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The Lion and the Smirking Donkey

Amanda Hellsten. Royal Institute of Art Graduation Show 2020

Nothing seems as it used to be for Bachelor and Master students in Fine Art presenting their graduation show during unusual times. Robert Brečević, lecturer at the Royal Institute of Art, shares his thoughts on the project, on display at Konstakademien, the Royal Academy of Art in Stockholm, from 29 August till 27 September 2020. 

I envisage a lawn surrounded by a tall hedge. Peeking through the green leaves are round, white berries; snowberries, known colloquially in swedish as crackberries – since they pop so sonorously between thumb and forefinger when you squeeze them. A poetic redundancy arises when two transferred meanings lend names to the same round, inedible object. The soft grass tickles my toes as I scatter my stuff around, a bag of memories, for viewing. Among strawberry-scented erasers, office pens with company logos and other treasures is a yellow plastic lion. It fits nicely in the palm of a three-year-old, and I recall how my annoyed father snatches it from me. This is what happens when a child insists on holding a small, yellow, plastic lion in front of his face every time a father snaps the shutter after telling me to stand absolutely still and look into the camera. The purpose of family photography is, at the end of the day, to make the subject identifiable. The picture must be left as a piece of evidence for the family down in the old country. Anyway, this day I learned something new. About sightlines. And that objects turn out larger if they are closer to a viewing eye or camera lens. Your face can’t be seen, father bellows. 

In his dialogue on eloquence and the art of speech, De Oratore, Cicero describes a memory technique, the method of loci – also called the memory palace – in which mental images are placed in familiar settings. The hedge, crackberries and grass described above form an enclosing room, a living room I construe to recall my childhood. Here it is eternally spring. Other places must serve as background settings for the winters of my life. Application of the method of loci underscores that recollection is an active act, a reconstruction–and that memories are what we put on exhibit in imaginary places. This mnemonic exercise prompts me to reflect on the final exhibition of 2020 at the Royal Institute of Art as a presentistic form of memory technology – with images, objects and places in an eternal here and now. The resemblance to an ongoing criminal investigation is striking: evidence and intentions, clues and leads – and squadrons of visitors shuffling about with short, restrained “guided-art-tour steps” through halls, studios and galleries. We all play our roles as undercover sur- veillants meritoriously as we search for motives, perpetrators and victims – with the magnifying glass being the only missing prop. 

The forensic analogy is by no means taken from thin air. It has its actual origins in the creation history of the method of loci as re-counted by Cicero, Quintilian, Frances Yates and many others. A palace collapses on a Greek island, everyone dies – everyone except the poet who was swindled out of half his pay through exercising his artistic freedom and leaving the party early. Simonides of Ceos, a pen for hire, becomes the one faced with the difficult job of identifying those buried under the roof of the great banquet hall on behalf of the survivors. He solves this by consciously recreating the table seating chart during the festivities he so hastily left. By evoking an inner map of who is sitting next to whom, he remembers all the faces. From the ruins of a destroyed palace, he then creates a memory palace. 

Sometime in March 2020, many palaces collapse under the weight of the collective fear of a rampant pandemic. Doors and borders close, a whole world enters quarantine, and freedom of movement, which the producers, teachers and students participating in this exhibition have taken for granted, is heavily circumscribed. Suddenly we lack access to our usual localities: the studio, the workshop, the lecture hall, the seminar room. The halls and galleries of the Institute of Art are behind bars. The customary spring exhibition is postponed to autumn – and so isolated in front of our screens, we need to start remembering. It is a question of recreating the “table seating chart” for 26 art students who, scattered to the four winds, are now forced to send messages in digital bottles that mangle human discourse into a ping-pong of point-counterpoint. 

We loiter in the memory of often strolling from studio to studio, from the fourth to third floor of the Royal Institute’s main building–to the right of the canteen with the simmering coffee maker or next to the sculpture modeling hall. Works that have not yet been hung or works that have already been displayed in Gallery Mejan (nickname for the Academy) all have a face thanks to the spatial layout of the winding corridors – although the quantity of paintings, sculptures, installations, videos, photographs and performances can at times seem overwhelming. The visual memory of an actual palace such as the Royal Institute of Art is, on the other hand, elusive. The space and volume of the premises, its pedestrian flow, its doors and staircases, ceiling height, plaster casts, Laocoon group and Nike hall necessitate a completely different three-dimensional thinking than my own rummaging among the memories in my childhood garden. Scalability and floor plans are irrelevant there. 

The shortcomings of memory can spin off into something novel. The reemergent memory palace is neither a copy, nor a simulation. Recollections act like an idiosyncratic filter. Whereas some things might pass through, others disappear along the way. What remains is a source of clear water that a human narrator can draw from in a wholly different manner than search engines, which methodically winnow through categorized information. Thereby appears a topographical raster, and Mejan’s finals exhibition in the autumn of 2020 finally takes shape. Rooms are recreated based on topoi, places of “particular or general interest”: familiar halls, galleries and 26 artistic livelihoods whose future has been put on “please hold”. This year’s graduating students give life to an exhibition that oddly enough already seems to have taken place (is that not the very definition of a hit?). Taken place, I write, because we have not had access to that place for long periods, and because we have thus shared the memory of an event that has not yet occurred. And once it does occur, there is neither a past nor a future. For me who has been a part of this process, it is difficult not to see the exhibition as something other than a reconstructed memory palace. 

What happens next will be truly interesting. The memory of something that grew out of memory stands out of time, through the eddying recursion that arises from definitions that proceed from themselves. For what remains of a memory palace when this in turn collapses? Like the Russian matryoshka dolls, which were introduced at the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris, each memory holds another memory within itself. Personally, I imagine a memory box like a red newspaper kiosk: the K67 kiosk, designed by Slovenian architect Saša J. Mächtig, molded in one piece of high-gloss hard plastic. With rounded corners and cornices in each direction, the kiosk connects to other units. It then forms a labyrinth that spreads over an imagined square that might be in Zagreb, Belgrade, Sarajevo or Skopje – like an enormous red snowflake. From this thousand-headed scarlet millipede, various items are available: a sickle the size of a pocket knife (with a clamp on the handle so that it can be carried in the breast pocket on a short-sleeved shirt that allows your nape, neck and arms to get a ruddy farmer’s tan); postcards from the waterfalls in Plitvice; old farming equipment from the Istrian family farm; faded newspapers in Latin and Cyrillic scripts and a smirking donkey in stained oak that spits out cigarettes when you lift its tail. Souvenirs, I am thinking, are perhaps the most trivial of trinkets and height of forged reality, and I could not imagine that such a thing would linger in my memory. But the donkey fulfills its function as a time crystal transporting me with uncanny precision back to great-grandfather’s cramped two-room quarters. There, in front of the display cabinet, I freeze on the creaking parquet – shipwrecked in the middle of a glassy surface of latent squawking. Taking their siesta, the old folks demand absolute silence. 

The layout of winding corridors, as well as the constellations we create to exhibit our objects, our expressions and ourselves, are found in our own imaginations as much as in the imagined world. I am at times there, at times here. The procedure (the journey between an imagined there and an actual here) can be repeated indefinitely, and the debris of memory fragments can be rearranged without regard to syntax or chronology. This makes it difficult to determine when a work is workably (!) finished. On top of that, the deadline is deferred, due to COVID-19. The exhibition becomes the discrete point in time when we as conveyor have to round it off, saying to ourselves, “This is what it is” This might be the role of the artist: to present a fait accompli to a world that never comes to grips with dealing to solve its own problems.