The Unbearable Weight of Memory

The festival has come and gone. It’s hard to believe that its been over a week since our collective descent upon Toronto’s West end galleries and streets wrapped up. Each day, memories of the performances continue to be triggered, exploded and turned into personal meditations (at least in my, admittedly invested, case). Am I the only one experiencing this? I have felt compelled to think through the performances anew, in particular those that might have been challenging for me at the time, and to which some distance has enabled possible meanings or interpretations to emerge. Waldemar Tatarczuk’s piece (untitled) was such a performance – a reflection on the vagaries of memory, its precariousness and weight.

Tatarczuk’s performance began with the artist in contemplation with a black and white photo of himself. This photo was part of a series of portraits that Tatarczuk had taken during the festival (including countless images of other artists and participants). After a few moments, the artist tore up the photo, making confetti out of it and throwing it at the audience. The gesture was mysterious — showering us with a fragmented memory of his image. Tatarczuk had just turned hard “evidence” into mere traces (or, the trace into further traces, depending on how you understand photography). Tatarczuk had dissembled the meanings that his pose and the context had fleetingly wrought – exposing its contingencies only to provide us with a new set of possible meanings.

Tatarczuk then placed two piles of paper against the wall which he supported with his hands and weight, pressing against them. He began to work with the left pile first: photos of participants from the festival who had posed for him over the past five days. He crumbled up each photo slowly into a clenched fist, subsequently letting it fall to the floor. What memories of the past few days, we wonder, are evoked for those who have been photographed? How does the performance itself contaminate the “purity” of their memories as triggered by these photos? The action produced an eerie investigation of the recent past, its muting, and its necessarily fraught re-invigoration during the performance event.

The artist then moved on to the right-hand pile. This is the story of his life from birth to the present typed out in black and white. A linear narrative with political innuendo given the context of the artist’s life (Poland, 1964 to the present). Here, we are being asked to fill in the blanks (blank pages, literally). Although the artist has given his “memories” narrative coherence, the blanks represent voids that remind us of the failure or limits of memory (or memory’s resistance to the linearity into which it is being coaxed). The final pages of his life story are perplexing: Tatarczuk announces his death in 2012. There are gasps in the audience – genuine bamboozlement. Is the projected erasure of the artist an effect of how memory disrupts or destabilizes the immanence of being?  Tatarczuk drops this last page and leaves the gallery to smoke a cigarette outside. His departure leaves a heavy weight in the room. I grappled with some way to think about the shock and gloom of his final gesture and started considering this end as emblematic of a broader, Polish sensibility – a kind of flair for the mysterio-dramatic that characterizes the oeuvres of theatre and film luminaries from Kantor and Grotowski, to Kieslowski and Wajda.

Tatarczuk’s performance compels us to think about the labour of memory –  and the body that retains or houses this disorganized and disjunctive inventory. The artist literally supports the traces of past events with his body as he props up the piles of photos and written narrative.  His shirt showed increasing evidence of exhaustion – sweat seeping through it until his back was thoroughly soaked. As such, we witnessed the unbearable weight of memory — its frustrating constitution. Tatarczuk’s sweat is itself a trace of active struggle that is co-existent with memory – the labour of trying to grasp and order that which is always already in process of unraveling and re-asserting itself.

Memory is an essential substance of the performance event and its afterlife. In constructing memories, there are the primary agents or “events”, and then there are “traces” of evidence that these events took place. Memory is elicited by the former, but visualized, actualized and narrated by the chimeric form of the latter.  In other words, memory is triggered by evidence that compels us to re-visualize a story anew, when the unraveling inevitably begins again.

Tatarczuk’s performance followed Marcio Carvahlo’s on Sunday. Seen consecutively, these two works produce an inspired conversation about performance ontologies. Where Carvahlo’s meditation was on “now-ness” (troubling the presence-centricity of the “live” event, showing us its contingency on past and future), Tatarczuk’s work elaborated the ways in which memory is only accessible by its “traces” as these are re-inscribed and reconstituted in the present. Like Carvahlo’s now-ness, memory is a promiscuous entity; it is layered with conflicting perceptions of the past that are dependent on the present-moment. Hence, these two artists each address the meta-dimensions of their respective performances – its afterlife and contingency on the audience’s future memories. Their performances will inevitably be diffused in meaning and coherency and reanimated once again when triggered. As such, these two works have made me particularly sensitive to my own experience of the festival’s afterlife. As some memories of the performance events are emerging more starkly into relief, others are fading fast (only to resurface at a later point, it would seem, so stay tuned!).