Remembrance of the last of us

Aaron Rosen is entranced by the V&A’s daring exhibition, where words and art fuse to bring a dystopian vision to life

June 20, 2013

Sky Arts Ignition: Memory Palace
Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Until 20 October

Memory Palace
By Hari Kunzru
V&A Publishing, 112pp, £12.99 (e-book £11.99)
ISBN 9781851777369
Published 18 June 2013

The technological achievements of the recent past have already become the stuff of hagiography. After his death in 2011, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs attained a level of reverence usually reserved for the beatified. And like every saint, Jobs has his relics, including an Apple 1 assembled in his garage, which fetched nearly £450,000 at auction this May. But what if all our computers – and indeed every digital device – suddenly shuddered to a stop, plunging the world into a dark age? What would we make of the carcasses of our precious iPhones, iPads and iPods? Would they become sacred remnants or rubbish?

In the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Memory Palace, described as a “walk-in story” that brings to life a new work of fiction by Hari Kunzru, the novelist and 20 collaborators from across the graphic arts conjure a dystopian future in which first the devices of memory, and eventually the act itself, are verboten. Less of an exhibition than an environment, Memory Palace envelops the audience, first and foremost, in a story. Text at the entrance informs us that a magnetic storm has swept across the planet, leaving only the most rudimentary technology in its wake. Eventually, after several hundred years of enforced “Withering”, all that remains of our era of “Booming” are half-remembered myths about the staggering, magical powers of “tricknology”.

Our protagonist belongs to a heretical sect of “Memorialists”, which bravely transmits tales of the past under threat of death. After his arrest for belonging to an “internet”, the Memorialist finds himself in a squalid, featureless cell. For his own survival, and that of the precious memories he has been charged with preserving, he imagines a “Memory Palace” crammed with holy fragments of history, science, philosophy and art. Entering the show, we step inside the prisoner’s head and into an uncanny “memory” of the present day.

The premise is original enough to be gripping, yet familiar enough to digest without too much exegesis. There are literary shades of Orwell, Kafka and, especially, Borges but there are also conscious nods to other media, including Alan Moore’s graphic novel V for Vendetta (1988) and Fritz Lang’s visionary film Metropolis (19). Rather than making Memory Palace derivative, these winks and nods cleverly mirror the plot, in effect recollecting and reassembling the genre of the post-apocalyptic itself.

The structure of Kunzru’s novella is likewise a pastiche of different styles, interspersing narrative sections with lists and other mnemonics, which often offer a dose of light relief. For example, we learn that “Old London” comprised a series of magnificent gates including Kings Curse, Use Town, Great Poor Land Street, The Edge Where, Notting Hell and Waste Monster. With touching innocence, the Memorialist’s dictionary tells us that “A bomb or boom was energy in a small space. In the beginning there was a seed or paradigm, which exploded, growing the towers and the hospitals and the bridges and pradas and ponzis.”

Ultimately, the success of the exhibition hinges on Kunzru’s ability to tread a middle ground between fragmentation and coherence. When co-curators Laurie Britton Newell and Ligaya Salazar first hatched the idea of the show, their guiding intuition was that they needed a writer willing to explore non-linear forms of narration, which would nonetheless still revolve around a central theme. First and foremost, this bricolage allows readers the freedom to navigate their own route through the show, in essence assembling their own memory palace. It also naturally generated discrete, detachable segments, which the curators could snap apart and assign to individual artists or studios to re-present.

Crucially, this structure allowed the curators to leave some passages out of the exhibition altogether. Newell and Salazar recognised the very real risk that the reader could be exhausted by the text, regardless of its quality. Rather than produce an awkward miscegenation between book and exhibit, incapable of flourishing in either format, they opted to allow two projects to evolve out of the same genetic material. In its book format, Kunzru’s complete text rightly takes precedence, interspersed with the artists’ working images. In the exhibition, the text is pruned down to its roots, allowing the images and objects to self-propagate. To borrow a phrase from Kunzru, a great interpretive “wilding” takes place.

To those acquainted with contemporary graphic art, the list of artists involved in the project will read like an all-star cast of designers, illustrators and graphic novelists. And while this is certainly not a survey show, one of the curators’ aims was to draw from as wide a pool as possible, across multiple media and nationalities. Given this accumulation of talent, an extraordinary degree of humility runs through the project. It begins with the curators’ open brief to Kunzru, who in turn allows his text to be reorganised and reinterpreted by visual artists, who themselves manage to coexist and cross-pollinate across creative boundaries. This ethos is reflected in the choice to avoid attributions within the exhibition, which – like most of the curatorial decisions – emerges organically from the nature of the project. For some, this collaborative process already lies at the heart of their practice, especially the London-based artist collectives Åbäke and Le Gun. For others, the exhibition may well be a breeding ground for future collaborations.

For sheer dynamism and delight, Le Gun takes the cake with an ambulance driven by a winged shaman and a pack of foxes, evoking everything from the 1960s board game Operation to the prophetic visions of Ingmar Bergman’s film The Seventh Seal (1957). The dizzying black-and-white detailing of Le Gun’s fantastical chariot finds its counterpoint in Henning Wagenbreth’s tower of brightly coloured building blocks, playing on the prisoner’s clunky definition of the museum as a place for musing and amusement. Each block has a different German or English word or phrase inscribed on every side, making the simple act of stacking bricks a complex exercise in language formation, as new shibboleths are coined and familiar expressions disrupted. The serious business of preservation and organisation – the conceptual mortar of the museum – is but the flip side of creation and confusion.

Much as Wagenbreth does with his babbling bricks, Sam Winston imagines a periodic table in which the elements have floated free from their boxes, swirling and recombining into mysterious new icons. Winston finds his inspiration in the Memorialist’s statement that “In the ancient libraries and hospitals the alphabet marks were chanted as a prayer”. Like all the prisoner’s memories, there is a profundity in his error. Even as he distorts plain sense he transmits a deeper truth: in the words of Primo Levi, “formulas are as holy as prayers, decree-laws, and dead languages”.

Winston’s three metal plates – embossed with the components of a SIM card, a watch and a book, respectively – may no longer be legible as chemical formulae but they evoke the yantra, tablet and triptych of different faiths. Belief in one system has migrated to several others, leaving behind trace elements or, better yet, elements to trace.

Seen through the eyes of artists, Kunzru’s vision is perhaps not so cynical after all. “Despair is only possible when you have hope,” he writes, but perhaps there is also hope in the charting and transmission of despair. Ultimately, Memory Palace is just as insightful about the future of culture as it is about the future of curation. Without a doubt, it is the most exciting curatorial experiment in recent memory.

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