Our Memory?
An Artistic Insight in Collective Memory and Unstable Identities

An effort to capture the world

Some twenty years ago, a new notion came into use in the art world: collective memory. Coming from sociology, it was used and extensively theorised for the first time by French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs. Basically, the concept of collective memory can be explained as a shared pool of information by at least 2 persons. But for Halbwachs this did not go far enough. He considered memory not as an individual notion, but as something, which is based on many different minds. For Halbwachs, people collect their memories in a community and it is the community that remembers, recognizes or localises them in the memory. In other words: it is the collective aspect of memory, which acts as stimulus for memory to exist.

Ever since, the notion of collective memory has been addressed from many different points of view. (…)

(…) To citizens of powerful nations, the concept of “unstable identities” could seem rather peculiar. As curators however, we discovered that for most of the Belgian artists presented in the exhibition this unstableness is not necessarily a handicap. On the contrary: it sharpens their attention, it makes them reflect on how “common memory” works and how identities are constructed and remembered. It becomes a kind mental substance that permits them to reflect in a very original way on who they are – as artists and as Belgians – and how they relate to this strange legacy called Belgium.

This particular position as an artist is most obviously used by Koen Theys in his PATRIA project. The work brings two fundamental ideas related to each common identity into an unsolvable problem. On the one hand, in order to be born or in order to exist, each strong identity needs both pathos and a common icon that can unify all participants. Most cleverly Theys’s work caricatures one of the most famous examples in the history of painting, Eugène Delacroix “Freedom guiding the people” in which pathos and icon are strongly united. However, in his film the scene is of course not French… it is most obviously referring to a Belgian echo of the Delacroix painting, namely Wappers monumental scene of the liberation of Brussels that led to the founding of Belgian as a nation state in 1830 and would lead to an “unstable identity” (in full opposition to France). Theys took care that all the iconic and aesthetic elements of the Wappers model were transferred into the present, but the all-over effect of the film comes closest to the atmosphere of a battlefield, once the battle is over. So the pathos of the founding of Belgium as a country in the early 19th century is brought in an unsolvable conflict with the uncertainty of its near future by means of a “farce”. And if you read it well, all this was already hidden in the Wappers example. Shakespeare would have loved it.

Hans M. De Wolf & Carl W. Jacobs – catalogue ‘Our Memory?’
28 oct 2013