Memory Palace at the V and A

One of the useful things my National Art Fund Pass does, besides getting me into Kew at half price and giving extra money to various museums, is to give me half-price entry to exhibitions at the V&A Museum in London. Getting into exhibitions more cheaply makes it all the more likely that I’ll go to them on a whim, and yesterday while my friend Susanne and I were killing time before going to see the Penguins 3D IMAX at the Science Museum across the road (and the accompanying Q&A by Sir David Attenborough, which was one of those once-in-a-lifetime events that you can’t really accept is happening at the time, or indeed afterwards), we popped into the Memory Palace exhibition for a quick look.

The advertising image does not appear in the exhibition.

The exhibition is a kind of collaborative birthing pool, taking a work of fiction by Hari Kunzru which examines through the lens of a dystopian London (which has lost the technology and knowledge of the current era and returned to a kind of cultural wilderness) the value of memory and shared information, a topic which is of particular interest to a museum! The fiction is worked into a display by a variety of artists through a variety of different media, including comic strips, strange religious icons depicting misremembered scientists and poets, a cabinet of misunderstandings of technology brought to life, and walls of words. The exhibition culminates in an interactive section (one terminal of which was not working when I got there – anyone who read about my visit to the Saints Alive! exhibit will recognise a theme in interactive exhibitions breaking down just before I get to them) where you can draw or write about a particular memory, and it will be added to the boards of the Memory Palace.

As with anything that allows the public to write or draw, not all of the input on the Memory Palace was, strictly speaking, a “memory” so much as a communication of existence or philosophy, but there were still many in a variety of languages and art styles, and the way they were collated was visually quite pleasing. Being a morbid sort, I added a memory from childhood which involved a rather sad realisation of human cruelty, that of an elephant in a zoo in Ahmedabad who had been chained to the walls of her elephant house by each leg, and was subject to the indignity of having coins and other small items thrown to her (thankfully not at her) for her to gently hand back. Not the happy memory that protagonist of the narrative that drove the exhibition had chosen, but a clear one none the less.

While we were filtering towards the exit/entrance (which was flanked by a number of copies of the book on which the exhibition is based, and little vocab to make understanding the exhibition easier, which I didn’t actually notice on the way in due to the angle of the wall), my friend remarked to me that while she liked the idea she couldn’t work out which side of the line of “too pretentious” it fell.

I am inclined to agree. Taken individually the works of art on display themselves are fascinating, beautiful, and often eerie – a combination I love. Taken as a clear commentary on current events and the nature of a greed-driven, floundering society, they and the narrative behind them seem clumsy, as if written for the benefit of someone significantly younger than me. In a sense it reminded me of a complaint I read by a fantasy author some years ago, that literary fiction authors are never required to have internal consistency or convincing world-building in their books because everything is metaphor or commentary, and that their work is weaker for it. On contemplation of this I think there is a tendency to be so swept up in how clever one thinks one’s own idea is, or how moving a particular moment is (in this case, the selection of a memory to save), or how stupendous one’s analogy is, that the story itself suffers. Then again, I suppose we cannot all be William Golding.

The art itself is well worth a look, and my concerns/disappointment in the narrative and prose quality/conceits might very well just be nitpicking. It should be a determination the viewer makes for themselves – which, I suspect, makes this review a little pointless.

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