How to consider the status of collective memory in our present times, whereas all our social and human references are constantly changing or mutating? Today, we live in an “all-memory” society, where new archiving methods or techniques are invented every day in order to protect us from “memory lapses” …
Collective memory is one of the Danish artist Mille Kalsmose’s major concerns in her long-term project Collected Memory, a series of sculptural and participatory cabinets sculptural pieces made of recycled brass shelves containing a myriad of memories written on folded rice and newspapers. Thought as a universal library and a living and vibrant archive of Humanity, the work will be exhibited in various forms in a wide array of contexts around the world. Mille Kalsmose addresses the sedimentation of individual memories, referring to the idea that these are systematically influenced by the social frameworks in which they are embedded.
In Kalsmose’s project, memories take the form of paper archives alluding to the very nature of one’s identity as well as they are an extensible source to enable the restitution or at least the questioning of collective memory on another level. Through these works, she continues her exploration of psychological mechanisms, identity, the relationships between the self and the others, as well as human existence and its place at the thresholds of earthly ecosystems. Her global work, constellation of installations including video, photography and new technologies, touches the crucial issue of social cohesion which assumes a singular role in the heterogeneous contexts shaping our contemporary societies.
The latest iteration of Collected Memory consists of two large brass shelves cabinets housing folded Chinese paper stained hand-colored red pigment giving the impression of drops of blood. These subtly pleated scrolls are as many memorial archives of anonymous individuals. Both a sculpture and an open library, it becomes the miniaturization of an architectural project as an image of our living spaces, between promiscuity and intimacy. For Mille Kalsmose, it is a question of examining the nature of what constitutes identity, in contrast to the usual stereotypes about nationality, blood relations or gender. These thousands of pages relate stories, experiences and statements written by the participants who share their words through a QR code and an online database.
The work enables interaction with the audience through a physical and emotional act of writing a memory that one wishes to archive. The work itself becomes a receptacle and a living memory shared with a larger community. It invites us to connect with others through remembrance and common intimacy. As each written contribution is saved physically, fixed on paper and digitally in a database that people from all over the world can access and interact with it in order to consult them or spread their own individual experiences. This way, the artist blurs the boundaries between handwriting and digital writing, the physical and the digital world. It is thus possible to interact physically or at a distance with the work, online. Each week, a selection of writings is being published in the national newslightpapers, at Rådhuspladsen as an extension of the work into the social, public and media sphere where they are invited to share individual and personal emotions collectively, blending the “small history” to the “Great” History. This work is a diary of the world, which is no longer a utopia but a reality. It is a recording of collective memory, each page being added to a larger body, enriching a broader and more universal history of humanity.
Memory is often hidden in the inner depths of society, through successive generations. The presence of a collective memory within the same group presupposes that all its members are bound by a common history and identity. Collected Memory finds a very strong relevance in the current context of the 21st century marked by the obsessive return of the figure of the social body, the collective body in the post-covid era. Kalsmose’s work turns the artist’s egotistical gaze towards collective and collaborative proposals. The project resonates in synchrony with the current world’s state which valorized the primacy of the collective entity as a bulwark against individualism. The notion of the social body through collective experience is more relevant than ever. The individual must relearn to exist and vibrate through the crowd.
In fact, the metaphor of the social body designates the interdependence of the parts within the social whole. But they depend on the needs that each one feels and can only satisfy by and with others as well as by collective action and the laws that govern us all as a single body. Nor can we reduce contemporary history to individual memory, the others form the basis of our memory. Mille Kalsmose constantly refers to the representations that a group accepts and shares of its past, present and future: a collection of memories, conscious or unconscious, an experience lived/or mystified by a living collectivity. Multiple memories coexist, such as the memory of events and sensations that we do not experience, that are not of our time and yet, in some cases, would be self-activate or activated by us. Then, collective memory is never interrupted, always in action, it expands as the metaphor of life and of the artwork which is in itself a living body.
Moreover, the work also lies in the tension of the materials themselves, paper and brass, between fragility and solidity, immutability and malleability. Folded, sinuous, infinitely malleable, the papers represent individuals that are subject to social pressures when trying to maintain their individuality. This reminds in a way the works of blood from 1988 by Felix Gonzales-Torres who referred to intimate memory with a significant fragility of materials as well. Universally regarded as the fundamental symbol of the principle of life, with its strength, power and brilliance, red is the colour of blood, which has all its symbolic ambivalence. This sanguine, organic color, crosses all her work as a red thread that connects and sews together each of the stories diluted on this ocean of pages. Carefully arranged, these overflowing archives could also evoke a plethora of official acts, a myriad of book slices in our libraries and the weight of paper’s reams in our offices and homes. Inflexible brass frames are possibly associated with the idea of rigid standards and social norms that compose the framework in which the individual must find his or her place. In this sense, the installation also shows how the memory of people and events builds the space around us.
Collected Memory is a work that is silent from the outside yet filled with voices as painting has always been. Mille Kalsmose gives back to art this notion of an evolutionary window open to the world so as to continue the story. Each sheet of paper represents as many scenarios, like as many colours in a painting. The artist seems to give back to the work its orality through its multitudes of entangled and fragmented stories. Each contribution is a piece of an individual story, a fraction of the collective history. Collected Memory is a permanent exquisite corpse where all the stories are connected; a simultaneously silent and loud landscape from which countless voices rise. The “exquisite corpse” is an experimental collective historical writing game invented by the Surrealists consists in composing a text or a drawing with several people without anyone being able to consider previous collaborations, in a similar process to Kalsmose’one. Thus, the work unfolds from one story to another so that each individual case blends into the collective history, constantly reoriented, augmented, filled with new experiences.
In fact, Kalsmose’s project is being constantly activated by the participants in order to build together a story that is perpetually revived. All these fragments of stories with no beginning and no end make it possible to reconstruct as many stories where things can be grafted together, amalgamated with each other, to tell a new History in a changing world. The artist does not refer to the romantic celebration of History but to the semantic, semiological historic plurality that is always reinvented and rewritten. Each of these new disparate pieces creates a homogenous whole: it is the mystery of the work of art, as in Jean-Luc Godard’s endless films. The work goes against the expected notion of commemoration associated with a ceremonial dimension, but instead reveals the condition of the social body, which is a living body, always in a perpetual state of movement.
In contrast to the nostalgic, sometimes depressing character of a solemn ceremony, the work honours in the post-covid times the need to create new collective rituals from which an incredible and powerful positive energy emanates; Against collective amnesia, the artist wonders about how to tell the collective memory, immersed in the heart of the history that is just being written. Far from being crystallized in the past, it is a continuous ongoing recording of today’s human memory. This fragmented, non-linear history does not end. Still in progress, it is continuously written and interpret by several people through a plurality of readings and meanings. Mille Kalsmose believes that the unifying essence of creation and art as an experience in its own right that links and connects individuals and stories together. Collected Memory is a story to be followed…