For the past seven years, the Serpentine Gallery Marathon series has been an enlightening and thought-provoking contribution to the art world during the Frieze Art Fair Week focussing upon a specific theme (ie. the Map Marathon in 2010, the Poetry Marathon in 2009, etc.).
This year the Serpentine Gallery hosted the Memory Marathon which offered an extraordinary and eclectic range of lectures and art presentations as part of its annual festival of ideas originally inspired by the pavilion commission. Curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist, this year's Memory Marathon demonstrates once again that this event is one of London's best art happenings of the year.
The Memory Marathon was launched Friday evening with 'La Suite,' a magical five-hour musical performance by Lebanese sound artist Tarek Atoui who assembled fourteen internationally renowned musicians to include the brilliantly deconstructive percussion of Lukas Ligeti and the shamanistic voice of Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe. Using the musical structure of traditional Arab music, Atoui weaves together the wasla (وصلة) of over eight movements creating a suite of vocal and instrumental pieces that are set to the same maqam (مقام) or melodic modal scales which are both composed and improvised, both metric and non-metric (taqsim, تَقْسِيم). Each performer learned of their roles within this wasla only ten minutes before their intervention. 'La Suite' incorporates the musical styles from traditional Egyptian music reminiscent of Om Kalthoum and Mohammed Abdel Wahab to the the minimalist inflections of music inspired by Philip Glass and Steve Reich. As fitting with the theme of memory, 'La Suite' borrows from musical structures of the distant and recent past while debuting an eclectic style of music where East does not necessarily meet West (or vice versa), but rather where musical forms and styles are brought together in a subtle syncretism wherein the spectator is brought to an euphoric and ecstatic state known as tarab (طرب).
The Memory Marathon continued with Julia Peyton-Jones who reminds us that culture is about 'bridging the collective gap through memory' and Hans Ulrich Obrist who invokes Eric Hobsbawm stating that like history, memory is also 'a protest against forgetting.' Israel Rosenfield discusses the inaccuracies of human memory detailing the historical and empirical developments of memory in the theories of Wilder Penfield, a Canadian neurosurgeon whose work on stimulating recall was later debunked through data analysis and DNA evidence which exonerated scores of inmates who had been previously incarcerated due to faulty eye-witness testimony. Elaborating his experiences with blindness and memory, John Hull maintains that there is a strong link between his somatic inability to see and his inability to recall certain information. Hull affirms a link between bodily function and memory stating that 'the sighted world is a projection of their sighted bodies.' Marina Warner expounds upon Shaharazad and 1001 Nights wherein she maintains the nexus between storytelling and history, between the oral and written processes of narration and how memory and repetition functions in such a way that, like the weaving of cloth, 'vicissitudes of structural motifs' are created. Conversely, Viktor Mayer-Schönberger defends the merits of forgetting as he contends that forgetting preserves our ability to forgive, concluding with: 'Let us remember to forget.'
Donald Sassoon's project on constructing historical memories analyses historical emphasis on certain events but not others within the 20th century. Sassoon goes on to interpret Willy Brand's infamous 1970 visit to Warsaw noting how it is the innocent who remember and ask for forgiveness for past tragedies in which they had no part. Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster executes a brilliant performance in which she writes on a 1980s style green on black LED screen merging together fragments of memory from cinema, opera and literature. Gavin Bryars and Etel Adnan create a timeless electronic-poetic collaboration as she recalls: 'I watched cactus grow among your eyelashes.' Hans Ulrich Obrist and John Berger discusses a short film, Ways of Listening, which Berger made in collaboration with Tilda Swinton wherein both recall their fathers' reticence to discuss the wars in which they fought (World Wars I and II respectively). Berger closes this session by reading a poem about the riots in London underlining, 'Looting is consumerism standing on its head with empty pockets.'
Sissel Tolass descants her work on smell and memory and John Giorno recites his poetry, recollecting his experiences with Andy Warhol and William Burrough's death: 'It was one of the best experiences I have had with him.' Michael Stipe presents a performance piece in which he recalls his first published photo as a child in the local newspaper, his being called the 'Maybelline Cowboy' by classmates who made fun of his long eyelashes, and sharing a dressing room with Mikhail and Raisa Gorbachev and Cher. On the screen above his head is projected a brightly lit sitting room with a large ventriloquized version of Stipe's face poking out of the sofa, moving its mouth in asynchronism to Stipe's narrative.
Siah Armajani recalls his immigration from Iran to the United States, noting the vast difference in how each culture regards time: 'In Iran we started life with the past tense...In the United States nobody remembers anything.' Eyal Weizman expatiates how memory is filtered through trauma and Alberto Garutti confirms in a post-existentialist manner that 'every step that I have taken in my life has brought me here, now.' Dimitar Sasselov expounds upon cosmic and biosphere memory and Alice Rawsthorn addresses issues between design and desirability, the practical and the aesthetic and between memories and nostalgia. Gilbert and George recite their 'Brussels Alphabet' and Isabel Lewis head bangs her choreography on memory and social dance.
The architects commissioned to design this year's Serpentine Gallery Pavilion, Pierre de Meuron and Jacques Herzog (Ai Weiwei was not permitted to leave China), cover the role of memory in this year's construction. Joined by filmmaker Amos Gitai, all three propose Utopia as an antidote to memory. After the screening one of her film, Will-o'-the-Wisp, Dara Birnbaum expressly rejects Utopian visions contending that it is essential to reflect on history and on memory as a means of better seeing the present reality before us.
Ed Atkins' 'Depression' is a performance piece wherein a digitally altered voice narrates a beautifully crafted story of the brain as it translates melancholy through electronic sounds, blue screen, and microphone. Depression for Atkins is the act of marking, the ability to speak simultaneously of and as: 'This is an attempt to speak of depressions. To speak as depressions. For speech, words, etc. to depress. A coincidence of forms to depress.' One of the closing pieces of the the Me reconciliation mory Marathon is Adam Curtis' presentation of his film The Living Dead wherein he explores how 20th century psychiatry had long pursued tabula rasa theories of the mind in order to set people free from traumatic memories and then as a potential instrument of social control when the Cold War emerged.
Echoing the sentiments of historian Eric Hobsbawm to whom this year's event was dedicated, the Serpentine Gallery's Memory Marathon attests through a heterogeneous cross-section of disciplines from the arts, sciences and humanities that while memory can be both 'complex and sometimes dangerous' it can also be the source of reconstruction, and beauty.