Unforgotten Utopias: Sharing the Archive
Gabriella Arrigoni

“Memory, that return us the forgotten, is itself forgetful and this forgetfulness is its own light” (Giorgio Agamben, ‘The Idea of Prose’)

“Whenever we are trying to recover a recollection, to call up some period of our history, we become conscious of an act sui generis by which we detach ourselves from the present in order to replace ourselves, first, in the past in general, then, in a certain region of the past – a work of adjustment like the focusing of a camera. But our recollection still remains virtual.” (Henry Bergson, ‘Matter and Memory’)

Since its early days, photography has been associated with the idea of the archive, providing the possibility of representing, recording and recalling specific objects. It operates both as a formal personal storage and as collective documentation. For an understanding of Marjolaine Ryley’s new project, Michel Foucault’s archaeology of knowledge might suggest a suitable insight. For the French philosopher the archive is a system that is the basis of the formation of every discourse. Not just a depository of the past, it actively gives form and meaning to constellations of facts in a manner that is not necessarily historical or coherent but reflects a particular cast of mind. Ryley’s gathering of documents of her past – texts, found snapshots and photographs especially created for the exhibition – is a discourse where disjointed, non-linear narratives interlace in a network of overlapping fragments. It relies on the viewer to establish connections, associations and interpretations.

Her entire production has been related to the exploration of loss, domestic relationships, family and memory. Her latest research, “Growing up in The New Age”, focuses on her education and the cultural environment she inhabited as a child. During the ‘Seventies, Ryley attended one of the very few “anarchistic free schools” in Britain. The teaching system there was modelled on Summerhill, an institution that pioneered in radical “child-centred”, democratic education, and encouraged free creativity. Moreover, Ryley grew up living in squats and transitory communities, and her childhood memories are filled with New Age beliefs and counter-cultural, psychedelic imagery that were part of her parents’ environment.

The images recollected in the installation both reconstruct a personal and intimate legacy and act as evidence of a particular zeitgeist. They tackle contradictions between ideals and reality, showing how domestic life was transformed by new ideologies intended to overthrow the individualist, patriarchal, bourgeois and capitalist system of the time. These ideologies were held during the late ‘Sixties and early ‘Seventies only by a minority, but they were never completely defeated and some of their issues still exert an appeal on contemporary thinking. The variety of documents on display allows for a movement from the private to the public dimension, building a sort of shared, collective archive. A constellation of alternative medicine, music, collectivism, esotericism, nature-worship and spiritual practices are interwoven with the artist’s own family history and with imaginary narratives. The association of words and images gives hints for a possible storytelling where the viewer turns to his own imagination to fill the gap left open by the artist. Despite evoking intimate and specific events, in fact, the two texts directly address the reader by using the second person (“You imagined your school floating on an island…”). A sort of mutual exchange of memories takes place, turning around two groups of images. A triptych alludes to a visionary lost continent under the sea: blue shells, gigantic mushrooms and aquatic souvenirs form a visual scenario where the childish fantasy of a hidden universe conflate with the utopian hopes of adults for a new society and a new way of life.

Referring to Zoe Leonard, in a recent essay art historian George Baker1 highlights the affective, maternal and almost uterine nature of the camera. He describes it as a sort of receptive cavity able to capture images and literally incorporate objects into its own body, similar to the process through which our minds internalise lost experiences as memories. The nature of photography itself is relational and emotional, feminine in a way, whenever it is intended as an artistic expression, or an entirely private and recreational activity. In opposition with this ‘soft’ disposition, photography is at the same time a means of isolating moments, and detaching them from their context and from the flux of life. Ryley, in her new pictures, tries to reduce this ‘violence’ and to settle fractures by addressing a broad range of feelings, values, and senses. She seeks connections between fact and fiction, past and present, tracing interactions between the two.

Thousands of pages have been written on the relationship between memory and imagination. They have often been considered as totally disconnected and independent, addressing respectively to the past on one side, and to the fantastic and the unreal on the other side. In the artist’s perspective, however, images work as a kind of ‘lifebelt’ that provides a shelter against time and contrast with the ephemeral nature of our experiences. Events and experiences that cannot come back find here a space where they can be re-enacted and enriched by other people’s contributions. The impossibility of reconstructing and reliving the past opens up renewed, ever changing narratives – perhaps the only possible way to fight absence.

This text was written for the exhibition ‘Like Tears in rain’ Curated by Luiza Teixeira de Freitas, 2010.

1. 50 Lune di Saturno, II Torino Triennial catalogue, 2008.