appearance of the images. Clearly, the two artists have opted to valorize fragments of undifferentiated bodies here. One of the women in Time Machine is over three thousand years old and is experiencing a split relationship between her body exposed in a museum showcase and her X-rayed body. Another one of these women is a contemporary of ours. Because X-rays specify sex, age, social position and state of health, the mummy acquires the status of XXth century icon. The X-rays will have pierced a mystery without, however, revealing this woman's identity. Never will she reveal her real face.
This is not the first time the artists concentrate on imaging an absence. The sculpture entitled Receiver (1990), a bloc of diabase whose surface is covered with phosphorus, creates an incandescent effect in the dark. Shadow Pictures (1986), the installation made from images brought back from Japan, reintegrates the "human traces" of the atomic bomb found on the walls of buildings, on sidewalks, on various stone surfaces. The annihilated bodies, totally disintegrated by the bomb's effects, have engraved the traces of their disappearance in stone, leaving disturbing photographic impressions. So the question of a ghostly presence is raised once again by these encounters set up between object and photograph, between the body and its trace. For Madelon Hooykaas and Elsa Stansfield, it is essential to linger over these images, some of them about to disappear and others just about to appear, in order to bring them (back) to the surface.
circulating inside memory
It is obvious by now that for these artists, the transitory dimension is a crucial and vital one, whether it is linked to a physical displacement, to the unwinding of the image, or to the moving nature of the video image which is difficult to arrest, impossible to 'still' other than through a disfigurement of movement or an abstraction of duration. Video becomes an unsettling witness to disappearance captured live. The medium allows the transit of the images and sounds captured during the artists' numerous trips aimed at collecting raw materials. This raw information will then undergo various transformations. The things, the images, the sounds (the memories), stored somewhere (on tape, in a museum ...), can be recalled into memory. Hooykaas and Stansfield transform, condense and update these visual and sound elements. The process is a simple one, inscribed in time and in duration. The two artists proceed by infinite operations of condensation, rigorously editing out anecdote in order to produce an image, a sound, each and every one essential, stripped of all artifice.
From one videotape or from one installation to another, images and sounds are recycled. Sometimes we believe we recognize them. Sometimes they are similar and what the artists are offering us instead is an equivalent. All the attentive spectator may see in this is a clever recyling, for video makes it possible to re-use the same images, to reframe them, to present them as new to the spectator. A little like children who enjoy having the same story told to them over and over again. Attentive, the spectator frequently finds her-/himself faced with familiar images: she/he recognizes them for having seen them in previous works, or believes she/he recognizes them. But paradoxically, they are never the same images. Images have doubles, look-alikes; only time separates them. Whether it is linked to the loop or to the reproduction of a video excerpt, here repetition drifts towards reprise. And so, through repetition of the same, a space is created for the other, the new.
I am borrowing from Søren Kierkegaard this quality which repetition possesses, tinged with or defined by difference. Defying surprise, reprise, due to its aspects of familiarity and recognition, becomes the space of the past's return, the place of the past's survival. This dynamic of return towards is characteristic of Madelon Hooykaas and Elsa Stansfield's entire body of work, which is based upon concepts such as memory as museum, a locus of archives and collections. 6
This attitude toward the materials considered to be raw, raw matter, is also tied to a working method experienced over many years, which consists in granting time to the visual and sound elements gathered on various continents. Hooykaas and Stansfield have developed unique principles of association between words, images and sounds based on extreme simplicity and linked to the properties of these filmed landscapes, objects, animals and individuals. Permeable to nature's movements, to surrounding vibrations, the body is a precious receiver of information gleaned in the form of impressions. In the work of Madelon Hooykaas and Elsa Stansfield, the body is an astonishing mediator.
I saw a tree in a bird, reflecting it wholly. And an infinitely light breeze softened only the leaves' extreme edges. The bird was still and solemn.
It was a clear morning, without sun, a morning that reveals nothing yet of the coming day, or very little. I too was calm. The bird and I, we agreed, though at a distance, as befits beings of the animal species, having had a perfectly divergent evolution, with no possibility of a return. 7
Granting images time also means giving oneself time; it means taking one's distance from these images and sounds. And as Georges Didi-Huberman writes, it means considering "a time for watching things move away until they are out of sight [...]; a time to feel oneself loosing time, until the time comes to see the light of day [...]; a time, finally, to lose oneself." 8 Which brings us back to Time Machine. Two X-rays, almost the same image, yet an eternity separates these two images, these two women. In this distance, which is both spatial and temporal, they cohabit thanks to a fascinating relation of complicity.
Translation: Susanne de Lotbinière-Harwood
Unless otherwise indicated, English translations of excerpts are by SLH.
1. Gilles Deleuze, Différence et répétition, Paris: éditions Presses universitaires de France, 1981, p. 102.
2. Madelon Hooykaas and Elsa Stansfield, Personal Observatory, Amsterdam: Contemporary Art Foundation, 1989 [unpaginated].
3. "Coming to legibility" translates Erkennbarkeit.
4. Walter Benjamin, "Theoretics of Knowledge, Theory of Progress", The Philosophical Forum - A Quaterly, Vol xv - nos 1-2, Fall-Winter 1983-84, editor Gary Smith, p. 8.
5. "The X-ray is an image of the inside without insight." — Elsa Stansfield, meeting with the author, Spring 1996.
6. The oeuvre of these two artists can be grouped around two bodies of work entitled ...From The Museum of Memory and From The Personal Observatory.
7. Henri Michaux, Vents et poussières, Paris: éditions Galerie K. Flinker, 1962, p. 13-14.
8. Georges Didi-Huberman, Ce que nous voyons, ce qui nous regarde, Paris: éditions de Minuit, 1992, p. 200.