From Generation to Generation: Inherited Memory and Contemporary Art

Curated by Pierre-François Galpin and Lily Siegel
The Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco

Christian Boltanski, Nao Bustamante, Binh Danh, Silvina Der-Meguerditchian, Bernice Eisenstein, Eric Finzi, Nicholas Galanin, Guy Goldstein, Fotini Gouseti, Ellen Harvey, Aram Jibilian, Loli Kantor, Mike Kelley, Lisa Kokin, Ralph Lemon, Rä di Martino, Yong Soon Min, Fabio Morais, Elizabeth Moran, Vandy Rattana, Anri Sala, Wael Shawky, Hank Willis Thomas, Chikako Yamashiro

November 25, 2016–April 2, 2017 

There are many forms of memory: memories of events we have experienced, memories we have heard as family stories and from popular culture, even memories of an imagined future. The twenty-four artists in From Generation to Generation: Inherited Memory and Contemporary Art work with memories that are not their own. They remember and recall stories that were never theirs and assemble them in a variety of media to be seen, heard, and experienced by others. At once intimate and shared, the memories they work with are second-hand experiences, culled from a photograph they saw, or a story they heard, or even a once subconscious memory. The artists are secondary witnesses to the past events they use in their works, and it is precisely this distance in time and space that allows them to offer powerful narratives open to a wide range of interpretation and expression.

The exhibition, co-curated by CJM Assistant Curator Pierre-François Galpin and independent curator Lily Siegel, expands on the groundbreaking work by Dr. Marianne Hirsch on postmemory. Dr. Hirsch writes that postmemory is “the relationship that the ‘generation after’ bears to the personal, collective, and cultural trauma of those who came before—to experiences they ‘remember’ only by means of the stories, images and behaviors among which they grew up. But these experiences were transmitted to them so deeply and affectively as to seem to constitute memories in their own right.” There is a tenuous line between postmemory and nostalgia. While postmemory explicitly deals with trauma and heritage, nostalgia is a recollection of the past that may be romanticized or turned into myth. Nostalgia is a longing to return home despite the possibility that the home no longer exists.

The exhibition is organized by themes suggested by the artworks themselves including personal narratives, social and cultural memory, and the (re)creation of memories based on fiction or dubious truths. A final category serving as a dénouement to the exhibition presents works that look at the near-present from an imagined distant future. Through their work, the artists in this exhibition search, question, and reflect on the representation of truths related to ancestral and collective memory—ultimately attempting to make sense of their own past.

Exhibition Catalog Available

. . . Ellen Harvey’s work, Alien Souvenir Stand (2013) plays with what can be lost and gained in translation between generations and even different cultures.  Harvey imagines an Earth no longer occupied by humans but used as a tourist destination for extraterrestrials. Repurposing a hot dog stand as a postcard souvenir stand for aliens, the artist articulates a complicated system of pillars or columns as one may also refer to them, favored by the humans that no longer exist. The aliens have been left to interpret this strange architecture by themselves:

Welcome to the ancient ruins of Washington DC, Earth! . . . Who were the lost Pillar-Builders of Earth?  Why did they leave the comfort of their oceans to build these enduringly popular Pillar-Things over much of the dry land of their plane for the brief period of about two and a half thousand years? . . .What were they for?

Harvey decided to focus on the pillar as subject when visiting DC from New York and recognizing that pillars and neo-classical architecture in general have been loved and repurposed by people throughout history with various meanings. If people cannot produce a set meaning for such an iconic piece of architecture, Harvey recognized that being in the future would be free to create their own interpretations.  In a playful and not-so-subtle way, Harvey is commenting on a critical complication in the writing of history. She acknowledges, “It has been an architecture people have seen as representing democracy. It was also totalitarian. Stalin loved it.  The Fascists loved it. It was connected to slavery. Plantations in the South – they look like min Parthenons.” A singular reading of the pillar does not exist so why no allow aliens to have the last say. 

Excerpt from “The Presence of Memory” by Lily Siegel from exhibition catalog