The Mechanization of Memory

Photography and Framing in the work of Micaela Benedicto and MM Yu

This is an unedited excerpt from an article I wrote, coming out in this month’s Art+, reviewing Micaela Benedicto’s recent solo, Structures of Unremembering, by revisiting the work of other artists who use similar media and concepts. For this, it was M.M. Yu’s Memoirs (2001) and Thoughts Collected, Recollected (2007).

Thoughts Collected, Recollected (2007), from the blog of the Bastards of Misrepresentation (linked);

In the catalogue notes to Picture Imperfect (2013), an exhibit of photography held at mo__, Cocoy Lumbao raises questions of authorship by composing an imagined correspondence between a photographer and its subject. Addressing the photographer as “Image-taker”, the subject writes in the tone of the dispossessed, pleading, observing, “I cannot help but think that through your hands, I have evolved from mere depiction into a proclamation that you can send. You are my messenger now as you have once been my witness.”

What exactly is “taken” in the act of taking a picture? Messages? Evidence? An impression that demands that one “See here.” We have heard the entire spectrum of warnings and accusations: “Pictures or it didn’t happen.” Thus, making it a worthwhile exercise to revisit the medium, long after the age of mechanical reproduction, immersed in the economy of attention and information.

The ambivalence between milestones and the mundane has consistently figured in the photography of MM Yu, whose work challenges the concepts of framing and display that are often overlooked in the photographer’s quest to capture the picture-perfect moment. In Thoughts Collected, Recollected (2007), her work is pressed into albums and placed on unvarnished wooden shelves. In Memoirs (2001), first shown at the La Trobe Visual Arts Centre in Australia in 2008 before moving to the Ateneo Art Gallery in the following year, Yu uses one thousand multiple exposures to wallpaper a section of the gallery, in a seeming reversal of the saying that “A picture is worth a thousand words”. How about a thousand pictures?

Confronting the viewer with this “wallpaper of light” (to quote Ringo Bunoan), Yu exposes the inadequacies of the surface, whether it’s in print or on a screen. Her work speaks of how what gets captured is a mere selection, despite the multiple technologies that allow us to document our experiences. Using an antiquated medium, she takes pains to wind celluloid back in a process of revisiting the recently captured, and instead comes up with the reality of exposure as simultaneously allowing subjects to surface and be released. The act of making memories comes with the inevitability of erasing or distorting the past.

If “without our memories we are nothing,” as suggested by Luis Bunuel, then what testament to the self can be given by an instagram feed or a facebook timeline? Memory, these platforms seem to suggest, is not only a curated space but a flattened one; unless our memories are given any coherence through creative acts, memory remains a place of loss. “This work quietly declares that our memories are fated to disappear in time,” wrote curator Gen Umezu of Toshihiro Nakanosai’s incursion from photography to video, in a solo show that explored, among other things, the concept of a vanishing point and of “light perceived as volume”. He writes, “It was an amazing feeling to be able to actually see the externalized memory,” a poetic conception of the term photograph, one that resonates with its Hungarian translation: “to make it last forever.”

A reversal of Yu’s process is seen in the work of Micaela Benedicto. While Yu’s work brings viewers into intimate connections with what has passed, inviting them to take it off the shelf, browse through it and turn it in their hands, Benedicto treats the past as another country. Between sculpture and image, her series Structures of Unremembering (2014), which was shown at the Blanc gallery last October (and again as part of a group show at West Gallery in December), consists of structures that are simultaneously traces, reflections, and impermeable layers anchored to pristine surfaces. Structures of Unremembering does not deviate from the minimalist aesthetic of Benedicto’s past works, both as an artist and an architect.

Unlike Yu’s hypersaturated jewel tones, Benedicto makes little use of color or curves; yet it is in the layers impressed upon the work that a story unfolds, making her structured photos a literary rather than architectural gesture. This recourse to narrative, or to fiction, not only reflects the malleability of the past but the ease with which our memories can betray us.

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Mnemonic Devices

Micaela Benedicto, Structures of Unremembering at the Blanc

The past is another country. Simultaneously foreign and familiar, the past is irreversible yet permanently irretrievable in its entirety. Despite the multiple technologies that allow us to document our experiences, what gets captured is a mere selection. If “without our memories we are nothing,” as suggested by Luis Bunuel, then what testament to the self can be given by an instagram feed or a facebook timeline? Memory, these platforms seem to suggest, is not only a curated space but a flattened one; unless our memories are given any coherence through creative acts, memory remains a place of loss.

Between sculpture and image, Micaela Benedicto’s current series of work draws from documents of a recent past, producing structures that are simultaneously traces, reflections, and impermeable layers anchored to pristine surfaces. Like any object placed behind glass and exhibited in the white cube, these structures critique the practice of how easy it is to accept objects on display as fact, even if they too are products of reconstruction.

Occupying a single room at the Blanc on Katipunan Ave., Structures of Unremembering does not deviate from the minimalist aesthetic of Benedicto’s past works – both as an artist and an architect. There’s little color and aside from the photogrammed images transferred to mirrored steel, she makes very little use of curves; yet it is in the layers impressed upon the work that a story unfolds making Structures of Unremembering more of a literary gesture than an architectural one. This recourse to narrative, or to fiction, not only reflects the malleability of the past but the ease with which our memories can betray us.

The only source of softness to the work are the photogrammed images which form a hazy, almost gauzy layer over the hard edges of the steel. In her attempt at structuring that space between remembering and forgetting, the definitive product is a series of angles signifying the tensions between irreversibility and an openness to perception. These structures not only give shape to prior form, but give it height or a level of monumentality. Acknowledging the futility of recollection, we thus find potential in reconstruction, shaping the present and pushing forward into a future.

“Why not invent the past?” This may seem like a stupid question, but it has raised ethical concerns about the well-meaning initiatives that have since grown into the complex of institutionalized myth and meaning making that is the museum. Benedicto’s work, with its reconstructed objects referring to the production of memories, does not resolve this ethical issue; however it does point out these acts of invention and reconstruction as both necessary betrayals and instruments of negotiating our inherently multi-faceted histories. In this case, the question is not whether reconstructing or inventing a past is ethical, but whether it even makes any difference once it becomes of use.


Structures of Unremembering runs at the Blanc Gallery, 145 Katipunan Ave., until Nov. 18, 2014. Here’s the event page.
Structures of Unremembering Micaela Benedicto invite_hi-res