The empire of memory

History, memory and identity are constantly being studied to understand if memory functions historically to preserve and commemorate, or to distort and mythologise the past

The Empire of Things: Photograph by Aleksander Petlura. Ukraine, 2000
The Empire of Things: Photograph by Aleksander Petlura. Ukraine, 2000

What you are depends on what you remember.

— Hodgkin and Radstone: Memory, History, Nation: Contested Pasts

On this place Serbian criminals in the night of 25th-26th August, 1992 set on fire National and University’s Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Over 2 millions of books, periodicals and documents vanished in the flame.
Do not forget, Remember and Warn!

— Words written on a plaque on the burnt walls of the library at Sarajevo

FOR quite some time now, historians and sociologists and anthropologists have been grappling with the intertwined issues of memory, history and identity. Often there is talk of a ‘memory craze’, of ‘insecurity about identity’, of the conflict between what memory ‘expresses’ and what ‘truths’ it holds. It all gets down sometimes to what has been called the ‘arrogance of authenticity’.

Does memory function historically to preserve and commemorate, or to distort and mythologise the past? A debate rages. Memory is, at once, a ‘productive topic’ and ‘a fashionable term in interdisciplinary scholarship’. There are piles of studies, hosts of seminars, on the theme: history, memory and identity are constantly being studied whether it is in post-war Berlin, or in the erstwhile states of the Soviet Union, or the nations of Africa.

That this interest extends also to the area of the arts came home to me, however, when I noticed recently an announcement of a large exhibition in the Italian city of Modena. Contemporary photography from Eastern Europe is what the exhibition featured, and the title? "History, Memory, Identity". Through images, video installations, films, the exhibition focussed essentially upon that riven, war-ravaged region of Europe: Georgia, Ukraine, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, but, above all, the lands that once formed parts of Yugoslavia.

What had played out there both in fact and in the minds of the people of those lands — ethnic violence, intense hatred, genocide, remembered insanity of behaviour — is what was caught in the images that made the exhibition up. I had never even heard the names of the artists before — Marika Asitani, Fikret Atay, Maja Bajevic, Aleksander Petlura, Adrian Paci and the like — but what I saw in the pages of the brochure that announced the exhibition was truly impressive. And moving. Themes of loss, anxiety, deprivation, bewilderment, desperate attempts at self-preservation, seem to run through the collection of images that made up the show.

There was this intriguing photograph by Adrian Paci of an aircraft ladder used to help passengers embark or get off. Completely packed with people from the bottom step to the top, the ladder is seen standing on a desolate runway with no aircraft in sight. What, one would be entitled to wonder, is happening here? Is this ladder full of people waiting for an aircraft to arrive so that they can scramble quickly into it to escape from an oppressive reality? Or has the aircraft taken off leaving them all stranded?

Again, there is a photograph by Alexandra Croitoru of a young lady standing waist-deep in water, hand on hips, wearing the briefest of bikini tops, with her face covered by a gas mask that completely hides her head and face. Is this an image of defiance: a beauty undeterred by the grim reality of life? Or is she wearing the mask because her face has been disfigured in some violent attack: the result of flying shrapnel perhaps, or a splinter of broken glass? Who would know?

Not everything in these images is equally mystifying, however: the photograph of a picture of Marshal Tito — who ruled over what once was Yugoslavia — lying in the midst of a pile of debris is pretty straightforward, for instance, as is that of a young man clutching prison bars and yelling in pain. Straightforward, but not bereft of power. The hammer of fear and devastation keeps striking. I read somewhere that in Sarajevo — capital city of Bosnia and Herzegovina that endured, during the ethnic wars, the longest siege experienced by any capital city in the history of modern warfare — you can look down at the sidewalks today and see what are called ‘Sarajevo Roses’, small mortar shell craters now filled with red cement. Parts of the city have been rebuilt, but these scars are preserved to serve as reminders. Like the plaque on the walls of the burnt library.

In this show were video clips, the contents of which one could only guess at, because in the brochure that I saw were only still images: a buxom middle-aged woman standing at the edge of a forest of burning red leaves taking her clothes off, one after another and finally, back turned, throwing her hands despairingly in the air; a flight of stairs in a home on which a young woman is seen lying, sliding down from step to lower step, head downwards.

In the celebrated artist Maja Bajevic’s video, suggestively titled "How Do You Want To Be Governed?", however, the message is abundantly clear. There are four frames, the same young lady, short-haired, wearing a black dress with a white scarf or blouse figuring in each of them: in the first she looks straight ahead of her, a neutral expression on her face while some male hand reaches out to her head, as if benevolently patting it; in the second, she looks down, hair dishevelled, while the same hand comes in from outside the frame, turns into a tightened fist about to strike; in the third, the hand holds one of her ears and pinches it while she winces a little; and in the fourth, the hand reaches across her head to one side and tries to lightly turn it in another direction. There are no words, but the intent is clear in the authoritative title: "How Do You Want To Be Governed?" The expression on the face and the position of the outside hand point, respectively, from benign care, to brute force, to reprimand, to diverting attention. Choices, approaches, strategies?

What took my breath really away, however, was a photograph by the Ukrainian artist, Aleksander Petlura: a posed picture in which a motley group of some 20 unrelated persons, men and women, young and old, appear, seemingly stylishly dressed, each doing his or her own thing: looking straight at the camera, conversing, playing upon some instrument, gazing at an embroidery, clowning.

But one can see great sadness behind the facade of cheer. The clothes are old or re-stitched, the smiles false, the stances knowingly dramatic. It seems as if each person is a survivor, has emerged from the ordeal of some scarring atrocity. And each holds prominently an object: a broken cup, a ragged fur hat, a limp doll, a fading apron. It is as if everyone is hanging on to something from a lost past, some shred of memory.