On ‘Screen Memory’ at Simon Lee and Wolfgang Tillmans and Robert Rauschenberg shows at Tate Modern
Freud used the term “Screen memory” to describe a false or exaggerated recollection masking another, more potent one. In choosing the title “Screen Memory” for his group exhibition at Simon Lee gallery, artist-curator Eoin Donnelly acknowledged the term’s original meaning but also used Freud’s theory as an analogy for the ways in which collective memories may occlude or “screen” individual experience. In keeping with an alternative reading of the term—which now also conjures the screens, both large and small, that dominate our lives—most of the works on display belonged to our digital era; however, a selection of earlier collages and appropriation works by Wallace Berman, Sherrie Levine, and Sturtevant offered a sense of lineage.
Allen Ruppersberg was represented by a work that looks older than it is. Poems & Placemats (2008) features color copies of sensationalist newspaper articles, typed texts, and retro-looking found images, laminated and hung on two pegboards as well as stacked inside cardboard boxes—the apparent randomness of their selection at odds with the value and interest implied by their careful preservation. The title encourages viewers to mentally align the laminated elements with the two categories prescribed by the artist, even when a pair of typed poems illogically appear in the Placemats section.
In his 1995 book Archive Fever, Jacques Derrida recalls the legal roots of the term “archive” (Greek arkheion, referring to the magistrate’s house), arguing that classification of archival documents is a power play that involves imposing limits—the archivist must decide which are worthy or not of inclusion, and which, say, are personal, and which are intellectual. “Should one rely on what Freud says about this to classify his work?” Derrida asks. For Derrida, the archive is necessarily impossible to fully interpret; that idea of translation belongs to the realm of archaeology.
Poems & Placemats might furthermore be described as “hauntological,” after a concept coined by Derrida in Spectres of Marx (1993) and revisited by cultural theorist and blogger Mark Fisher, whose recent suicide so shook the British art world. Fisher applied hauntology to the type of music that was “preoccupied with the way in which technology materialised memory”—specifically, electronic music that incorporated audio (from scratched vinyl LPs, wartime radio broadcasts, or ’70s films) of obvious age and analog facture. For Fisher, hauntological music carries a political dimension in that it represents not simply a nostalgia for a better past but rather a failed nostalgia that refuses to “give up on the desire for the future,” one that amounts to a “failure to accommodate the closed horizons of capitalist realism.”
Sara Cwynar’s Woman 1, Man 3, Man 4 (2015) is a case where technology materializes memory. Her triptych, based on photographs found in a garbage can, captures a Kenyan businessman being greeted warmly by his hosts at a South Korean factory. The people in the picture are smartly dressed in timeless professional attire, but the decor of the room behind them, along with the image’s faded color, lends the photos an unmistakably nostalgic feel, enhanced by an overall dot screen pattern, apparently present in the original and exaggerated by the artist. Here, color and surface detail are the symbolic markers of memory.
Turpentine is the unusual medium of memory in Dennis Oppenheim’s video installation, Recall (1974). The work consists of a close-up of the artist’s mouth as he recalls his frustratingly traditional art-school training, his stream-of-consciousness delivery the result of having cotton saturated with turpentine stuffed into his nose. Here, turpentine functions in three ways: as an activator of Oppenheim’s memory; as a symbol of the conventional medium of oil paint that he rejected in college; and finally, as a physical and olfactory presence in the work, mixed with India ink to create the black liquid in which the video is reflected.
Stephen Sutcliffe’s Scenes from the Life of an Impatient Man (2015) invokes two deaths: a double haunting. This macabre video lays a reading from the late British poet Christopher Logue’s autobiography, Prince Charming, over footage of a hand folding newspaper images of a reporter zipping himself into a handbag. The visuals refer to a curious British news story about the discovery of the naked corpse of an MI6 agent in a padlocked North Face sports bag, and the speculation that his death was the outcome of an autoerotic experiment gone awry. In the film’s voice-over, Logue offers examples of his legendary impatience—with plastic packaging, with queues—as potential scenarios for a short film, finishing with the bleak hope that his impatience might set him up to just “go for it” at the end of his life. As in Freudian screen memory, the absurdity of the “spy in the bag” story seems to screen our discomfort around death, only for that unease to resurface in Logue’s voice.
Jim Shaw’s mesmeric portrait of the late television entertainer Jimmy Savile, with his trademark bulging eyes and platinum mop top, reminds us how much the British public has been haunted by the revelation, after Savile’s death, that he was a sexual predator who had molested hundreds of children. Shaw has overlaid the image of Savile’s face with vinyl letters spelling out the star’s repetitive catchphrase “Now then, now then, now then.” Shaw’s layout makes a binary play out of the words, opposing “now” to “then,” and posing a conundrum: given the persistence of digital memories, can the Savile episode be safely consigned to the then of the past?
German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans’s beautifully curated solo exhibition, “2017,” at Tate Modern, likewise reflects on time, memory, and technology. Titled after the current year, the show is, as its brochure insists, “not a retrospective.” Instead, by presenting the material thematically rather than chronologically—mostly hung, as Tillmans’s work often is, floor to ceiling in informal groupings—it emphasizes the consistency of his career-long preoccupations: the technologies of reproduction, LGBTQ identity, music subcultures, and classic photographic genres (abstraction, portraiture, landscape photography, nightscapes, and still lifes are all present).
Interspersed throughout the exhibition are A4 sheets of paper printed with different time-related brain teasers, such as “8 years ago was the year 2009. 8 years after now is the year 2025.” Duration, Tillmans seems to be suggesting, is perceived differently with respect to the past and the future: 2009 doesn’t feel long past, but 2025 seems, illogically, more than eight years in the future. We experience the passage of time subjectively, our perception of duration dependent on a host of inner and outer stimuli.
These time statements form part of Tillmans’s truth study center, a vast collection of research materials—including his internet searches and emails—selections from which are displayed on tables as works of art. Much of this wide-ranging research focuses on sociopolitical issues: articles from specialized journals like Nature, for example, attest to a fascination with the neurobiology behind lies, self-deception, and political bias.
Tillmans’s research has lately tipped into activism. His poster designs urging people not to vote for Brexit are displayed here (during the run-up to the European referendum, the downloadable posters were the most visible face of artistic protest in the UK), as well as photographs like the prescient 2009 Rest of World, depicting an airport sign at the end of a long corridor pointing to rest of world passports.
One of the gallery rooms is dedicated to a four-year project Tillmans set himself to both visit unknown places and, more challengingly, revisit familiar places and attempt to see them anew. The resulting series of sumptuous photographs, “Neue Welt,” includes Jurys Inn (2010), an interior shot of one of the eponymous mid-market chain’s bland hotel rooms, which through Tillmans’s lens becomes a study of geometry and warm orange tones echoing the anodyne abstract art on the wall. A small TV monitor reflects the disheveled bed at the edge of the shot—a neat visual trick, art-historically linked with the mirrored image of the artist in Velázquez’s 1656 Las Meninas, elevating this mundane scene.
The joy of Tillmans’s work is that he treats all his subjects with the same intense scrutiny. Within his portraits, friends are accorded the same status as cultural figures with whom Tillmans is sympathetic, whether the late Gustav Metzger or the cult philosopher Slavoj Žižek.
Other than a playful revisiting of Tillmans’s 1980s alter ego, “Fragile” (also the name of his record label), for Arena magazine, self-portraits are largely absent from this show. Yet, as with his tabletop arrangements of information, we might be tempted to read the photographs of his studio as indirect self-portraits, so revealing are they of his working process and habits. A monumental still life of his desk—loaded down with hard drives, two desktop computers, and a laptop—offers visual proof of the contemporary photographer’s reliance on computers. Nestled among the hardware are packs of cigarettes, a full ashtray, an empty wineglass, and a beer bottle—the comforts and stimulants needed to get through long hours of postproduction, archiving, and admin. An Alice in Wonderland–style image of giant army-booted feet towering over a tiny gallery, Kunstverein (2007) makes a visual joke about Tillmans’s use of maquettes to plan exhibitions, and possibly about the need for artistic control.
His career is perhaps best summed up in terms of his radical openness—whether Tillmans is laying bare his identity as a gay man, or his politics. The photographic still life 17 Years’ Supply (2014), for example, depicts a cardboard box full of dozens of empty bottles of H.I.V. medication, many bearing the artist’s name. But unlike today’s compulsion for over-sharing on social media, Tillmans’s openness feels generous rather than gratuitous. He often puts himself in the position of being a fan, such as the uncommercial projects he continues to curate at his project space, Three Bridges, first in London, and now in Berlin. At Tate, he has given over an entire room to re-creating one such project, Colourbox: Music of the group (1982–1987), in which visitors are invited to listen to music by the experimental pop band.
Sharing the same level at Tate Modern, the Robert Rauschenberg retrospective was nearing the end of its run. Since it opened in December, Donald Trump has been inaugurated as the 45th U.S. President, and the exhibition has taken on a renewed relevance, with the late American artist now standing for the kind of radical, cosmopolitan intellectualism—shared by Tillmans and Ruppersberg—so antithetical to the Trump administration’s nationalist, populist agenda.
It cannot be a coincidence that Tate used Rauschenberg’s Retroactive II (1963) as its main publicity image for the show. With the looming figure of John F. Kennedy dominating the painting, it provokes comparisons to American politics today. The silkscreened JFK image was originally a clip from the second presidential debate with Richard Nixon, in 1960—the first series of presidential debates to be aired on TV. Rauschenberg, however, painted out the lower half of Kennedy’s torso in order to isolate and emphasize his pointing hand, which seems to reach out of the picture plane. The combination of slightly teary eye with the emphatic hand gesture creates an irresistible media image of a compassionate yet powerful would-be leader, as iconographic as the silkscreened image next to it of a NASA astronaut parachuting to earth.
Rauschenberg created this work three years after the debate, just before JFK was assassinated. The title Retroactive, made chillingly apt by subsequent events, invites us to return mentally to the past to imagine an alternative future in which the assassination had not occurred. As with Fisher’s hauntology, nostalgia for the promise of a different politics haunts this painting.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of ARTnews on page 126 under the title “Around London.”