Features Published 19 August 2016

Memory Theatre | Theatre Memory

Following Tempting Failure 2016, Jonathan Boddam-Whetham discusses Sebastian Hau-Walker's performance installation and the concept of memory theatres.
Jonathan Boddam-Whetham
Sebastian Hau-Walker's Ausculta (Vision Serpents) at Tempting Failure 2016.

Sebastian Hau-Walker’s Ausculta (Vision Serpents) at Tempting Failure 2016.

The recent Tempting Failure Festival in London, involved the use of a house in Brixton. It was entirely ordinary when set amongst all the other houses on the London street, but with a distinctly different atmosphere to its neighbours. All houses, flats, abodes, and streets have a particular atmosphere of sorts. A resonance of space, where unguarded phantasms of memory try to reassert themselves against the fading away that is forgetting. That is to say, some places whack you around the head with memories that aren’t yours, but need a home, an audience and a stage. Others slink in the shadows, long abandoned and perhaps purposely forgotten, awaiting the imposition of new memories, overshadowing and contaminating the space anew.

Sebastian Hau-Walker’s Ausculta (Vision Serpents) plays with this idea of memory and transformation. Not just how memories transform spaces, but how spaces transform memories. To expand on this rather oblique statement, Hau-Walker’s work is one of contamination between the working space (a kitchenette), us (the participants) and his own mental landscape. The work is very much a memory theatre, meant both in the sense of a space of performance, and in the clinical sense of an operating theatre. It was as if someone was undergoing psychoanalysis, but it is us, the participants, lying down, headsets keyed in onto the documentary footage of the artist’s childhood. Voyeurs? [auditors?] of his memories, with our own special stethoscopes, listening in.

As Hau-Walker makes his way through the work, dressed in white shirt and trousers with black mortar-board on his head, an echo – phantom – of the child running around and talking in the film, preparing to graduate from kindergarten, he climbs on kitchen worktops and furniture. Then, in ritualistic enactments, he breaks VHS tapes upon his elbow – the violence of drawing memories out for all to see, but there is no surgery here, just a desperate breaking into the housing of the film.

Like threads of thoughts, he attaches the freed spools of celluloid to the ceiling, sometimes to where the documentary is projecting, so that there is celluloid spinning down in a cascade of memory, covering us lying on the floor, bringing through an unexpected intimacy. The room becomes something womb-like, the spools become umbilical cords of images, attaching each of us to a shared past, although these are just moments, and that is all that we base our perceptions upon; these moments consequently serve to [re]frame the artist.

All this puts me in mind of another memory theatre, where the protagonist tries to realise the work of Giordano Bruno and Giulio Camillo Delminio. In his novella Memory Theatre, the philosopher Simon Critchley plays with the idea that through the construction of such a building he can achieve absolute knowledge and thus divinity. Quoting Frances Yates he says, “All is in all in nature. So in the intellect all is in all. And memory can memorize all in all.” Thus memory holds the key to absolute knowledge.

Critchley’s story blends autobiography and an Eco-esque narrative populated by familiar people, places, and a good dose of hermeticism, on a fatalistic journey to absolute knowledge. One day on a short return to Essex from New York, he finds boxes in his old office bequeathed to him by another philosopher, Michel Haar, each box identified by a sign of the Zodiac and each one of the ‘celestial houses’ leads him further and further into a mystery.

He finds horoscopes of other philosophers amongst the boxes, each one detailing the various events and publications in their lives and deaths. However, what draws him further in is that he also finds his own horoscope amongst the boxes, each part of his life told with unerring accuracy, with books yet to be written, and more importantly, his death yet to come. This knowledge drives him further and further into visions and hallucinations, physical and mental torture. It is almost as if his body is preparing to slough off something essential, slowly forgetting itself.

When he does finally construct his memory theatre, it is eight feet high with seven paths and seven tiers in the auditorium, which is also populated with little papier-mâché mannequins, each one symbolically representative of the different memories that make up his life. However, the moment of transcendence that should come with the culmination of absolute recall and his death, ends in failure. Un-dead, he is a shadow of himself, who he was has been drawn out of his inner self, his memories watching him instead, he is emptied out into those little mannequins implacably watching him.

In reference to Hegel he says, “Hegelian art of memory is the inwardizing of all the shapes of Spirit [Geist]. In memory, the whole world of history is emptied into subjectivity, filling up the void of the self.” This is the absolute end point of Spirit, but in Critichley’s memory theatre he empties his history out – a reversal – and all that is left is a void that is selfless. He tried to step outside of himself – to see himself from the point of view of totality – however, in doing so he is no longer himself, just a space of forgetting.

There is something of this in Hau-Walker’s piece. The spools of celluloid cover us all as we try not to move for fear of damaging his memories. And yet, he gathers up his thoughts, pulling them as they catch on us, memories now muddled, tied up in knots. He pulls them all together, gently at first then firmer and firmer in his grasp. He seems to try to stuff them back into his head, but they wrap themselves more and more around him.

He no longer resembles himself, but is a creature of film and memory, memories that have been laid bare to others, we are like those papier-mâché mannequins, we who have touched those memories and contaminated them; he is now no longer who he is; all we see as he walks out of the house and down the street, are those memories, mixed and tangled with our own. It is with this lasting vision that Hau-Walker forces us to think about the constitutive parts of identity: history, memory, and place.

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