Amnesia Museum and Lesions in the Landscape: The Inside and Outside of Memory
As an emerging museum professional, I thought that I thought a lot about memory. Museums, after all, are constructed by and, in turn, construct collective memory. But in the summer of 2018, I met Varvara, or maybe it was Vanya, while helping to facilitate a memory sharing activity with a group of dementia patients. She pushed me to think deeper about memory – the way it is constructed, what we can and cannot access, and how it is related to identity. She told me all about her life, past and present, and we mapped it out together with thick Crayola markers. Then, we mapped mine, drawing lines to connect areas of similarity. The connection we formed was intimate; it was linked to our personal narratives, the constructed memories of our pasts. The program coordinator later looked at our map and pointed out all the elements of Varvara/Vanya’s story that she knew were not true. “Dementia,” she told me, “is a curious state. Sometimes it’s not only about memory loss, but the creation of some imaginary space.” Varvara/Vanya hadn’t told me about her past, but instead had invited me into an imaginary world that she had constructed in the gaps – not quite the past, not quite the present, and not quite the future. A place outside memory, a place all her own.
Shona Illingworth’s practice has long been rooted in exploring memory, often collaborating with scientists to tackle this topic on a neuropsychological level. Moving through Topologies of Air at The Power Plant, for me, the show only came into focus upon entering the Amnesia Museum (2012-ongoing). Separated up a staircase, this part of the exhibition struck something, a curiosity that almost made me forget its antecedent down the stairs.
Shona Illingworth, Amnesia Museum (2012-ongoing), installed at The Power Plant, Shona Illingworth: Topologies of Air, 2022. Image by Henry Chan, courtesy of The Power Plant.
Described by Illingworth as “an expansive archive of forgetting,” the Amnesia Museum begins with Claire who, after suffering brain trauma, can no longer access her memories or make new ones. Casts of Claire’s brain lesion provoke questions about how her amnesia has impacted her sense of self and how she understands the world. Reminiscent of islands, the casts are paired with maps and photographs of the evacuation of the thirty-six remaining residents of St. Kilda, a Scottish archipelago, in 1930. This moment illustrates an instance of cultural erasure and the emergence of two conflicting memory paths: one where the island is an idyllic undisturbed homeland perfectly preserved at the time of evacuation and another where it serves as a site of military weapons testing.
Interestingly, Illingworth highlights that the myth of the sublime landscape is often privileged despite visual interventions in the landscape that signal a military presence. Illingworth describes memory as a “social, cultural, and political question” where some memories can be accessed and others are strategically repressed by self-censorship and broader initiatives of cultural censorship upheld by dominant powers, shaping what we chose to remember and leaving selective gaps.
Shona Illingworth, Lesions in the Landscape (2015), installed at The Power Plant, Shona Illingworth: Topologies of Air, 2022. Image by Henry Chan, courtesy of The Power Plant.
The memories that we are able to access not only shape how we remember the past, but also how we imagine the future. Lesions in the Landscape (2015), a video and sound installation, continues the conversation between Claire and St. Kilda to explore how memory impacts how we locate ourselves in time and space. Throughout the creation of Amnesia Museum and Lesions in the Landscape, Claire and Illingworth developed a strong collaborative bond as Illingworth sought to make sense of Claire’s neurological experience. Accordingly, the three-channel video is structured much like Claire’s memory, a stitched together non-narrative rumination flashing through a sparse landscape. A present with no past and no future. The video has a mysterious beauty to it. A way of looking at the world and of understanding memory that is outside otherwise “normal” perception. Claire exists in a present that is constructed outside of the bounds of memory while at the same time defined by her memory loss.
Both works make visible the gaps in memory and their complicated societal reverberations. For Claire, much like for Varvara/Vanya, memory loss is not cultural and selective dictated by some overarching societal power. Rather, it is rooted in damage and degeneration. Both women exist outside of the bounds of memory. From the gaps they build their own version of the world, constantly reconstructing the present. Illingworth reminds us to look to these gaps, to examine loss, and to think about how it might be generative (or not). Memory is forever a slippery thing - selective, impermanent, and arguably out of our control. We are always building perceptions of the present, and I'm not convinced we can really trust memory anyways.