Archives for posts with tag: history

I was asked to write in Michael Rakowitz’s catalogue, for his show at the MCA Chicago (Sept 2017 – March 2018), entitled Backstroke of the West, curated by Omar Kholeif. Michael’s work encompasses errant history, near and far. He plays with time and matter. And so, here’s my short story inspired by his preoccupations*.

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“I REMEMBER HISTORY,” she says.

“YOU REMEMBER NOTHING,” he replies.

A precious artifact separates them. It’s white, brittle looking, a real talking point. Dust falls onto the starring loan. Neither she nor he notices. It’s nearly midnight now. The museum is open late, for the public. We must educate the public. Guards are prone to daydream, but what do they dream of at night? Dust always falling, breeding, elsewhere in the building too. Tiny enemies. Dust falls between this woman and this man.

“I REMEMBER…,” she says.

“YOU REMEMBER…?” he shakes his head.

They have been visiting this popular museum since they first met, on the third floor, forty-five years ago. They sought shelter from the rain that day. From the fucking chaos of the world. Their eyes locked onto one another—through the missing gaps of a dinosaur skeleton. Love at first extinction, you might say. Small talk ensued. Were the dinosaur’s memories still trapped in the bones?

A tour guide passed by, arms flailing, and he shouted, “One day, humans will be artifacts in a museum like this.” It made our couple laugh, and, before long, they’d told each other their plain, familiar names.

“I REMEMBER AN ARCHAEOLOGICAL DIG IN…,” Riva says.

“YOU REMEMBER NOWHERE,” Okada side-eyes.

Time in a museum is unlike time on a watch, on a screen, between atoms. Museum time is a relatively affordable luxury, a holiday away from habit. Time, here, is not narrative. Neither is it nonlinear. It is formed of crystals, according to a Sudanese painter whose work they saw on the ground floor of the museum, in rooms one through four. Women trapped in crystalline cages.

“I REMEMBER MY MOTHER’S TIARA,” she says.

“YOU REMEMBER WRONG,” he brays.

Riva and Okada have lost track of their route through the popular museum, the rooms they’ve visited, in their long, winding life together. Numbers are related to counting, and, after some years, when their marriage slowly turned into a private museum, they chose not to count anymore.

“I REMEMBER OUR FIRST BED, IT WAS…,” she says.

“YOU REMEMBER NADA, SO WHY DON’T YOU…,” he coughs.

Earlier, in one of the museum’s other rooms, they read a caption that said, “Time, more than space, belongs to theologians, filmmakers, and shamans.” They made a note of this, in shorthand that the other would find impossible to ever read. Then they watched a film. Historical sites—thousands of years ancient, in a part of the world most associated with unending wars—were being blown up with old explosives. These statues, apparently, were sacrilegious. Shirk, the greatest sin of all. Shirk, attributing God’s greatness to something other than God. Destroying them was the duty of the devout?

But the videos played backward. Pulverized dust slowly congealed back into form and figure, poise and premonition. This is often how their marriage felt too.

“I REMEMBER THE UNITED ARAB REPUBLIC,” she says.

“THERE IS NOTHING TO REMEMBER,” he shushes.

Are we able to piece together their itinerary over the past three hours—or three decades, who’s to say—moving from curated room to didactic display? Is this an accurate checklist?

  • MISSING ARTIFACTS STOLEN FROM
    THE NATIONAL MUSEUM OF IRAQ IN BAGHDAD.
  • LOST VOLUMES DESTROYED IN THE STATE LIBRARY
    OF HESSE-KASSEL IN GERMANY
  • DISPLACED TRAY FROM THE GREAT SYNAGOGUE IN BAGHDAD
  • SCALED-DOWN RECONSTRUCTION OF THE ISHTAR
    GATE FROM ANCIENT BABYLON
  • DAMAGED BOOK OF PRAYERS
  • IRAQI FEDAYEEN HELMET, CIRCA SADDAM HUSSEIN
  • DARTH VADER’S HELMET DYING LANGUAGES

Doomed to repeat, cursed to repeat, shuffling the same playlist—this is what their grandchildren believe happens to civilization. Only technology changes. The nature of switches, dials, buttons. If humans are going to be artifacts

in a museum like this, Riva wonders, could they pick me? She imagines a vitrine shaped like a crystal, like the one she saw Vladimir Lenin encased in, at his Red Square mausoleum. She envies the glory of his eternal rest. His pallor.

“I REMEMBER LENIN’S GUARDS. WERE THEY MADE OF WAX?”
she asks.

“YOU REMEMBER EVERYTHING INSIDE OUT,” he says.

It is 11:59 pm, and the museum guards are rounding up people, politely asking them to make their way to the exit. The precious artifact separating Riva and Okada—white, brittle looking, a real talking point of today’s museum tweets—has puzzled them ever since they arrived.

The museum should provide theologians or shamans for moments like this, when the captions on the walls fall short. When you’re free-falling through meaning. When you look at the person you’ve spent almost your entire life with and— like that—you feel no love.

  • TRAGEDY
  • DISPERSAL
  • DISPLACEMENT
  • EXILE
  • RECONSTRUCTION
  • REMEMBERING
  • FORGETTING
  • FARCE

The chaos of the fucking world leads us here?

To a set of “keywords”?

The precious artifact—says the exhibition handout—is a new, three-dimensional printed copy. Very twenty- first century, apparently. However. Let’s be honest. This re-creation is more of a lewd ghost, composed entirely of digital dust, the wet dream of millennials, who have become the stupidly successful museum’s priority audience.

Riva and Okada fail to lock eyes with one another, missing the dinosaur skeleton maybe, missing whatever it is that makes the past something other than a grotesque animal. Their memories are trapped inside their bones. And at this moment, sadness falls between Riva and Okada for the last time.

“I REMEMBER OUR HISTORY,” she says.

“MY LOVE,” he cries, “I KNOW YOU DO.”

 


*The characters’ names are borrowed from the actors’ names in Hiroshima Mon Amouras is the contrapuntal affirmation and denial between the protagonists.

hiroshima

Here’s the impish cover of Michael’s catalogue:

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Kim Jong-nam, the eldest son of former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, was killed in an attack at Malaysia’s low-cost carrier airport, klia2, at around 9:00 a.m. on February 13, 2017. He was scheduled to take a flight to Macau later that morning. Two women, Vietnamese Doan Thi Huong (twenty-eight) and Indonesian Siti Aisyah (twenty-five), were allegedly asked to wipe baby oil on Jong-nam’s face, and were paid $90 for this reality-TV prank. However, twenty minutes after the attack—which was caught on airport security CCTV—Jong-nam was dead.

In issue #83 of e-flux journal, I’ve written a piece entitled “LOL History,” which is about this image, released soon after Kim Jong-nam’s murder:

Duan Thi Huong

It’s an attempt to enumerate the different associations my mind and my memory made when I saw this image for the first time. When I started to zoom in, print it out, zoom in further, print out again, then pin on my wall:

duan sb grid.jpg

If our memories are becoming more like the data sets used by Facebook et al. for facial recognition, then it’s perhaps unsurprising that our eyes and ears have become search engine interfaces.

The text ends with a heartfelt question:

Something always exceeds the images of faces. Escapes complete capture. Maybe it is why we take so many selfies everyday?

 

Image

Remember or Forget? History decides for you

(Published in Tank’s 15th Anniversary issue)

Certain neurologists claim that the brain’s experience of the present lasts between 2.0 and 2.5 seconds. Everything before this is before and everything after is future far away.

It is the 15th anniversary of The Lunar Prospector being launched into orbit around the moon and finding frozen water there, close to where Ramzi Yousef was sentenced to life imprisonment for planning the first World Trade Center bombing, just north of Hugo Chávez’ Presidential election victory in Venezuela.

Since time is vast (maybe endless, depending on whose eschatology you buy into) and the past keeps increasing in size and depth, we’ve invented tools to make time tangible to our minds and graspable in our everyday lives. Without these tools, we’d drown in time’s gooey unknowability. The way it overwhelms us by never really being there.

It is the 13th anniversary of the world not ending Y2K-style, sparked by the billionth person being born in India, whose soul was the reincarnation of the recently departed Walter Matthau. Or Alex Guiness. Or Douglas Fairbanks. No, it was Hedy Lamarr’s.

The duration of a single day links us with the earth’s planetary spin, the pirouetting of the moon, tide-sway, and birdsong. This in turn synchs our shops and TV stations and office hours with nature’s unstoppable cycles. A day is the smallest unit of time that begins, middles and ends.

It is the 12th anniversary of the Taliban destroying the first Apple retail store in Glendale, CA, news of which never made it to Douglas Adams, Aaliyah or Timothy McVeigh. They had already recently passed away.

As Mircea Eliade pointed out in The Myth of Eternal Return, traditional man relives time, over and over again, to invoke mythical time, impelled by “nostalgia for the origins.” This is what gives him or her orientation against the nausea of eternity.

It is the 11th anniversary of the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security, whose increased airport checks led to a large section of the Antarctic Larsen Ice Shelf beginning to disintegrate. Victims included Billy Wilder, Lisa ‘Left-Eye’ Lopes and Pierre Bourdieu.

Anniversaries are modern navigation instruments amidst the accumulation of time. To paraphrase the historian Eric Hobsbawm, anniversaries protest against default forgetting. Anniversaries organise human history—so much smaller than geological history but already incomprehensible for any one individual—into short bursts of collective memory.

It is the 10th anniversary of Dewey (the first deer clone) and Prometea (the first horse clone) being born, the final puzzle pieces to the completion of the Human Genome Project and the capturing of Saddam Hussein in Tikrit, Iraq.

To Anniversarise: summon the past into the present on a significant day. Remembering is re-enactment. The dead are allowed to undie one day a year, a decade, a century. Just now, I have been told, ‘Today would have been Kafka’s 130th birthday.’ With that, an occasion to reminisce and revisit Kafka’s writings, letters and loves arise.

It is the 8th anniversary of the first human face transplant becoming the first uploaded video on YouTube as a direct result of the founding of the Kyoto Protocol. Eight years since a bomb blast killed Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, gonzo journalist Hunter S Thompson, rocker Johnny Carson and comedian Richard Pryor.   

Where do we go today to find out what happened before we might forget forever? Wikipedia. Our free, commons archive. The one that compiles collective witnessing. In fact, this collective witnessing (that may spill into fantasising or misremembering) is now the primary source of history many of us rely on hundreds of times a week. Thousands of times a year. Eternally returning.

It is the 5th anniversary of Iran launching a rocket into space, controlled by the first implanted bionic eyes. Lehman Brothers files for bankruptcy protection upon hearing of the sudden deaths of Studs Terkel, Alain-Robbe Grillet, David Foster Wallace and Bobby Fischer.

If you enter a number into Google that looks like an Anno Domini date—1536, 1979, 2003—the first result is the Wikipedia page entry of that year. It will tell you what day January 1st fell on and then proceed to list, in chronological order, notable historical events, month by month. After which come the births. Then, most poignantly, the deaths.

It is the 3rd anniversary of Tunisian fruit-seller Mohammed Bouazizi committing self-immolation at the top of the world’s tallest building, Dubai’s Burj Khalifa just as it opens. Wikileaks’ first leak tragically brings about the deaths of reclusive author JD Salinger and inventor of the fractal, Benoit Mandlebrôt.

When I read the year pages on Wikipedia as continuous prose, something happens to past time. New adjacencies emerge. Unknown causalities between unrelated points on earth and its people. Undiscovered ricochets in geopolitical matrices. Not only is the world flat, Thomas Friedman, but history becomes flat too. A month is 2.5 seconds eye-scanning. A year is scrolled through in a few minutes. There’s a kind of chrono-dyslexia that produces conspiratorially rich cause and effect. The father of deconstruction (Jacques Derrida) dies and so does the father of Palestinian independence (Yasser Arafat). Accident? Providence? Myth? Coincidence? Because, Wikipedia’s faceless annotators have distilled the history of everything into a selective sequence of bullet-pointed somethings. This distillation: new, strange, entanglements of retrospective earth destiny.

Derrida

 

 

Arafat

 

 

 

 

 

Maybe it’s all happened before. We’re in the future looking back. Happy birthday. Rest in peace. I’m lost. That’s OK. We are too. As Eliade wrote, ‘In our day, when historical pressure no longer allows any escape, how can man tolerate the catastrophes and horrors of history—from collective deportations and massacres to atomic bombings—if beyond them he can glimpse no sign, no transhistorical meaning; if they are only the blind play of economic, social, or political forces, or, even worse, only the result of the “liberties” that a minority takes and exercises directly on the stage of universal history?’