Feeding on memories at the V&A

How do you keep your memories sacred? We head to the V&A's Memory Palace exhibition to find out...

By: Nicola Robey,   3 minutes

Mario Wagner Memory Palace

If you had to guard a single memory, that precious moment you’d preserve beyond all others, what would it be?

From the names of friends, places and things, to the smell of the hockey stick cupboard at school,  memory is a seismic, intricate, unique web of experiences, information and conjecture. Some are real visceral times we can recall in a second, some are wildly exaggerated and some are never truly experienced at all; yet each and every memory we store in our minds makes up who we are today.

With its twisted tangles of memory explored in an immersive walk-in story book world, involving 20 international illustrators, graphic designers and typographers, all commissioned to bring Hari Kunzru’s latest short story to life, Sky Ignition’s Memory Palace at the V&A was perfect fodder for my recent London-based Feed.

Being able to step into Kunzru’s dramatic dystopian future pushes the limits of what we conceive conventional reading to be. Words had been shaken from the pages and rearranged in many forms throughout the gallery space. Piquing my interests and giving me a hint of a trail to follow, I was goaded to gather shards of a story through interpretations of passages, themes plucked from pages and artists’ own takes on Kunzru’s tale.

Frank Law memory Palace

As I paced from piece to piece, the fleeting narrative called out to me. I felt like a story book detective, with interwoven moments urging me to look deeper into the motives of the artists, fragments encouraging me to interrogate the vision of others.

The exhibition conjured a world less ordinary. A world where the act of remembering is forbidden.

In this unfamiliar future world, unlimited access to information has been wiped out by a colossal magnetic storm, plunging ‘pewters’ into darkness.  It’s a world where nature has reclaimed the land once more, cloaking the planet in a new dark age, where reading, writing and processing information are punishable by death, under strict orders of the tattooed primitivist leaders.

Memory Palace

Kunzru’s protagonist, a prisoner languishing in his cell for the ‘act of remembering’, gives us a set of eyes on this strange new world. Using the walls of his cell as his Memory Palace, he revives the ancient art of remembrance, bringing to life corrupted fragments of a past unknown and meanings misunderstood. He figuratively places these precious memories around his cell, one in the crack in the floorboards, three on the window sill, so that whilst empty, its walls are bursting with imagination and interpretations of the past.

Meanings are tangled into strange new forms, and snippets of popular culture are preserved like half-forgotten relics in a landfill graveyard.

In this foreign future, Kunzru introduces new meanings to place names, social figures and domestic objects. Names that wave and tug at our own memories like the ‘gates of the city’ Great Poor Land Street and Notting Hell .

Whilst they seem familiar, these abstract words are inscribed with a new meaning by a fictional future, where dimly disjointed memories are hacked together to form new forbidden truths.  Meanings are tangled into strange new forms, and snippets of popular culture are preserved like half-forgotten relics in a landfill graveyard.

With visual spectacles of sculpture, intricate graphic drawings, towering and foreboding interpretations of Kunzru’s vivid imagining, I was able to slot together the story in this fictional dystopian puzzle.

As a parting gift, Memory Palace led us all into a taking part in a defiant act of memory. Letting the story live on through our own eyes, we were encouraged to leave our own special memory, drawn onto a electronic tablet.  A couple of days  later, I was sent a link to an A3 sheet where a cacophony of thoughts and moments were etched deep, ready to be drunk in by memory hungry eyes. Each one a catalyst for a new story in itself.

Yes, this was a different type of story telling. But what I took from the experience, wasn’t simply that artists had left a trail to follow. It was that stories can take many forms.

And whether or not they’re confined to books, live on in imaginations, are etched onto walls or are left to inhabit the streets we tread, a story is always present  – if we’re willing to look for it.

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