Clementine Edwards, Copperland and Riceland, TENT, 2022. Photography Aad Hoogendoorn

How many histories can an object carry? – on ‘Material Memory’ at TENT, Rotterdam

Issue no4
aug - sep 2023
inkomen & eindexamens 2023

In the group exhibition Material Memory at TENT Rotterdam, five artists convey memories in forms of objects, motifs and fiction. Unexploded bombshells, salvaged copper or water; the materials in these works, more than carriers of stories, turn out to be the stories themselves.

When I encounter the word ‘memory’, my first association is the body: what the body once saw, heard, experienced and how it remembers those moments now. I also think of diaries, postcards, family photo albums, school yearbooks — all the traces that hold the past, however incomplete and subjective. Compared to (written) history, memory is amorphous and relational, more felt than learned.

Upon entering the exhibition, I am welcomed by a landscape made of rice grains and miniature metal sculptures. Each no taller than a few centimeters, the sculptures draw me in. My gaze glides over the smooth edges of copper sheets and rice kernels coated in brass. Now and again I am surprised by the sight of a screw, a nut, and my favorite: the pull tab of a soda can. These mass-manufactured items, easily neglected and discarded in their daily lives, are held by objects filed, soldered and polished with perceivable craft and care.

Clementine Edwards, Copperland and Riceland, TENT, 2022. Photography Aad Hoogendoorn

In Clemetine Edwards’s Copperland and Riceland, a three-part installation appearing throughout the exhibition spaces, all things bear weight — whether it is the ring from a keychain or a segment of plastic jewelry. (At the bottom of the wall text, I find a comprehensive list of materials and techniques used in the making. ‘Scrap-brass, sand-cast; Found, bought and salvaged sheet copper and copper rod, fabricated, electroplated, assembled…’) The rich forms and compositions in the installation necessitate wondering. What does it mean when we say that something is valuable or not? How many histories can a single sheet of metal carry — extracted, traded, fashioned (into weapons, perhaps), piled up in a junkyard?

Tuan Andrew Nguyen, still from Unburied. Courtesy the artist

Tuan Andrew Nguyen installation at TENT 2022. Photo by Aad Hoogendoorn

The Unburied Sounds of a Troubled Horizon, a film by Tuan Andrew Nguyen offers a meditation on contested historical artifacts and the potential of transforming trauma. If you watch it from the beginning (which starts at every hour — and I highly recommend it), you will see oblong, rusted metal objects from which flowers bloom. Surrounded by green rice fields, a woman rolls one of these objects across the road, making a weighty, drawly sound. The scene is almost idyllic until the word ‘bomb’ is uttered. Set in contemporary Quang Tri, a heavily bombed region during the American War in Vietnam, the film unfolds the story of violence and grief and the healing that is possible.

I will never forget the shot in which the cousin stands in water with brass prosthetic arms and the look of a deity. The film touches the core of remembering: how do we look at painful memories with compassion and learn to forgive?

The film sheds light on cultural memory through the lens of a family story: a forlorn mother, a dead son, a cousin with amputated limbs. The daughter, our protagonist who is pragmatic and cool, runs a scrap metal yard and fashion sculptural objects from unexploded bombshells. Through their conversations —filled with anger and at times sorrow — we learn about the hauntings of war. Although war has ended, the memory of destruction and death is still scattered across the landscape and in the minds of people. The film’s gripping narrative and well-written dialogues are accompanied by a soundtrack that reflects the healing capacity of sound, a discussion held by the characters themselves. I will never forget the shot in which the cousin stands in water with brass prosthetic arms and the look of a deity. With gentle yet poignant imagery, the film touches the core of remembering: how do we look at painful memories with compassion and learn to forgive?

As I walk into the second half of the exhibition, the lighting shifts from dimmed and quietened to full illumination. Under this light, the works of artists blend into one vast narrative — one that I feel invited to uncover. Many works in the exhibition feature rectangular panels — cyanotype prints on large pieces of fabric (Hannah Dawn Henderson), composite wood boards (Cihad Caner) and white plates (on which the works of Clemetine Edwards stand). The placement and positioning of these panels, a skillful decision by the curator Katayoun Arian, seem to reflect the fragmented nature of memory and how memory from one person, place or material intersects with another.

Looking closely at Cihad Caner’s work, mezar place to visit plaats om te bezoeken, I am intrigued by how the artist treats the surfaces of Medium-Density Fiberboard (MDF) and makes them look like ancient stones. This resemblance destabilizes the viewer’s certainty about the materials used and, as such, introduces a re-reading of histories embedded in them. While MDFs are industrial products made with residual wood fibers, resin and wax, stones come from a time before humans — that is, before industrialization, warfare and the invention of time. As Caner brings the two materials onto one plane, what I witness is the compression of two time scales. A piece of hand-written text next to the panels reveals the artist’s thoughts on more recent histories that concern cultural representation and appropriation. However, when interpreted in this narrower framework (as affirmed by the wall text), I find the inherent stories of the materials fading, and the work takes a more didactic turn.

In this exhibition, time has slowed down and the world has fallen silent

Cihad Caner, Mezar Place to visit/Plaats om te bezoeken, TENT, 2022. Photography Aad Hoogendoorn

Cihad Caner, Mezar Place to visit/Plaats om te bezoeken, TENT, 2022. Photography Aad Hoogendoorn

Across the second half of the exhibition is the constant background sound of water streams. The water comes from Kari Robertson’s installation casting channels / dredged monuments, which circulates rainwater from outside of the building through windowpanes and interior rooms. Part of the installation resembles a Venetian fountain — yet instead of the usual suspects of a lionhead over a carved basin, this fountain has a spout the shape of a breast and a trough that of a bathtub. (I cannot help but laugh!) While the scale and humor of Robertson’s work leaves a strong impression, the shapes cast from inflated vinyl gloves — placed prominently in the installation — appear as vague, if not sloppy, references to the hands. Even though I want to believe the gloves possess a deeper meaning, they stand out awkwardly. Some of the work’s comedy — an important dimension of the artist’s feminist critique — is also lost after I read the wall text, where the heavy-handed interpretation of what I am supposed to see becomes a cloudy influence.

Combination of installations Material Memory, TENT, 2022. Photography Aad Hoogendoorn

Hannah Dawn Henderson installation at TENT 2022. Photography Aad Hoogendoorn

No matter. As I watch the water flow, gather and take on different shapes, I am reminded of a quote from Toni Morrison: ‘All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was.’ In this exhibition, time has slowed down and the world has fallen silent. It seems to offer an opening to listen: to the memory of unspeaking objects, to difficult, marginalized, overlooked histories, to the wounded heart of yesterday, beating still, wondering how to remember.

Material Memory is on view at TENT, Rotterdam, until February 19th, 2023

Jue Yang
is a writer and filmmaker

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