(This post refers to a show that is, unfortunately, no longer on view in NYC... but more info can be found on ICP's excellent website. This was actually supposed to be my *very*first* post but in my excitement and haste I forgot that I ever wrote about this show!)
For this exhibition, The International Center for Photography brought together over 20 contemporary artists using archival documents to create new works. The collective body of works highlights social, political, and personal uses of both gems and remnants from the past and their influences on the present. Two of the most engaging works, however, indicate that present cultural, political, social, and personal identities are not shaped as much by what we remember as by what we forget.
The first artist, an Albanian student living in France, Anri Sala, restored a 16 mm film reel he found at home that neither of his parents could identify. The footage showed his mother meeting Enver Hoxa, Albania's communist leader. In the absence of audio accompanying the film, Sala hired deaf mutes to read his mother’s lips and translate the film. The resulting film and narrative are shown to the mother who denies recollection of her involvement with the Communist party, arguing that she would never say the things she is purported to have said. In Sala’s video, Intervista (1998), present day conversations between mother and Sala regarding the film are inter-spliced with the archival footage. While the son and the viewer are inclined to believe the translators, the mother’s adamant denial is convincing. It is so convincing that the only explanation for the incongruity is that she has forced herself, over time, to forget that part of her life. The confrontation with the past, with the forgotten, is unsettling for her, her son, and the viewer.
American artist Zoe Leonard approaches the archival document in what is almost the opposite manner of Sala but likewise examines the failure to recall. In The Fae Richards Photo Archive (1993–96), Leonard has assembled photographs from the life of Fae Richards, showing her as a teenager in the 1920s, as a starlet in the 1930s and 40s, during the Civil Rights movement in the 60s, and aging into the 1970s. A few photographs imply that she may have had an intimate relationship with another woman. In short, her life is one that could have been made into a feature film but her name doesn’t register. And in fact, her name does not register because she is an entirely fictional character. Working with filmmaker Cheryl Dunye, Leonard staged each image, then printed, toned, stained, tore, wrinkled, and crinkled each photograph enough to appear old and dredged from a trunk or an attic. The startling realization is that had Fae Richards existed, it is entirely likely that her name wouldn’t be easily recollected, if at all. As the ICP website explicates, “her accomplishments have supposedly disappeared into the pit of American cultural amnesia, no doubt because of her blackness." Again, we are reminded of the ability to forget and the role that forgetting plays in shaping cultural, political, and social identities.
While many of the works in Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art use the archival document to help us remember, to highlight what shouldn’t be forgotten, these two works are among the most unsettling for reminding us of what and why we don’t recall. Not only are we capable of forgetting but sometimes we insist on it.