Assignment 4 – Critical review

Shaun Mullins 512659 PH5LDS

Assignment 4.

Landscape – Memory & Place

What do we mean by ‘Place’?

The word ‘place’ is commonly used in reference to a specific location or space. ‘One might say that ‘place’ is to landscape as identity is to portraiture.’  (Dean & Miller, 2005:12).

Yi-Fu Tuan (1976) said, ‘When space feels thoroughly familiar to us, it has become place.’ (Dean & Miller, 2005:14).

James Joyce (1918) links the idea of place to memory, writing, ’places remember events…’ (Dean & Miller, 2005:14). Places are spaces identified through ‘collective memory’ by a group of people, for example the identity of a Nation will be through a ‘hegemonic’ dominant ideological memory, the British recall, ‘The Magna Carta’ (1215) when King John of England was forced to sign a treaty giving freedoms to his people this become part of British people’s identity. Artist have also played with the idea of linking memory to place even by creating imaginary places and linking them to imaginary memories, Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier, (1938) and Weathering Heights, Emily Bronte, (1847) are just a couple of famous examples. In the visual arts the genre of landscape painting and photography, artists have used symbols and icons to help convey a sense of place, these are stereo-typical for the subject: a bicycle with onions hanging from it for France, or windmill by a canal may support the idea for Holland, etc.

Tim Cresswell suggests that a place is, ‘…spaces which people have made meaningful. They are all spaces people are attached to in one way or another.’ (Dean & Miller, 2005:12). Runnymede, Surrey, UK (1215), for ‘The Magna Carta’; Boston Harbour, (1773) USA, for ‘The Boston Tea Party’, (a demonstration against British tax and rule) are examples for meaningful spaces and national memory and identity.

The political geographer John Agnew (1987) has outlined three fundamental aspects of place as a meaning.1 – Location, 2 – Locale, 3 – Sense of place. Location is fairly self-explanatory, ‘locale’ Agnew means the material setting for social relations this could be a temporary location such as on board a ship, hotel or place of work. Agnew uses the expression ‘sense of place’ to mean the subjective and emotional attachment people have to place. (Agnew, 1987:7). This could be the feeling one person may feel towards a building he or she grew-up in or a place holding a specific memory such as beach that holds happy memories of a holiday, etc. To be subjective and emotional, it could be argued, requires a feeling of ownership and belonging, through a lived experience / personal memory or through a greater sense by membership, as in a form of collective experience / memories.  Sense of place through memory is what I shall explore.

How can memory influence a sense of place?

In the book, Place a Short Introduction, Creswell quotes from David Harvey, From Space to Place and Back Again (1996) an essay expressing concerns of globalization on our sense of place.  “Place is often seen as the ‘locus of collective memory’ – a site where identity is created through the construction of memories linking a group of people into the past.” Harvey, 1996 (Cresswell, 2004:61). This use of constructed collective memories can create a sense of place for a new nation state but also can have a negative side as some memories can be selected and others discarded or twisted to suit the construction of a new sense of place. To create the ‘Third Reich’ the National Socialist Party of Germany used constructed false memories to isolate the Jewish community and condemn them as anti-German by falsely accusing them of betraying Germany. America has presented itself as the leading democratic nation of the world through use of selected memory by ignoring its poor history toward Native Americans and non-white immigrants, such as the Black Africans, Chinese and Japanese. Harvey suggests that the idea of ‘Place is often seen as the locus of collective memory – a site where identity is created through the construction of memories linking a group of people into the past.’ (Cresswell, 2004:61) “The preservation or construction of a sense of place is then an active moment in the passage from memory to hope, from past to future.  And the reconstruction of places can reveal hidden memories that hold out the prospect for different futures….”  Harvey 1996, 306 (Cresswell, 2004:61) This section from Harvey’s essay reminds me of discovered archaeological sites, such as Pompeii and Herculaneum and also the statues of Easter Island spring to mind. Pompeii and Herculaneum in Italy were lost to the world for centuries with only a brief mention by Pliny the younger, (AD 79) describing their destruction. The discovered statues on Easter Island, Pacific Ocean, suggest an ecological disaster that could be repeated. These recent discoveries recall lost memories that can act as hope and a warning for the future. With their memories recovered and their names restored, they have returned to the world as places and in these places we have a literal example of preservation and construction of a sense of place in use.

Pompeii

Easter Island

In chapter 4 of Place a Short Introduction’ Cresswell says, “One of the primary ways in which memories are constituted is through the production of places. Monuments, museums, the preservation of particular buildings, plaques, inscriptions and the promotion of whole urban neighbourhoods as ‘Heritage Zones’ are all examples of the placing of memory.  The very material of a place means that memory is not abandoned to the vagaries of mental process and is instead inscribed in the landscape as public memory.” (Cresswell, 2004:85). London is full of museums and statues to celebrate the country, the capital and its heroes and winners; but as Cresswell points out there is very little effort if at all, to remember the less successful and heroic members of society or our failures.  In Cresswell’s section called ‘A Nice Place to Live’ he discusses the gentrification of the rundown New York Lower East Side which sounds familiarly like the parts of East London which also appear to be in a process of gentrification. In these examples the idea of place is under reconstruction, unpalatable memories are pushed aside and forgotten and new memories constructed from local history and architecture. It seems that place is what we make it, both physically and mentally.

What is memory and can we record a memory accurately for others to read now and in the future?

Our brain is capable of recording many millions of bits of information through five senses, vision, hearing, touch, smell and taste. However, memory can present its own problems; it is selective and ‘partial’ particularly in relation to vision. At any given moment our eyes can only see a fraction of our world accurately, and the view-of-point can influence our interpretation of the world and the resulting memory, this interpretation may be different when seen from other points-of-view resulting in a completely different memory. A photograph only provides a partial view and can therefore provide a totally different memory to the actual event, a good example for this in a photograph is Henri Cartier-Bresson’s, Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare (1932). This photograph uses the edge of the frame to add tension to the picture as we cannot see to what or where he is leaping too.

Henri Cartier-Bresson’s, Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare (1932)

Can a photograph truly hold a memory?

“I am looking at eyes that looked at the Emperor” (Roland Barthes, when looking upon a photograph of the youngest brother of Napoleon.) (Barthes, 2000:3).

A camera is subject to the same limitations as the human eye – the lens, focal-length, its position and point-of-view.  Furthermore, the photo image is dumb, it cannot speak of the circumstance and motivation that caused its existence and therefore cannot help the reader to fully access into the intended memory. Whilst mourning the death of his mother, Barthes turned to photography in the hope of finding a picture that was “right” capturing the true essence of the mother he remembered, something he could show to his friends…  Looking through all the pictures moving back through her life he struggled to find a picture that captured anything but a fragment of the mother he recognised… He eventually finds an image which holds all the elements of the person he recognises, it is his mother as a child, aged 5. (Barthes, 2000:64,66,67-69). However, this image Barthes refers to still requires additional information for anyone who did not know Barthes’ mother in order to access this memory. If an enigmatic memory of a personality is perhaps too much of an impossible challenge, artists have looked at other ways to save and present a memory to an audience using the idea of place. A photograph in itself is a memory of a moment captured by the camera, ‘View of the Boulevard du Temple, Paris’ c. 1838-39 by Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre is an early 19th century example – a Parisian street with a blurred dark figure who remained long enough, whilst his boot was polished, to be captured on slow film exposure. Later Roger Fenton produced a famous landscape image adding to the idea of photograph as memory by using ‘late’ or ‘aftermath’ photography, ‘Valley of the Shadow of Death (1855) this idea was copied by Paul Seawright, ‘Afghanistan 2002’ in his project ‘Hidden’. (Badger, 2014:14,27,28). Here we have the sense of a battlefield and memory of battle from the artillery projectiles.

Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre ‘View of the Boulevard du Temple, Paris’ c. 1838-39

Fenton, R, ‘Valley of the Shadow of Death (1855)

Paul Seawright, ‘Afghanistan 2002’ in his project ‘Hidden

But is there a way to provide access to the intended memory through the image alone?

In art a painting can relate a story or message through multiple elements found in the picture. A portrait may include books, a dove and a badge of office to tell the audience of his status, his intelligence and his nature. Therefore at least a second or third visual element is needed to add additional meaning. This must be recognisable symbols or icons that are familiar either culturally or instinctively to the reader. In the genre of landscape, artists have added the idea of memory for ‘a sense of place’.

‘Souvenir’, is a French word for memory, recollection, keepsake or memento.  (Harrap’s, 1996) In his project ‘Significant Space’, Peter Kane takes this idea of souvenir to explore the relationship between space and place. Revisiting the locations in the holiday snaps taken of him as a child he then took new photographs from the same points-of-view whilst holding out the original snap to be captured in the new image. The new photograph with the addition of Kane’s hand holding the snap-shot, presents an image within an image. Thus Kane is offering us a sense of place to an otherwise strange location through an adopted memory that we can attach to his new picture; his hand acting to bridge the past with the present.

Is memory and place interconnected?

When we talk or think of ‘place’ we will typically think of a specific ‘place’, a space that has meaning. However, without a specific name or reference we may all think of very different sites or areas of space that have reference to our own individual experiences and cultures. When mapping the coast between Seattle and Vancouver (1792), Capt. Vancouver and his crew noted that the local Indian natives saw the apparent empty sea as a number of set locations for spirits and dangers that they navigated by in their small canoes. (Raban, (1999). Thus ‘My place is not your place’. (Cresswell, 2004:1) Therefore, ‘place’ is not a location it is a word referencing to a specific space in our known universe that we as individuals can identify and add meaning to. For a space to have meaning and therefore become recognised as a ‘place’ those ‘meanings’, have to be memorised and recalled whenever that space is referred to either in thought or communication. These memories can be personal recollections or of two ideas of ‘collective memories’ the first ‘hegemonic’ for a dominant ideology such that for “my country” or religion, etc. and the other is the group memory of a tribe/small group. This may be written or aural testimonies that contradict established/official history. These collective memories can be linked to a space giving it identification and stirring-up emotions to create a sense-of-place. This could be a superficial emotion such as curiosity or sympathy or it could be a sense of belonging, patriotism, bigotry or exclusion and in more familiar places we could experience deeper feelings of nostalgia, love, warmth, comfort, desire, sadness and even fear. We use bespoke memories to create our idea of place. Therefore the challenge for any artist to create a sense of place from a photograph is to somehow tap into one of these emotions and express this sense visually within the image. For example in my recent ‘Beauty and the Sublime’ I made a series of photographs linking parks and ordinary streets with the memory of their violent pasts.

Shimon Attie’s project, ‘Writing on the wall’, Berlin 1991, used 1930’s photographs taken in Berlin’s Jewish quarter and then projected these onto the same walls and buildings and re-photographed.  This combined past memories with the present to give a sense of place through our collective memories and feelings around the holocaust. 

So can a photograph truly capture memory through a sense of place?

Janet Cardiff and George Miller collaborated on a project called ‘Alter Bahnhof Video Walk’ (2012) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sOkQE7m31Pw to create a video landscape with a sense of place. They videoed a location as seen from eyelevel which they downloaded onto an I-phone. They then re-videoed from the point of view of a viewer holding the I-phone, watching the original video and listening to the commentary while following the same route. The video takes us on a journey through a railway station; while we follow the original path we see two different scenes from the same location. We see and hear musicians and a ballet dancer from the original recording whilst our current point-of-view shows us just a few travellers meandering on a platform. From the I-phone alone we hear an elderly gentleman recounting the station’s history and at the same time we see an object displayed on both recordings of a memorial to deported Jews. Using the medium of video to provide us with a ‘virtual’ personal memory, Cardiff and Miller have given us a sense of place through their observations, our video experience and our own recall of collective memories of historical events.

Conclusion.

From my brief investigation into memory and place, I have tried to demonstrate that there is a strong case to argue that the idea of ‘place’ is a subjective concept. A number of books have been written on this subject and although theorists have suggested alternative ideas as to what may promote a space to a place, it can be agreed that collective memories plays a crucial role. Conflicts can arise between the encouraged dominant / national / ideological memories against more subjective personal memories for a place. Tensions between dominant collective memories and the personal subjective memories can be presented through the mass media as partial i.e. selective in order to express or promote a dominant ideology and supress the subjective personal memories as unreliable as demonstrated by the Nazis in the 1930’s. I hope that this brief examination of memory and place will provoke thought and encourage further reading.

Bibliography

Agnew. J, (1987). The United States in the World Economy, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Badger, G, (2014). The Genius of Photography how photography has changed our lives,

            Quadrille Publishing Ltd. London.

Barthes. R, (2000). Camera Lucida, Vintage Classics. London.

Cresswell. T, (2004). Place a short introduction, Blackwell Publishing. Oxford.

Dean. T & Miller. J, (2005). Art Works, Place, London Thames & Hudson. London.

Harrap’s Concise French Dictionary, (1996), Harrap Books Ltd. Edinburgh.

Raban. J. (1999) Passage to Juneau: A Sea and its Meanings, Pantheon Books, New York.

Websites:

Shimon Attie, The Writing on the Wall (1991) http://shimonattie.net/portfolio/the-writing-on-the-wall/ Accessed: 25/09/2020.

Janet Cardiff and George Miller, ‘Alter Bahnhof Video Walk’ (2012) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sOkQE7m31Pw Accessed: 25/09/2020.

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