Sunday, November 23, 2014

Pics or it didn't happen.

Yesterday, a friend and I went to DC for the day and spent some time in the National Portrait Gallery. I was particularly interested in one of the current exhibits, "Portraiture Now: Staging the Self," in which a collection of artists use their work in portraiture to explore and tell the story of themselves--a break from the traditional form of portraiture, which tends to fix an image in place/time. From the NPG website, "...portraiture...becomes a map of finding oneself and others."

 I'm cool with that.

Seriously, the exhibit was interesting, but one artist's ideas caught my attention. Karen Miranda Rivadeneira uses herself and other family members to recreate memories from her childhood, which, in an of itself is kind of unique and fascinating, but one line in her artist's statement resonated with me. She said she "revisits events from my youth that were never recorded."

Events that were never recorded.

When I first read it, it sounded as if there's this inherent assumption that anything worth experiencing is worth recording (or rather, it's direct opposite--if it wasn't documented, it's not worth remembering). And, regardless of what the artist might have meant by that statement, that's how I interpreted it.

Now, I've written previously about memory, this unreliable narrator of our lives (I may have even written about it a lot, in fact), but it's a fascinating subject -- and certainly the bread and butter of my own writing -- so I feel like it's a subject worthy of exploring. The thing is, I can tell right now that I'm not quite able to dig deeply into it yet, so this might just be a preamble kind of post.

Anyway, memory. This big, heavy box of stuff in our heads that's perched precariously on rickety little legs, ready to topple over at the slightest rumble of the ground beneath it. And it topples. All the time. And every time try to sweep everything back inside, we jumble up the contents.

When I was nearly five, we moved into a new house. I have memories from the old house--of being in the backyard on a swing that looked like a flower petal, of learning how to rollerskate from the next door neighbors, of my sister stepping on a nail whilst building  treehouse with the same neighbors, of being held in someone's arms, eating a piece of chocolate while the bigger kids ran races around the block, of building a snowman in the front yard, of sitting in the back of the house, looking out the sliding glass door, watching it snow. And for a long time, I just kind of chopped all of those memories up, thinking that they happened over a span of several seasons. Like I learned to skate one summer and got the flower petal swing another summer and Leslie had to get that tetanus shot another summer. But having moved out of that house when I was not even 5 years old, I'm guessing that my conscious memory only goes back so far. I'm guessing all or most of those memories are from one year of my life.

That's what's so fascinating to me about memories--that we impose layer upon layer of other information on them as years go by, as we grow and change into the person we are. And yet, those very events that we can't seem to remember properly are exactly what form us into who we are. Those memories that we can't rely on. So we're made up of all this ever-changing, unstable...stuff.

What's up with that?

And the whole documenting part. That's where it gets really interesting to me. I think it's also kind of interesting that I interpreted the artist's statement to imply that undocumented = not important. That's probably a whole psychological portal to something deeper in me that I'll have to explore later. But anyway. Documentation. Why do we do it? Because even snapping that one fraction of a second in time isn't going to keep the memory pristine. It may not even capture the memory. So why do we document, sometimes obsessively? Is it that desire to get "at" something? To make something that we can definitely point to, say "Here, this is me. This is the why and the how of me?"  And if so, who, exactly, are we documenting for? For ourselves? For others? For those around us? For those who will find this stuff when we're gone?

Well,  feel like I've kind of gotten off the subject, but I'm still kind of scattered about how I'm feeling. I'd like to spend more time with my thoughts on this. But I'm pretty sure this won't be the last post about it.

Stay tuned.

A portrait in attitude only.

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