In a winter of no content, can memories of artworks activate our sense of wonder when the works themselves are absent?

Rosalind Nashashibi, Vivian’s Garden, 2017 (still). 29:50 min, 16mm film.

A few weeks ago, I watched the animated film Inside Out – one of those adult-abstract and childishly-sensitive Pixar films. In this case, an 11-year-old girl’s inner workings are presented as her very own colourful world of embodied states of mind, memories, and character traits. Among the many spectacular aspects of this mapping of human sensibilities is the notion that memories are stored in us as spheres of glass, meaning that memory is an endless archive of glass spheres. Moreover, our personality itself is composed of islands, each of which is home to those components of life that are most beloved or important to us.

On the threshold of puberty, the protagonist’s inside is still only anchored in islands like ‘family’ (going fully nuclear, the dad-mom-kid way), ‘hockey’, and ‘friendship’ (with one person in particular). Those foundations are shaking, however, and one senses that an expansion of the character and her island landscape is underway. The older one gets, the more islands one has inside, we are given to understand. Trapped inside the unendingly arid and rocky headspace that makes up our present winter of absolutely no content, a thought arose in me: “I wonder what my islands are?” Followed by: “Do I seriously have an art island?”

My inside and all its art world reservations immediately sneered at this idea. That an island filled with works of art and bright halls – perhaps a small fountain of bubbly drinks and akward socializing at openings – was some kind of cornerstone of my personality. But on the flip side of these reservations, I allowed the idea to settle in. Glimpses of things I have looked at; an improbable paper town or a thin shoulder in motion, or an ingenious construction of lace and wood; all the art I have seen and stored as delicate glass spheres somewhere behind the outer parameters of my body.

Independently of this rather forced recollection of works set in motion by the idea of the art island and the glass spheres, the Argentine-Swiss artist Vivian Suter sprang to mind. I came across her work for the first – and still only – time at Documenta 14 in Kassel, and, for reasons I cannot quite fathom, my thoughts have returned to her several times since. Each time, I have forgotten her name in the meantime, forcing me to resort to inept googling (incredibly, a search for ‘South American female artist mother collage’ did the trick this time).

What I do remember is Suter’s quiet interaction with her elderly mother in their shared home by a lake in Guatemala, rough paintings and painstakingly precise collages between the two women’s hands, the canvases communing with nature and its potential destruction. I remember a sense of dampness and gloom resting over their house like a dense heavy plant, the darkness under a canopy of foliage that can seem pitch-black when, above the leaves, the sun shines out with all the forcefulness of equatorial midday, the feeling of continuity between inside and outside because everything is left open in this house, the heat is everywhere. The sense that red and yellow and green fill out this life; they are the colours of existence.

What I actually remember – as I discover at some point in my recollections of Suter – is in fact another artist’s video work about her, Vivian’s Garden (2017), a carefully and thoroughly composed insight into her life and work, created by Palestinian-British artist Rosalind Nashashibi. This film has become my personal perception and experience of Vivian Suter.

Vivian Suter, Nisyros (Vivian’s bed), 2016–17, installation view of glass pavilion at Kurt-Schumacher-Strasse, Kassel, Documenta 14, 2018 © documenta 14/Fred Dott.

Elsewhere in Kassel, in a shop converted into a temporary exhibition space, Suter’s own works were installed in layers upon layers with a density that infused the cement walls with a bit of a forest feel and moisture. Like reductions or clarifications of the realm of paintings, these colour-saturated canvases hung from the ceiling, disrupting my experience somewhat because the space was too densely packed to allow my eyes to comfortably scan the walls and floors. 

Maybe that’s why Vivian Suter lingers in me as a unified, yet completely contourless memory – because of this feeling of being enveloped by something accompanying the purely visual and folding it up in an embrace. Thankfully, it’s likely that the origins of memory cannot be explained. But perhaps works of art can make for clearer memories when the body is actually swallowed up by them. Not that this necessarily means it’s better art – indeed, several reservations must be upheld about the kind of art that gets the opportunity to appear on a vast scale and enjoy public accessibility. Even so, works like Bruce Nauman’s Square Depression (2007) in Münster, or Michael Heizer’s Levitated Mass (2012) in Los Angeles have become, in me, some of those glass spheres that seem easier to evoke than the hazy gossamer images that exhibitions can so quickly devolve into in one’s memory.

Of course, seeing and remembering are hyper-individual concerns, and generalisations about sensing are obviously difficult (or entirely out of bounds), but I regularly think about how others look at art, why they do it, and how I do it myself. How do art experiences stay with us? How do we take them with us in a life where appointments and people and jobs and things to consume in the streets seem to be most important and most wonderful? Can we somehow evoke works of art, like scents or moods, and activate their glass spheres as visual apertures on the emotional realm in this hermetically sealed winter?

The most obvious course of action would seem to be to evoke contexts that overflow with art. I have not experienced many of them. I have been to Venice once, and once to Kassel. But on both those occasions, I have – aside from a sense of sheer breathlessness at the sight of all these exhibited things, the power they attain and confer – been unable to wrest my mind and eye away from the people that surrounded me as I looked at it all. What do you see? How do you take in these huge heaps of art? Are you touched? What is it you love? How to answer these questions, not in a judgmental or condescending or know-it-all way, but from a place of wonder that arises in the realisation that abundance is, of course, wonderful and generous, but also really hard to penetrate? 

El Anatsui’s fresh and fading memories, a tapestry of used soda cans hung on the facade of the Palazzo Fortuny at the 2007 Venice Biennale.

I like to look at things I do not comprehend or grasp or feel, and I actually like to revel in wonder or alienation. But I constantly try to make it clear to myself what there might be to like in a work – perhaps in an attempt to hone in on the opportunities for art to become glass memories.

The way a forgettable frame of untreated pine is mounted around two huge knitted works by Rosemarie Trockel, turning these expanses of knit material into a battlefield. The inviting red metallic darkness among the draped folds of one of Anatsui’s unlikely bottle-top tapestries, which seems to evade its own material to take on a different kind of softness. The discovery that bricks and round things really do look like each other’s opposites to a degree that makes Judith Hopf’s brick balls beautifully skilful and drily humorous at the same time (a mood rarely found in an exhibition venue). That Katinka Bock has used rotting lemons to make a tight and severely boring installation changeable, the cuteness of the perfect fruits just hanging there, being all themselves and all yellow right in the middle of a totally lofty and sanctified Scandinavian contemporary art atmosphere. A swordfish, frozen flowers, and a shoe: a casual pile of adorable things behind the glass doors of a luminous refrigerator inside a blue room that Adrian Villar Rojas filled with other unexciting artefacts from the anthropocene – and, for a few seconds, the fish’s empty eye sockets prompted some stray thought that seemed important, but was immediately forgotten. The sense of an uninterrupted autumn in Paula Modersohn-Becker’s loving or downcast paintings.

These are things I remember; perhaps they were not exactly like that in actuality. Sight is probably the primary sense of those who can see. This may in turn mean that what we see is doomed to be easily forgotten in memory’s infinite store of visual impressions. The fact that visual art usually addresses the eye and body in different ways than words or tones may partly account for the fact that images vanish quicker than all those things that are taken in by the other senses. After all, why would I be better able to remember the art I saw than the familiar face that looked at the art alongside me, or the cigarette that face smoked on the stairs in the sunlight outside the exhibition while saying something sweet?

Adrián Villar Rojas, The Theater of Disappearance, 2017–2018, Installation view, The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, courtesy of the artist, kurimanzutto, Mexico City and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York / Paris / London. Photo: Studio Michel Zabé.

I might wish to get better at seeing and feeling and storing this art that is so hard to grasp. And perhaps the conditions for cultivating my future gaze are particularly good right now, when all I can do is to look inside my own head for art I have already seen. How are works of art to become a sensibility we can store up and argue for (in what is a de facto art-hating and art-killing society) if our eyes are too busy looking at screens? Or if we do most of our looking through cameras? Or if we already know what we’ll be getting and nod our heads affirmatively at majority assertions about quality? Of course, I don’t want to project these kinds of unconsciousness onto anyone. But I know them myself, and possibly I am not the only one.

For example, I saw Anne Imhof’s German pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2017 without having a clue who she was. By some sort of fluke, I had gotten myself a pre-pre-pre-preview pass a few days before the public opening, and so was able to line up in a still manageable queue. Being in there certainly did something do me. The extravagant audience’s awe of the performers’ melancholic Neukölln attitude and wardrobe was in itself gorgeously bizarre to behold, and my uninitiated gaze lost itself rather more in those dynamics than in the performance itself. Anyway, what was ‘the performance itself’ if not this extreme encounter, too? The very moment I stepped out from what was an hour’s worth of Faust, I began to sense the extent of the hype, simultaneously rejoicing in having been there and regretting that I neither knew nor really felt what I was looking at. From that point on, I have had no way of determining whether my experience of having witnessed something significant was entirely my own, or whether it was in fact something that had been imposed on me by the seal of approval stamped on the whole thing by the many eyes of the professional network around me.

At any rate, this does not matter one whit. More than anything memories are, as I supposed at the beginning of this essay, those glass spheres we give to and take from each other. As far as something so readily available and widely shared on the internet as visual art is concerned, it would be utopian and rather naïve to imagine oneself able to maintain one’s own clear and unblemished gaze on anything. Nevertheless it is hard to let go of the desire to be better able to absorb art through my own eyes, to store it in some of the same places as love is stored. And, from there, to be able to better evoke and translate it into devoted fickle memories of intuitive emotions that seem crucial to the independent existence of art in a reality shaped by reason, economics, and power. At the same time, it does not seem unthinkable that one might forget why art is a nice thing to deal with at all, why it should be able to form an entire island inside me if looking at it feels above all like accessing capital. Yet, to my own surprise, I find myself actually missing it (i.e. things that are alien and stormy and angry and beautiful to look at).

Of course, everyone is free to zip through the museums or Venice at exactly the pace they wish, to exchange their art experiences into profitable feeds, to love and celebrate what is already loved and celebrated. I am in no way interested in passing judgment on how art is best felt. I simply wish for this: for an ever-potential sensitivity and an open-minded rather than sceptical sense of wonder to make me even better at receiving works of art when they can once again be found in real life rather than just on screens.

Anne Imhof, Faust, 2017. German Pavilion, 57th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia. © Photography: Nadine Fraczkowski. Courtesy: German Pavilion 2017, the artist