Memory and Misunderstanding

Last week in our Transcultural Memory session we touched on various projects which dealt with what might be seen as the performative act of memory-making. The major examples came from Salman Rushdie’s book Midnight’s Children and Charlotte Salomon’s Leben? oder Theater? (Life? or Theatre?) In the former, Rushdie’s layering of narrative memory highlights its complicated and complicating acts. For Saloman, the myriad gouaches that make up the project (some 1,000, produced over a 2 year period of 1941-43) present a story that mixes biography and fiction in a very productive and almost overwhelming way.

But here I wanted to draw out the aspect of between-ness that Astrid mentioned, something which was related to Homi K. Bhabha’s “third space,” a concept associated with post-colonial theory in that it represents, for Bhabha, the site of hybridisation between two cultures (in that case assumed to be a colonising and a colonised culture). In the context of the session, this space is understood to be between the event and the memory, and how this can be approached and expressed through creative acts. This “third space” between event and memory interests me in that it is the type of border area that globalisation theory posits as a space of productivity through the upsetting of hegemonic this- or that-ness.

The issue of influence is an example of such a border area between a source and a receiver. I have one anecdote that might be relevant to this issue, coming from my own experience in China. A few years ago I wrote a text about a Chinese artist, Cang Xin, who began his practice in the early 1990s in Beijing, becoming associated with a small group of artists who developed certain types of performance centred on the body.

From the European perspective, one could make a connection between these Chinese artists’ works and those of the Vienna Actionists, both stylistically and conceptually, although they took the acts in very different directions based on their local conditions. Indeed during my interviews with Cang Xin, he went into some detail about the significance and nature of their knowledge of such European artists and activities. He told me that he was aware of these works primarily through a particular book on performance art that was translated into Chinese at that time. From this book, Cang Xin learned about Beuys, Brus, Nitsch, etc. His knowledge then, was based on the iconic photographs that were the overwhelming evidence of the performances after the fact (and are still the knowledge that most people in the world have of them, but that is another discussion about the mediation of performance through its imagery). Cang Xin and his peers were very excited by these works, and felt that their own activities had parallels to them.

Cang Xin told me he had read elsewhere that one of the Austrian artists that were featured in this book (Rudolf Schwarzkogler) had allegedly cut off his penis as part of a performance, a fact that made a great impression on Cang. This was in fact a misunderstanding perpetuated in an article in TIME magazine by the art critic Robert Hughes published in 1972, and indeed this story still circulates. The Chinese artists’ own belief in this story can be seen to lay some groundwork for their own understanding of a commitment to an art practice, yet marks the fragile point of translation between myth and reality.

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