The Art of Forgetting: Jeremy Emmendorfer’s BFA Exhibition

by Zoe Beaudry

“Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives.”

Does this phrase spark a flicker of recognition? Though it originated from the intro to the long-standing soap opera “Days of Our Lives,” it has appeared in many forms since the show first aired in 1965. The powerful image of sand slipping away through the center of the hourglass is a poignant metaphor for the ephemerality of life, the time we have left, and the relation between our past, present, and future. The printmaking work of Jeremy Emmendorfer addresses these issues with a striking clarity. His aptly titled BFA Thesis Exhibition, Through the Hourglass, at the Gwen Frostic School of Art, used this oft-quoted phrase to introduce his examination of our sense of time and our ability to remember. Emmendorfer’s work deals primarily with the forgotten and demands of the viewer: What is it to forget? Is all we have forgotten lost or just hidden from our view?

Ironically, this question is as timeless as its askers are impermanent. The concept of forgetting is well illustrated in Milan Kundera’s 1979 novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Here, Kundera asserts that man’s life on earth is a constant cycle of learning and forgetting; that people ultimately forget much more than they know. Today, it takes only a glance at a family album or perhaps even a friend’s old facebook album to present us with a lost memory, a ghost of a moment that presently exists only as a disembodied image. Emmendorfer uses this “family album” aesthetic with his own photos from the past, personalizing his own struggle to capture the elusive, ever-changing “present.” Kundera assures us that this struggle is futile: “The struggle of memory against forgetting is the struggle of man against power.” [1]

Through the Hourglass was composed of half a dozen pieces in varying media. The most direct message presented was the piece The Album. The piece spans about 3 by 5 feet of wall space and was composed of 24 photos on the wall which appear to be snapshots from Emmendorfer’s childhood. The photos capture typical family moments that at first seem almost mundane due to their generic “family album” appearance. However, the photos were slightly overexposed and blurred. They appeared damaged by water or light, as well as time. This piece investigates the nature of photography as a medium. Does being able to “capture” a moment visually allow for a more accurate memory of our lives, or simply encourage us to distort and glorify those memories? The damaged quality of the photos speaks to our ability to truly remember moments from our childhood and implies the unavoidable influence of nostalgia on our recollections of the past. The ability to be presented with an image of ourselves at a moment we do not remember has an enormous effect on our self-conception. In an instant, we can bring out dozens of associations with the image, and recreate an entire memory from it. In a way, the images in The Album provoke thought on a more collective memory, or certain memories that many people share and can relate to.

Jeremy Emmendorfer, The Album, digital print, 8” by 6”, detail from collection of 24 photos.

Many other contemporary artists have explored the representation of collective and personal memory in art. Colombian-born artist Doris Salcedo uses sculpture and site-specific installations to evoke certain memories that are attached to place, drawing attention to the collective place-memory. Salcedo calls her work “memory sculpture” and attempts to bring attention to her culture’s history through memorial imagery. For example her piece Shibboleth, a giant crack on the floor of the Tate Modern, represents the struggles Colombian immigrants. Of this work, she states, “The sculpture presents the experience of the past as something present- a reality that resounds within the silent memory of each human being that gazes upon it.” [2]

This sense of time and its effect on our memories is also emphasized in Emmendorfer’s work, On the Couch. In the center of the gallery space, eight square transparency sheets hung from the ceiling, separated into two rows of four. Looking straight at the piece from the intended angle, we could see two squares. The four layers of transparency in each row created the image on each square. Each layer hung approximately 1 foot back from the next, giving the piece about 3 feet of depth. Each sheet was printed with a visible set of CMYK dots of color that only partially covered it, just a segment of the whole image created by the four sheets combined. As the viewer stands facing the two rows, the two full images appear, created by the partial images on each of the hanging transparencies. As the transparencies recede back in space, the printed images become less and less distinct, the dots of color bigger and looser. But looking straight on at the image, a coherent picture came to life, an image of Emmendorfer as a child sitting on a couch with his family. This recession into space imitates the recession of our memories into the past. Our most distant memories may be hazy and underdeveloped, but through our nostalgic imaginings we recall a clear image of past situations and feelings. To look at the hanging transparencies from any other angle would confuse the eye and render the image incomprehensible, much like an attempt to comprehend or recreate the past. Kundera tells us, “The degree of slowness is directionally proportional to the intensity of memory. The degree of speed is directionally proportional to the intensity of forgetting.” [3] Our interaction with On the Couch makes us question the time passed and continuously passing, and how that affects our ability to remember.

Similarly, performance and video artist Susan Hiller’s work draws on influence from personal memory. She calls it “restoration of the past,” and uses images of herself and common American cultural images that lend a certain anonymity to her work, allowing the viewer to relate in much the same way as the viewer of Emmendorfer’s work relates to the average viewer. On Susan Hiller and this technique, critic Alicia Foster writes, “Using the techniques of collecting and cataloguing, presentation and display, one transforms the everyday ephemera into art works that offer a means of exploring the individual and collective unconscious, subconscious and memory.” [4] Hiller’s 2008 film, The Last Silent Movie, displays merely a black screen with subtitles that translate dialogue of lost and dying languages. The speakers discuss their disappearing customs and memories, and the result is undeniably melancholic. The fact that we are watching video art in conjunction with the speakers’ antiquated language creates a disparity in time period that adds to this nostalgic feeling.

Similarly, Jeremy Emmendorfer and Nolan Friske is a mixed-media piece that combines acrylic paint with printmaking, a juxtaposition of modern and antiquated styles of representation that present the viewer with a time period gap. This gap must be reconciled in order to understand the image. The piece depicts two boys, presumably Jeremy and Nolan sitting together and smiling. The boys’ faces and the background are painted with Cezanne-like planes of color that overlap and create a painterly style. The contrast between these loose strokes and the technical, precise look of the printed dots in their arms creates a tension between the past and the current. This piece illustrates a marriage of present and past, a convergence in one image that brings together Emmendorfer’s current work with his childhood. Here again we see the influence of time in Emmendorfer’s work.

The combination of our past, present and future can seem overwhelming when we attempt to see them simultaneously, especially with the use of photographs. Through the Hourglass attempts to reconcile this inevitable loss of time with life in the present. Emmendorfer’s work is a successful comment on the way time passes, that manages to provoke introspection into the viewer’s own memories.

“We must never allow the future to collapse under the burden of memory.” Milan Kundera [5]

Notes:

[1] Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 1980), 7. See: Milan Kundera, http://www.kundera.de/english/.

[2] Doris Salcedo, “Interview with Carlos Basualdo,” 2, in: Nancy Princenthal, Carlos Basualdo and Andreas Huyssen, eds., Doris Salcedo, (London: Phaidon, 2000).

[3] Kundera, 18.

[4] Alicia Foster, “Susan Hiller,” Tate Women Artists (London: Tate Publishing, 2003), 10.

[5] Kundera, 167.

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