WCMA photographs heighten memory

Hazy, distorted figures greet me as I walk into the McNicol Gallery to view the latest installment of the Williams College Museum of Art’s (WCMA) Labeltalk exhibition, “Vik Muniz: Memory Renderings.” The exhibition pairs artwork with a publication containing commentary from Williams faculty of different disciplines.

On display are 10 recently acquired photographs by Muniz, a Brazilian artist living in Brooklyn, N.Y. These additions to the collection are from his 1989-2000 series, “The Best of Life.” Housed in a small, uniquely shaped viewing space adjacent to the museum shop, this series of medium-sized prints left me with a muddy impression for various reasons.

When I looked at the images, what I saw were visual hand-me-downs. Muniz drew a series of pictures based on his memories of iconic photographs from Life magazine. He then took soft-focus photographs of the drawings to further blur them. Printing them through a half-tone screen, his new photographs gained a pixelated, magazine-like quality. What were crisp, clear portraits of world history are shoved through multiple lenses to become memory-ghosts, the shadows of shadows of pivotal world events: Tiananmen Square, the first moon landing, the death of John F. Kennedy, the Vietnam War.

After reading the faculty responses to this work, I became aware of some dynamic perspectives on these images as well as on art itself.

“What remains is what matters: not the actors, but the action, measured in tone and arch,” wrote Morgan McGuire, professor of computer science. I could appreciate Muniz’s de-emphasis of the events in order to heighten memories that the photographs recall, but I felt as if this art was directed towards a different generation than my own.
Many of the responses were nostalgic and spoke of memories of these world events unrelated to fields of study. They only served to make me feel more conscious of my youth and less connected to the images in front of me; I felt like a dialogue was going in which I could not participate.

These are the memories of my parents and grandparents – images of their collective memory. This is a socially relevant exhibition for older audiences, but I felt left out of the “20th century collective history” mentioned by Edward Burger, professor of mathematics. I recognized the place of these photographs as icons in history, but I have no frame of reference that makes them personal for me. I could not tell you where I was when John Lennon died or who I was with when men landed on the moon; these events did not occur during my lifetime. As an exhibit that was meant to incite memory and response, I could not relate.
The purpose of the Labeltalk series is to “support the museum’s mission to advance learning through lively and innovative approaches to art.” Perhaps student responses from different fields of study would make a more engaging take. Engaging the student body would open channels to discussion about global politics, media and social consciousness.

The turning of the millennium. Sept. 11., the war in Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, the election of Barack Obama – these events lie embedded in my memory as an 18-year-old student of the College. These events are part of the 21st century collective history, one that I share with professors and students alike. I want to learn about art in relation to these common bonds. I do not want to only view, I want to share.