Remakes of Memories
By Anselm Wagner
The term memory has a twofold meaning: generally the capacity of remembering and, more concretely and in a somewhat old-fashioned use, rememberance of the dead. Both cases involve making something present that is irretrievably lost. It is the distance to the immediate, living present or a feeling of loss that first makes it possible to remember. On the other hand, living without memory can hardly be imagined. “Life without memory is no life at all. Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it, we are nothing.” (Luis Bunuel, My Last Sigh, Minneapolis 2003). Roman law recognized not only the physical annihilation of a criminal, but also the removal of the criminal from collective memory with the “damnatio memoriae”. Victorious generals have always taken care to destroy every reminder of the conquered. One of the most perfidious attempts to erase collective memory is the destruction of libraries. When the Bosnian National and University Library in Sarajevo went up in smoke in August 1992 under attack by grenade launchers, 90 percent of its entire stock was destroyed by fire: two and a half million books, cards, paintings and photos. The central archive of an entire culture was to be made to vanish.
Šejla Kamerić, who was born in 1976 in Sarajevo, was a teenager at that time. A year later her father became a victim of the war, and the siege of Sarajevo only ended a further two years after that. Today she says that in a time when the destruction of buildings meant little in light of the pain of the loss of friends and relatives, the news of the destruction of the National Library still made her cry. Perhaps this event has contributed to the way that historical relics and memories later became so important in Kameric‘s art, and many of her works revolve around the concept of memory – in a double sense. At the same time, she usually makes use of found images, taking up their capacity for telling stories and recounting history, questioning and sometimes even destroying this capacity. Here the act of remembering or the reconstruction of what is past is often part of the work in a selfreflexive way.
“Sorrow” (2005), a large format slide in a light box, is especially revealing in this context. It shows a re-enactment of a drawing by Vincent van Gogh with the same title from 1882. His model for the picture was his companion at the time, Clasina “Sien” M. Hoornik, a former prostitute that he had found pregnant and thoroughly desperate in the street and taken in. Sien crouches naked on a flat stone or tree stump, her legs drawn up and her head buried in her crossed arms. The word “Sorrow” broadly lettered on the lower right edge of the picture transforms the nude into the embodiment of an abstract concept, a symbolic allegory of sexual exploitation, loneliness and alienation. Van Gogh expands on the title with a quotation from the historian Jules Michelet: “ Comment de fait-il qu’il ya ait sur la terre une femme seule – délaissé” (“How can it be that there is in the world one woman alone – deserted?”). The picture, title and quotation function here like the picture, motto and epigram of a baroque emblem, in other words situation, thesis and explanation. The latter appeals to the conscience of the observer: just as he, Vincent, felt pity for Sien and identified with her as a fellow sufferer, viewers should not refuse to empathize with similar fates and act accordingly. Šejla Kamerić‘s re-presentation of van Gogh‘s “Sorrow” takes this identification literally by posing the artist herself in the role of Sien /Sorrow. The occasion for this is an act of recollection: Kamerić was given a van Gogh monograph at the age of twelve and was deeply impressed by a depiction of “Sorrow”. Many years later she remembered her fascination at the time, which in retrospect seems like an anticipation of the traumatizations of war. She then actually slipped into the role of “Sorrow”, re-enacting not only van Gogh‘s picture, to be precise, but also her own childish adolescent identification. The means that she uses for this, however, are diametrically opposed to the crypto-expressive method of van Gogh, devoted to an aesthetic of the ugly and the impoverished. “Sorrow” is a large format slide in a light box familiar from advertising, presented as technically perfect studio photography, professionally illuminated, and with the softly drawn contours of an immaculate body in front of silky white drapery, it is the pure opposite of van Gogh‘s ungainly hard outlines. If one disregards the subject matter, the word “Sorrow” superimposed in large letters at the edge of the picture has the effect of the name of a cosmetics product in this context, and the quotation from Michelet, which can only be read close up, might refer to the details of the properties of this product.
The translation of van Gogh‘s drawing into a commercial language of this kind creates an effect of alienation, which is based, not least of all, on the emblematic structure of the original. Its appellative image-text combination is found again in the advertising of the 20th century, in which the emblem, which practically vanished with the baroque era, undergoes a revival. In addition, the picture and motto in traditional emblems often evoke a mysterious tension, which only the epigram resolves. With Kameric, on the other hand, content and form drift apart in a typically post-modern way, so that the reconstructing appropriation in the sense of a “memory”, but also the notorious ambivalence between western capitalist promises of happiness and actually existing misery become palpable. And although this misery has shifted locally since the days of Michelet and van Gogh, it has hardly been reduced.
With her “Sorrow” remake, however, Kameric refers not only to advertising aesthetics, but naturally also to Jeff Wall‘s staged photographs in light boxes, which are oriented to art historical originals and thus often recall living pictures, a popular social game around 1800. On the one hand, Kameric actually poses here as the model, reconstructing and vivifying the studio situation in van Gogh‘s atelier in Den Haag, but on the other hand she freezes into a kind of statue. The mutely shining and wax-like complexion of her body raises some doubts about whether a living person has been photographed here or a hyperrealistic sculpture. This ambivalence between life and death or art, symptomatic of the tableaux vivants, is discussed in Goethe‘s “Elective Affinities” (1809). The living pictures described in the second half of the novel captivate all the viewers with their perfection that surpasses painting (one feels reminded of Kameric‘s aesthetization of “Sorrow”), yet they induce “a kind of anxious sensation”, which will turn out to be a dark presentiment (just as the 12-year-old Sejla seemed to sense the catastrophes of the coming years). For example, Ottilie, the main female protagonist of the novel, assumes a pose before a child that has died by accident, in which she had already appeared in a tableau vivant, whereby her own body “resembles marble in whiteness and unfortunately also in coldness”. The art form recalled here (or already internalized, in Kameric‘s case, in childhood) serves as a habitual pattern and support for existential situations, but also conveys an experience of death at the same time. In another case, the poster “Bosnian Girl” (2003), Kameric employed the emblematic structure and advertising aesthetic to very directly recall the genocide in Bosnia and the mental attitude that made it possible.
Around 1994/95 a Dutch UNPROFOR soldier scratched a racist joke on the wall of his army barrack in Potocari (he belonged to the unit that was to become tragically famous for not preventing the massacre in Srebenica): “No teeth …? A moustache …? Smell like shit …? Bosnian girl!” In a spectacular poster, postcard and advertisement campaign, Kameric had herself photographed as an attractive covergirl with large dark eyes fixed on the viewer and an aesthetically dissolved body with the ugly graffiti from Potocari projected over her upper body, so that one has the impression she is looking in a mirror, on which a stranger has smeared the insulting words to humiliate her again every morning. At the same time, her serious reproachful gaze meets the (male) viewer, who inevitably ends up in the role of the misogynist, racist soldier (and perhaps it is, first of all, this identification that results in the shocking effect of “Bosnian Girl”). The brutal contrast between image and text radicalizes the traditional emblematic tension between picture and motto, and the small-print information about the origin of the graffiti functions in turn as an explanatory epigram. In this case, however, unlike the traditional convention of both emblems and advertising, it does not result in a reconciling resolution, but instead raises a bitter accusation.
Kameric‘s most recent work, the 15-minute short film and the 23-minute four-part film installation based on it, “What Do I Know” (2007), deals with another distant past, the time when her grandparents were still young. The setting is the house of her grandfather in Sarajevo, who ran a cafe on the ground floor and lived upstairs from it. In the now vacant building, it seems as though time has stood still: furniture, wall paper, dishes and other household items all breathe the spirit of the 1950s. With close-up shots and slow camera pans accompanied by quiet piano music through the abandoned rooms, the house becomes a still-life of itself. Children appear in between, dressed in historical costumes of adults at that time. There are brief allusions to three different interlocking love stories with unhappy or fatal ends. Archaic social rules allow no feelings, so they are expressed either solely in private or vented in abrupt explosions. Thus one hears of a murder because of a fight during a card game – or was it because of a woman? And in the end, a woman leaves her husband in the bedroom to dance in the restaurant to wild Roma music, surrounded stacks of tables and chairs and in front of a refrigerated vitrine containing nothing but a decorative fish made of glass. The scenic miniatures are linked by two twin sisters, old maids and eternal aunts, functioning as a red thread. They always appear together, just as Kameric discovered them in an old photograph in the family album. They whisper, put their heads together, are themselves both objects and subjects of unfulfilled desires. They pause, again and again, observing, waiting, standing at the edge like tableau vivants or pious Muslims interrupting their work for the “Ezan”, the call of the Muezzin. In the installation version of the film, which dispenses with dialogue, it is projected onto four screens at staggered intervals, sometimes also synchronously, so that epic simultaneity replaces linear narrative. This makes the existence of the protagonists as pure images (of memory) is even more obvious.
The choice of children fulfills several functions: on the one hand they illustrate the difference between person and role, between history and its remembering reconstruction representing a remake based on stories, conjectures, rumors and speculations that have been passed on for generations and take on more and more of a life of their own, thus also remaining forever young. Remembering ultimately does not mean merely recalling the past, but is instead an active work of construction: “Remembering constructs now- past through stories, into the construction of which our current notions of the constitution of the past flow,” writes the memory researcher Siegfried J. Schmidt. On the other hand, childhood is also the utopian place of a sentimental memory of our own origins, the paradoxical home, „which shines into the childhood of all and in which no one has yet been.“ (Ernst Bloch, The Principle of Hope, 1986, 1375-76).