The Material Remains of Memory

LONDON — When I first walked by Vong Phaophanit’s “Neon Rice Field” (1993), I thought it was composed of concrete, an abstraction of a sieve system designed to channel water. Upon closer inspection, I realized it was made of 10 tons of rice, with red neon lines that marked six channels.  Phaophanit’s work is an exploration of cultural identity, blending two common images of Asia — rice and neon lights — that, while certainly extant on the continent, are limiting representations.

“Neon Rice Field” is one work of five in Material as Message, an exhibition at Tate Britain focused on memorialization of the temporary and intangible. (Fittingly, after the show, the rice will be donated to local food banks.) These five works are installed in the main floor, where they occupy the interstitial space between the formal galleries of the museum. 

Anya Gallaccio’s “preserve ‘beauty’” (1991–2003) is likewise made of organic material, this time in the form of 2,000 mass-produced red gerbera flowers. They were installed in bloom for the show’s opening in May, but by the time I arrived in October, they were wilting and decaying, dripping down the walls and onto the floor. Like “Neon Rice Field,” the work will go away at the end of the show, a study in temporality.

Vong Phaophanit, “Neon Rice Field” (1993)

I wanted to rename the show Material as Memory, if only because memory is such a significant part of what unites the five works. The memory of loss, the memory of love, the memory of home — all of these works ask us how we come to remember, and each artist has carefully selected materials that suit the memories they’re trying to preserve.

In Rachel Whiteread’s “Untitled (Stairs)” (2001), a plaster cast of the negative space around the stairs in the artist’s home becomes a record of the history of these stairs — once a Baptist church, the building became a synagogue and then a textile factory, before being abandoned. And in Lydia Ourahmane’s “The Third Choir Archive” (2014), 20 empty oil barrels from an Algerian oil company represent the journey that Algerian migrants might take to arrive in Europe. An archive next to the installation shows the 934 forms of correspondence — from proposals to emails to customs clearance forms — that the artist needed to transport the barrels.

In Susan Hiller’s “Monument” (1980–81), 41 photos of memorial plaques from London’s Postman’s Park bring us back to the lives of ordinary people who died while saving others’ lives. Hiller made the photos because she was struck by how few people stopped to notice the plaques in the park installation. They commemorate moments like Elizabeth Boxall’s death in 1888 trying to save a child from a runaway horse, or Ellen Donovan’s death in 1873 trying to rescue a neighbor’s children from a burning house.

Lydia Ourahmane, “The Third Choir Archive” (2014)

Whether by design or coincidence, “Monument” stands just a few short steps away from Chris Ofili’s “Requiem,” the stunning mural commemorating the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017. Upon the opening, Naomi Polonsky wrote in Hyperallergic, the “dreamlike mural” memorializes artist Khadija Saye, who died in the fire just a month after she and Ofili met while they were exhibiting at the Diaspora Pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale.

“Public art can hold spaces of grief and it can keep alive collective memories of events that might otherwise completely just fade away in time, just as life inevitably moves on,” Ofili wrote at the time. While Material as Message was installed earlier this year, the show’s theme asks potent questions speaking to this particular moment in history, as ethnic cleansing, genocide, and mass death enter the news on a daily basis. Each work asks us to consider what it means to remember the ordinary, the people, places, and things that don’t make headlines but have their own inherent beauty and worth.

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Lydia Ourahmane, “The Third Choir Archive” (2014)
Anya Gallaccio, “preserve ‘beauty’” (1991–2003)
Rachel Whiteread, “Untitled (Stairs)” (2001)
Susan Hiller, “Monument” (1980–81)
Susan Hiller, “Monument” (1980–81), detail

Material as Message continues at Tate Britain (Millbank, London, England) through January 28. The exhibition was organized by the museum.

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