Every act of perception, is to some degree an act of creation, and every act of memory is to some degree an act of imagination.Dr Oliver Sacks, Scientist and Writer
The notion that we see with the brain, activating perception and memory, serves as a useful point of departure in the work by Clea van der Grijn in her exhibition Reconstructing Memory. If perception is creation and memory becomes imagination, the recollections found in our memories, our own personal responses, are immediately driven to the forefront of our minds and evoke strong reactions. Far from being just objects, the artefacts, installations, paintings, and sculpture in Reconstructing Memory provide a multiple responses—intentionally cathartic, emotive, and sublime—while perception becomes creation and memory drives imagination. This essay looks particularly at the artist’s process with time and memory as the essence of both place and how we understand who we are.
For nearly a decade van der Grijn has been interested in the rational, social, and emotional constructs around death and loss. Her creative process, however, is non-linear and unregulated. This method of intentionally, creative permutation facilitates a response that is both intentional and non-defined, evolving intuitively. The process provides for an interesting tension between the conceptual and creative process. One reading of van der Grijn’s exhibition is indeed about death, dying, and memorial. But a deeper reading finds the prioritization of the creative process—one that is emotive, socially engaged, and responsive—which allows for a more complex understanding of both the artist’s oeuvre and the audiences engagement to it.
For van der Grijn, site plays an essential part of the creative process. Site is represented in the work as place—found in the cultures of Ireland, Mexico, and the USA—as well as locations such as graveyards and jungles. With a direct connect to site, individual works become objects that bear witness to memories and installations embody the experience of witnessing. For example, in Alter Piece (2016), the artist draws out complicated emotive responses from the viewer through an installation that includes light, sounds, smells, and objects. Place is not only conceptual or emotive in the artist’s work but it is also a site of intervention. Audiences feel they are part of this place which the artist presents; it is warm and dark, and sounds are just beyond identification. Vision and smell—two other strong senses—induce a sensation and memory in us. We question where we are and what we are doing here?
Time and place are continually complicated through sound in the exhibition, which is connected by three sound and two video installations bleeding into each other. Through the films Reconstructing memory (girl) 2015 ; Reconstructing memory (Dusk to dawn ) 2015/16. Reconstructing memory ( Madonna ) 2016 , the built environment spaces become a central expression of the artist’s process. We see and feel where the artist explores the ideas of death, dying, and memorial, drawing our own personal experiences within us into the viewing. The audio work, is an oratorical manifestation of the sounds of the jungle, animals, the cemetery and the complicated affected sites of dawn and dusk in Mexico. In other installations the elements of dramatic images of imagery, of imaginary characters (one of a reoccurring girl) are combined with heat and darkness and sensory components such as smell. The interjections of multiple senses become both salacious and highly intrusive observations of death rituals yet are also coupled with tender moments and bouts of sadness or empathy surrounding death. Laughter and celebration can be found too, but with melancholic undertones.
The place—in Ireland, Mexico or the United States—serves as the site of process for van der Grijn. Characters and objects become surrogates for both the artist and ourselves. The artist’s research into ritual and memorial provides a critical element to the process—guiding the investigation into the act of creation and imagination. Van der Grijn’s work in Sayulita, a remote community of 4000 on the west coast of Mexico and the dense jungle of Baha de Banderas; is not a site of mass genocide or large-scale memorial, but rather a place of normal lives and of everyday dying. We live here; we die here. The artist observed rituals we know and undertake, understanding them more as she unpacked her own response to death. The process then becomes cathartic—for the artist and for the viewer.
In “Matter and Memory” (1896), the philosopher Henri Bergson wrote that “all sensation is already memory.” Van der Grijn’s work presents experiences and objects that endlessly slip into the past and back again. The interconnectedness of time, the place of creation, and the impact of memory facilitate the creative process for van der Grijn. As we look at the artist’s process with time as the essence of both place and how we understand who we are, the altering of time facilitates new readings of what we understand. For example, our empathy may be heightened, which can, in turn, allow us to engage/connect with death and objects such as Antique Lace Dress (2014), Water Vessel (2015), and Antique Carousel Horse (2014). These objects can be read in relation to both their original site as well as their new context. In museums we often understand that the objects as codifers for cultures, a certain time or place. But in Reconstructing Memory, the artists disconnects to reconnect—objects are placed in juxtaposed positions. For example, Bell Jars (2015) and Five Frogs in Victorian Box (2015) subvert historical museological presentations, giving new meanings to objects and allowing for re-consideration. The most striking example of upending musological constructs may be the room of 100 small, child-size skulls in the work of Porcelain Skulls (2016). The nature of the objects is both extraordinarily moving and shockingly poignant when connected to the dozens of photographs of children’s graves. But van der Grijn is not into sensationalism or spectacle, instead she provokes strong emotive gestures. If we look closely at the series Angels Graves (2015), we can see a date of birth but often no date of death. In Mexican culture, this means the soul is free to come and go. With this connection, the audience is stirred into deep contemplation.
Other works such as Marigold Ball (2016) and Room of Marigolds (2016) recall specific Mexican rituals, ones we can garner, but whi also present for the audiences a site for overwhelming sensory sublimity. The vastness of the room and the obsession with the symbol of the marigold, provides us with a complicated reading. Over months the artist has grown, cultivated, and harvested marigolds in a ritualistic endeavor. But for whom? For us? For those who have passed? For memory? For art? The delicately constructed balls sit quietly and beautifully as objects but portend something far more. The process of collecting thousands of flowers directly connects process, time and memory. They ask us to reflect, to consider, to remember, to re-remember.
Yet as we move in and out of memories and experiences, the artist’s hand is still present. Van der Grijn guides us through a cacophony of senses to arrive at both the bold and direct series of Marigold Fields (2016) paintings and documentary-like photographs. Large, somewhat abstract paintings may be a direct, personal response to the body of work by van der Grijn. She holds onto the memories invested in her by both her Irish and Mexican experiences ( lived and learned). And like many contemporary artists, van der Grijn has elected not to focus on one medium to represent her 10-year investigations. Rather, the sculptures, photographs, installations, collaborative sounds, and video works are all connected with the thread of this research leading ultimately, to the paintings. Van der Grijn says, “It wouldn’t happen the other way around”. And it is through these
juxtapositions that we are reminded where the memory, at least for these works, began. This combination realigns the viewer back into the art of perception, acts of creation and imagination.
All of the work shown in Reconstructing Memory has been intentionally created with others. As acts of conviviality and reciprocity, van der Grijn gathers others on this creative work. Working through the touchstone of losing a brother at a young age, van der Grijn asks others to become part of the process. This engaged process was carried out in Sayulita with locals taking part in films and making sugar skulls and inviting the artist’s family to join in Day of the Dead ceremonies. It occurred in Sligo, as the artist garnered local support for the growing, cultivation and harvesting of marigolds. The artistic process then becomes a tool for connection.
With a direct connection to site, individual works become objects that bear witness to memories and installations embody the experience of witnessing. With acts of conviviality and reciprocity, van der Grijn gathers others in this creative work.
As we walk through the exhibition, we can understand the artist’s process with time and memory; we see the essence of place; and we bring our own memories to bear hopefully understanding better who we are. In that way, Reconstructing Memory is a relational body of work in that the work is really only understood by experiencing it. This engagement with other people and places; with memory and death; with ritual and remembering is intentional. Through this process van der Grijn has created a physical and conceptual tether between artists and art; artworks and viewers, and memory and imagination.