in Features | 05 MAY 04
Featured in
Issue 83

Remembrance of things past

Emma Kay

in Features | 05 MAY 04

'Here is a book you will literally never forget!' quips a curiously dated little brochure which comes courtesy of a mysterious institution calling itself Memory and Concentration Studies.

For decades now a series of typographically archaic advertisements has graced the front pages of Britain's national newspapers: so familiar as to be almost invisible, forgotten in the quotidian round of reportage, even as they promise a mnemonic miracle decidedly at odds with the swift turnover of daily news. 'Forget names, dates?' they ask, snagging the worst fears of the ageing and fuddled reader, assuring the lapsus-prone punter that 'in as little as 20 minutes a day' an ailing memory can be trained up to the level of super-fit recall, exercised by the square-jawed type who tops the ad.

Fill in the coupon and you'll be introduced to the curious world of one Dr Bruno Furst, founder and director of the School of Memory and Concentration, 'formerly a top-ranking European lawyer' and deviser of an array of memory-enhancing techniques that made him famous in the decades after World War II as 'America's top memory man'. A grainy photograph of the high-domed, horn-rimmed doctor (presumably long-gone, but not, of course, forgotten) places him precisely in a Cold War milieu where one can imagine that his promise of perfect recollection functioned as a cultural salve in the face of the imminent threat of nuclear obliteration. A properly honed recall might be the best (or only) sort of survival for a Western civilization otherwise occluded by fall-out and forgetting. Furst was fêted as 'the Mental Marvel': a sort of Charles Atlas of the intellect, but also a kind of counter-Freud. If everything can be remembered, then nothing can crawl back from the chasm of the repressed to haunt us.

This, surely, is one of the fantasies attendant on the mnemonic prodigy; not just the notion that we might feather our own futures by cramming as much currency as possible under the mattress of memory, but the idea that a whole species could stave off the cataclysms of an inflationary history by tending its memorial reserves. The art of Emma Kay plays havoc with such dreams. Her feats of archival and narrative wonder suggest a Furstian pact with the past, but they deploy a mental magic that gradually reveals itself as fascinatingly flawed. The series of works in which she has sought to conjure up the past - its narrative, historical and artistic intricacies - in fact stages nothing less than the tragedy of forgetting.

In 1970 the artist and writer Joe Brainard published I Remember, a book made up entirely of micro-memories of his youth. Immersed in recital of the chapter and verse of his own history, he commented: 'I feel very much like God writing the Bible.' Kay has put herself in the same lofty position, writing The Bible from Memory (1997). Framing her memory of the sacred book as a vast field of text, she responds to a venerable Christian perspective: the idea that the minutely unfolding history of humanity is glimpsed in the blink of an eye by the watching divinity. But this is also, of course, the believer's fondest desire: a book so intimately incanted that it would float before one's eyes at all times, a constant textual reminder to be quoted or cited at will. At the same time, like the real thing, Kay's Bible is an unruly mass of individual narratives, of paratactic fractures (all those asyntactic instances of 'and' and 'then') that the actual text tries to heal by numbering its fragments.

In Kay's version, which turns the literal word into fugitive stories, the order is untenable. Bits break off and drift about untethered, coming to rest in entirely the wrong place. The Old Testament begins with a passage from the Gospel according to St John ('In the beginning was the word') and crucial chronologies get upended: 'David the giant killer was the son of someone famous and the father of Solomon or the other way around.' The real Bible lives by its lists (the mesmeric repetition of 'begat'); The Bible &; 2717 Objects in Order of Appearance (2000) reveals the lunatic logic of pure enumeration. The list-maker suffers from a sort of cultural autism, like one of those miraculous but hapless prodigies who can tell you the day of the week of any given date from history, but singularly fails to make sense of History. The list of things saddle, stone, stones, food, 100 pieces of silver, tent, altar, idols, earrings; tells us everything and nothing. As a way of making sense of the Bible, it is as impressive and useless as Dr Furst's project for remembering numbers by assigning each one a name. Two orders of memory; the sutured narrative and the simple catalogue; collide in predictable confusion. In Kay's rendering '1000 silver shekels' abut meaninglessly against '400 silver shekels'; their context is untraceable, their qualitative difference unknowable. Kay's memory borrows the form of the litany to suggest that memory itself is nothing more than an arbitrary species of list.

The abiding irony of these works is this: if you were to fantasize a work entitled Emma Kay from Memory (date uncertain), it would be made up almost entirely of her mistakes. Kay's art is literally a catalogue of errors; not merely of straightforward falsehoods (these, in fact, are surprisingly rare), but of weirdly skewed timeframes, historical phantoms manifesting themselves in bizarre and often comic circumstances. Boadicea, she writes in Worldview (1999), 'was a woman warrior who rode in a chariot. Catherine the Great was a feared ruler who was rumoured to have had sex with horses.'2 Worldview recounts the 'entire' remembered history of the world: a realm crowded with jostling time travellers uncertain of their place in a history that is already swerving and accelerating in the oddest of directions, brakes failing as the story aquaplanes through successive narrative junctions. Whole centuries skid by: 'between 900 and 1300 AD, the civilizations of the great continents of the world progressed in their different ways.'

Like Worldview, Shakespeare from Memory (1998) places its viewer/reader in the position of a rather cranky examiner (or perhaps of Furst despairing at his pupils, sullen daydreamers expending their powers 'by violating the natural laws of remembering'). It's impossible not to marvel at the mnemonic athleticism involved, but at the same time you suspect that Kay has been loafing about, left her revision till the last minute and (even worse) gleaned a good deal of her knowledge from secondary sources. When she announces, à propos the devious plot geometry of A Midsummer Night's Dream, that 'this difficult situation is complicated by the fact that Helena is very tall, wears too much make-up and is not very attractive', all becomes clear. Ms Kay has not done the reading. And then you start to notice the scanted oddity of her chosen details: a preoccupation with hair colour, or the cold flagstones of Macbeth's castle. You start to believe, despite yourself, that memory is knowledge, and to tyrannize the artist accordingly. At that moment you have effectively become Dr Furst, deluded into thinking that an absolutely accurate memory is possible or desirable. It is only a matter of time before you turn to the maps of The World from Memory (1998, 2000) and begin to disparage Kay's conjecturally squiggled borders and coastlines, to subject her to a geography lesson as pedantic as it is pointless.

This uneasy dialectic between Kay's memory and our own takes on a paradoxically vivid, extra-textual dimension in The Story of Art (2003), in which words that are not those of E.H. Gombrich (though the work's accompanying bookleted index borrows the design of a Phaidon edition of his book) swoop in serried fragments from the centre of the large screen. Each block of text hovers momentarily in the middle distance, before advancing, Star Wars-style, out of the frame. Time and again, in a movement that accelerates to the point of unreadability as Kay's history lifts off from Lascaux to the present day, she tells us that a specific image is 'well known'. The phrase starts to unsettle: what if the work is not well known, or not known to the viewer at all? You start to distrust your recollection of the most familiar images, trying to discern whether the flowers that fall from the sky in Sandro Botticelli's Birth of Venus (c. 1485) are in fact 'pale pink roses', or where exactly the dot of red is in John Constable's Hay Wain (1821). Pictures swim before your eyes in a giddy reversal of an art history student's slide test, and the whole project of art history - of any history, of any such massive repository of frail human memories - starts to slip out of reach. At which point even Furst's memorial optimism starts to sound hollow: 'You can dramatically increase your personal efficiency. You can conquer fear and feelings of insecurity.'

1. Joe Brainard, I Remember, Penguin, New York, 1995, p. 141.

2. Emma Kay, Worldview, Bookworks, London, 1999, p. 38.