Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Art and Memory

Lately I’ve been reflecting on memory. With two parents in their 80s struggling with failing memories, it is a subject that often occupies my thoughts. When I stumbled across the book Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer, a book that focuses on the topic of memory, I read it with great interest. Foer, a journalist, began his engagement with the topic when he wrote an article about a memory competition that encompassed seemingly impossible feats for us mere mortals.

As I read his book I learned about memory palaces in which one secretes images, the more ludicrous the image the better, as the purpose is to recall memories in a sequential order. The first memory palace was created after the ceiling fell at a banquet killing the people in the hall. The speaker had momentarily been called out of the room and was then called upon to try to recall everyone in the room to identify the dead. Working his way around the table he found he could recapture the visual information by visualizing spatially. The same concept was subsequently applied to assist in memory. Actual physical spaces are imagined as home to items on a list, each tucked into a different room. Numbers are converted to two letters that can be transformed to words and images as well. Soon Foer is bitten by the bug and begins to train for the American competition which he amazingly wins.

My mother is reading the book as well and taking notes, hoping to find some trick to make her recalcitrant memories stay put. She asked me what stayed with me from the book, even as I realized that my adequate and sometimes good memory often failed to retain the complexity of a book a month after reading it. But this book has meaning for me on a number of levels, both the personal and the artistic, and some key concepts have stayed with me because of their relevance.

Foer writes about the fact that we are using our memories in ways for which they were not originally designed. Memories weren’t designed to remember numbers; they were designed to rely on visual indicators for such practical tasks as determining if something was safe to eat. Thus most of the methods of retaining memory revolve around creating memorable visual imagery.

If you read this blog you know that I combine painting and story. I am often surprised when people come into my studio and tell me they were there a year ago and remember a story I told about a painting. Often they bring someone with them and ask me to tell them a particular story or show them a particular painting. My paintings seem to become memorable to them because of the accompanying stories and similarly the stories remain because of their association with imagery. It seems like a pretty basic concept, but I never fully appreciated the interrelationship between imagery and story until I began to think about it through the lens of memory.

When I take a story and imagine how to evoke it in a painting, I often combine disparate imagery, juxtaposing different times and places. When I give talks about my artwork, I don’t need notes to evoke the accompanying story. The image is a more than adequate prompt even providing sequencing similar to the rooms of a memory palace as I work my way through the directionality inherent in the painting. The act of doing a painting is actually not so different than that of creating a memory palace.

I used to keep a sketchbook when I traveled and when I recall those trips it is from the vantage point from which I did each sketch, fixed in memory by the sheer attentiveness required to do a drawing. I still remember a trip to Sorrento over Easter when there was a religious procession in the evening. It felt as if it would be disrespectful to take a photo so I mentally took a snapshot, noticing the shopkeepers framed in the light of their doorways and the sconces casting a glow on the stone walls. When we returned to our hotel I pulled out my pencils and recreated in great detail the image I had just committed to memory. I hadn’t thought myself capable of such a feat and was surprised at the capacity of my memory, one of the lessons of this book. The other lesson… paying attention is a lot of work and the very act of doing so is what contributes to memory. It is not something we tend to do habitually in this time when so much memory is externalized to computers and phones.

An artist friend told me that people often purchase her paintings because they remind them of something in their memory. Whether it is tapping existing memories or creating new ways to join story and imagery in memory, art and memory clearly have a connection. Story provides context, art provides visuals and the two together create a powerful vehicle for learning and retention.


1 comment:

  1. I just began reading a book called 1948 (can't remember the author). It tries to outline the whole history of how Israel came about. I asked my husband's friend (a Survivor) to provide me with reading material. He gave me three books and I'm starting with this one. When he came to dinner, he tried to provide a little background on the Zionist movement. It's been interesting.