Memory is a tyrannical mother, without whose steadfast care we would be lost and from whose overbearing presence we sometimes wish to be freed. So much of our lives is predicated on memory—intimacy, trust, fairness, friendship, even a sense of home and belonging. You can take a Polaroid of someone and annotate it with events and impressions, as amnesiac Leonard Shelby does in Christopher Nolan’s disturbing film Memento, but without memory it remains flat, lifeless, devoid of the depth of feeling and the true sense of the other that is built from memory and marks a friend or lover or son or mother.
Admittedly we don’t remember only what binds to a person and a place, but also what alienates us from both: moments of pettiness and spite, of slights real and imagined, of mistakes we’ve made and lies we’ve told, the times we’ve acted foolishly or selfishly and the instances of stupid self-aggrandizement. Things we’d rather not remember. Regret finds fertile soil in memory.
But memory as fate? And fate as memory? These are the questions that the artist Savvas Christodoulides poses in his installation Fate is Memory and Vice-Versa at the recently opened exhibition Koini Thea (In Plain View) at the National Theater (Rex). The work depicts two alabaster-white plaster nymphs made in a cast of what once must have been garishly painted kitschy garden figures. They’re are poised, crouched in a dancer’s bow with their backs to each other, on a slab (also plaster) overlying a long wooden table from the 1930’s (another objet trouvé). The table in turn is set on a half-unfurled beige-colored carpet —or rather in, since the table’s wheel seem to sink into the plush pile of the rug.
There’s a gracefulness to the figures that only has been revealed now that they have been stripped of the garish colors that ‘embellished’ the original figurines from which Christodoulides made the casts. (He’s often employed—and ennobled—used materials in earlier works of his, like a cast-iron garden chair, a laundry rack, and even a ladder). A white balloon rises like a fat moon between them, held in space by ribbons which descend and wrap around the hand of each of the nymphs.
There is something appropriately theatrical and the ritual to the installation. The base of the table and the plush carpet remind one of an altar set in sand. The poses of the nymphs, ghostlike in their bloodless whiteness, seem to suggest they are players bound together in some endless danse funèbre, condemned to repeat the same performance, night after night. Memory as fate. It is a commonplace of therapy that we re-enact the relationships of our past with the lovers and friends and bosses and rivals of our present. It is the tragic script of the impotent man or the agoraphobic, the battered wife or the embittered couple, where the next attempt to break free of their impasse is so laden with the memory of fear and angst that it is almost doomed to simply recapitulate the failure of all previous attempts. It is where one says “I can’t do that” but means “I remember I couldn’t do that”.
But fate as memory, too. How often we perceive our current life as the result of an inexorable march of a remembered (but nonetheless interpreted) interconnected series of events. We are all historians of ourselves, and like the historian we try to make sense of the outcome of our lives by tracing agents and probable cause. We want to make a story out of what otherwise are essentially random events. As random as the artist chancing upon two kitsch garden sculptures in a flea market.
Image: avvas Christodoulides, Fate is Memory and Vice-Versa