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Welcome to Museumpalooza, a project that provides a non-traditional starting point for people to learn about museums and all the cool stuff inside of them. 

Postmemory at the Contemporary Jewish Museum

Museumpalooza Blog


Welcome to Museumpalooza, a project that provides a non-traditional starting point for people to learn about museums and all the cool stuff inside of them. 

Postmemory at the Contemporary Jewish Museum

Andrea Duffie


While Museumpalooza-ing in San Francisco, Tim the T-Rex and I paid a visit to the Contemporary Jewish Museum, which focuses on "making the diversity of the Jewish experience relevant for a twenty-first century audience" through innovative and educational exhibitions that frequently rotate every four to six months. 

While we were there, I wandered into the recently-closed exhibit From Generation to Generation: Inherited Memory and Contemporary Art, which turned out to be one of the most thought-provoking museum exhibitions that I've seen in a while.

One of the things I most enjoyed learning about was the academic-sounding, yet legitimately interesting concept of postmemory: "the relationship that the 'generation after' bears to the personal, collective and cultural trauma of those who came before – to experiences they may 'remember' only by means of the stories, images, and behaviors among which they grew up. But these experiences were transmitted to them so deeply and affectively as to seem to constitute memories in their own right." (via Marianne Hirsch's The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture After the Holocaust, 2012.)

I really found this whole notion of postmemory intriguing. How is the history that we live with, the history that we as a society and a culture make in our day-to-day lives, affecting not only our view of the world, but our childrens' view of it? How do the "boogeymen" of our past continue to haunt future generations through inherited memory? And most importantly, how do those future generations reflect on, celebrate, or otherwise acknowledge a historical past that they didn't personally experience? 

Take, for example, these Kevlar Fighting Costumes by Nao Bustamante:

Nao Bustamante,  Kevlar Fighting Costumes , 2015.

Nao Bustamante, Kevlar Fighting Costumes, 2015.

These costumes, which look like traditional garments worn by soldaderas during the Mexican Revolution in the early 1900s, have been created out of kevlar – a material renowned for being bullet-proof, stab-proof, and frequently used in body armor. The work is a homage to the female soldiers who fought in the revolution.

The juxtaposition between the old (the cut and style of the clothing) and the new (the relatively recent invention of kevlar, which was created in the 1970s) is visually engaging, but it also benefits from a kind of hindsight: if kevlar were around during the Mexican Revolution, how many fewer lives might have been lost? How might the circumstances have changed?

Another interesting note is that not all soldaderas participated in the Mexican Revolution voluntarily. Women were often kidnapped and forced into the army, or threatened at gunpoint to join. In April 1913, the Mexican Herald reported that 40 women were captured by the Liberation Army of the South (known as the "Zapatistas") and pressed into joining the cause. 

So Bustamante's kevlar vests may not just symbolize protection for soldadera women against gunfire and other hazards of combat – it might have also been symbolic protection from the circumstances that drove them into battle in the first place.

Binh Danh, Selection from the series  Immortality: The Remnants of the Vietnam and American War , 2005-2009.

Binh Danh, Selection from the series Immortality: The Remnants of the Vietnam and American War, 2005-2009.

Another artist in the exhibit, Binh Danh, explores issues of mortality, memory and history in Vietnam and Cambodia – an area which he and his family were forced to flee when he was very young. Danh instead learned about the Vietnam War through media depictions while growing up in the United States.

In the series Immortality: The Remnants of the Vietnam and American War, the artist used photosynthesis to produce photographic representations of the Vietnam War, which were seen in popular media images, onto the leaves of various kinds of plants. These photos are not printed on the leaf at all, but are part of the foliage itself – the shading and details a result of the plant's photosynthetic response to sunlight. (While each leaf has been coated in resin to preserve the photo for as long as possible, they will eventually fade – a statement in itself about the power of memory.)

Vandy Rattana, Selection from  Bomb Ponds , 2009.

Vandy Rattana, Selection from Bomb Ponds, 2009.

One of my favorite works in the exhibition was by another artist who focused on the Vietnam War – Vandy Rattana's photos at first glance seem to be unassuming, picturesque scenes of small bodies of water.

However, these ponds have a dark history: the United States dropped 2,756,941 tons of explosives on Cambodia during the Vietnam War, leaving craters across the landscape. These craters have since filled with still-toxic water, and have been repurposed as natural sources of water by the local population.

Vandy Rattana, Selection from  Bomb Ponds , 2009. (Ignore my reflection in the glass frame.)

Vandy Rattana, Selection from Bomb Ponds, 2009. (Ignore my reflection in the glass frame.)

It's fascinating to me how these otherwise innocuous images, that many might dismiss off-hand as "just another landscape photo", are imbued with such complex and rich history once you know their background. 

I also think it's interesting to compare the Bomb Ponds series to, say, Anselm Kiefer's Aschenblume, because both artists are having a visual conversation about the impacts of war and the area's continual rebirth. I like that both artists use natural imagery to convey this sense of recovery – Kiefer uses a dried sunflower, Rattana uses the lushness and vibrancy of the actual landscape.

The idea of postmemory is also particularly poignant in this series, because artist Vandy Rattana was not alive during the Vietnam War – he was born in 1980, five years after the conflict officially ended with the fall of Saigon. Yet the complex history and messy outcome of the war still has far-reaching impact on many people who were not directly touched by it, as evidenced by the toxic water in these "bomb ponds" that those in the area now experience as a normalized part of their environment.

However, the work that I was most intrigued by in the From Generation to Generation exhibit was Nicholas Galanin's Tsu Heidei Shugaxtutaan (We Will Again Open This Container of Wisdom That Has Been Left in Our Care), Parts I and II.

**Exciting sidenote: It turns out that these videos are available on YouTube, so I'm posting them here for context and/or your artistic enjoyment. (All credit goes to the artist.)**

Exploring themes of inheritance and memory, Galanin's work is a two-part video. The first part features a Tlingit dancer, who dances in a traditional Native American costume and mask (complete with raven rattle) to contemporary music composed by Galanin. The second video is a reversal of the first, featuring a contemporary dancer who performs free-form to traditional Tlingit chanting and drums.

I found this work really interesting because it combines older, traditional culture with something more contemporary, and shows that these mash-ups can result in a new kind of art that, while different, can operate within and between the boundaries of "old" and "new".

It also shows that the idea of "inheritance", and perhaps the notion of postmemory, is not necessarily something passed down from an older generation to a younger one, but something that can flow both ways, between generations. 

Major thanks and kudos to the Contemporary Jewish Museum on a fascinating and outstanding exhibition! (And if you missed out on the exhibition and/or would like to learn more about it, you can always buy the exhibition catalog!)