To find the Pablo Helguera “Memory Theater” exhibit at the University of Montana’s Gallery of Visual Arts, you turn directly left and enter a darkened room, leaving behind the brightly lit and evenly spaced artworks in the rest of the gallery. In the middle of the room is a black-shrouded pile of plywood, which looks unimportant and provisional. You might decide you missed the Helguera exhibit and have inadvertently stumbled onto something else in mid-installation. But as you venture a little further, you will enter Helguera’s “Memory Theater,” his version of a Renaissance project by Guilio Camillo.
Camillo’s memory theater is described by Renaissance writers as a building that would allow one or two individuals at a time within the interior, which was inscribed with a variety of images, figures and ornaments representing the expanding history of thought. This memory theater was never finished and hasn’t survived, which might have been a suitable conclusion to the project. Memory won’t be contained, it seems, nor will it act as a container.
Still, memory as a place is an idea that preceded Camillo’s work by a thousand years. St. Augustine (354-430 A.D.) wrote about memory, which he saw as a vast internal space where treasures of the senses are piled up and worked upon and highlighted by the self.
“I come to the fields and spacious places of memory,” St. Augustine wrote, “where are the treasures of innumerable images, brought into it from things of all sorts perceived by the senses. This is stored up, whatever [else] we think, either by enlarging or diminishing, or any other way varying those things which the sense has come to. ...”
St. Augustine’s court of memory seems more capricious and surprising than Camillo’s memory theater, which was an idea based on illustration and representation. As Victoria Noorthoorn, assistant curator of contemporary exhibitions at the Drawing Center in New York, explains in her notes that accompany Pablo Helguera’s Memory Theater: “Camillo’s ‘memory theater,’ [was] a lifelong, never-finalized project in which images and texts, placed strategically within a structure that represents the seven pillars of Solomon’s House of Wisdom, together become a microcosm and representation of the universe.”
There’s a didactic quality to this notion, the idea that there is collective knowledge that can be learned. As Noorthoorn writes, “specific images [were] used to illustrate certain concepts (i.e., the torch of Prometheus standing for ‘human intellect,’ and ‘docility in learning.’).” Camillo’s memory theater was a site for reflection, more than a site for criticism.
The tension between institutionalizing and revolutionary impulses in works of art is a particular preoccupation of Helguera, who writes elsewhere that “the notion of Revolution may be centuries old, yet it still exists in our everyday perception of art. Every major contemporary art exhibition is presented under the assumption that we experience an unheard-of aspect of art, something important and unprecedented. Each contemporary art event has aspirations, whether great or modest, of being revolutionary. Yet we all have known for a while that the model of ‘tradition of rupture’ has been exhausted.”
Maybe in order to de-institutionalize his memory theater, Helguera uses icons that were solicited from his future audience here at the University of Montana, “in order to find out the contemporary equivalent for the images used in the 16th century,” writes Voorthoorn. “It is the audience rather than the artist who defines the most critical aspect of museums: the process of selection of the images deemed today to represent us in the future.”
But the images of memory are not universal, or else we resist that idea. Memory is peculiar to us, or so we see it.
“All this I do inside me,” wrote Augustine, “in the huge court of my memory. There I have by me the sky, the earth, the sea, and all the things in them which I have been able to perceive. ... There, too, I encounter myself.”
We may understand what we see: Jennifer Lopez as the new Apollo, or Homer Simpson as “an updated icon for stupidity,” (per Noorthorn’s notes) but is this understanding anything as intimate as memory?
“Those aren’t my icons,” we might say, and edge our way out.
Pablo Helguera “Memory Theater” exhibit at the University of Montana’s Gallery of Visual Arts in the Social Science Building runs through Friday, Nov. 30. Gallery hours are Monday to Friday, 11–4. For more information, call 243–2813.