Thoughts & Insights

Metamorphoses of the Forgotten

Can you remember something you’ve never seen? And if you can, how can that be possible? These are questions I asked myself for the first time when a young girl once came out with the astonishing statement that some of OUBEYs pictures reminded her of things she’d never seen. After I’d pondered her words and the phenomenon they describe for quite a while I came to the conclusion that yes, indeed you can – provided that you get away from the usual everyday meaning of the two concepts of remembrance and seeing.

After all, it could well be that for some reason or other she couldn’t remember something she had seen in the past. This would be a likely explanation which has to do with the way our memory works.

When we speak about our memories what we generally mean is things we have experienced in our past that our memory casts up and makes so immediate that they seem to touch on our present as though they were actually happening in the moment that we remember them. Music, smells, pictures and landscapes are often triggers of such memories and they often bring with them certain feelings – feelings of happiness just as much as feelings of anxiety and fear. And yet our memory is never identical with what really happened in the past and what now resurfaces through our memory into our present.

Even when we sometimes dearly wish that a past moment would again be relivable in our present, it can never be the same as what we remember. Our present memory will always be different from the memory of exactly the same thing if we had it again tomorrow. We are caught in a state of permanent change where nothing remains the same as it was. In each moment everything begins anew. From one moment to the next everything can change, completely and radically. Even when the river of life is tranquil, it still remains that nobody can step twice into the self-same current.

Since the end of the 19th century photography has opened up a new dimension of memory when a transitory moment can be captured for all eternity. Free and independent of all the convolutions of memory. Our memory of the moment changes as we grow older whilst the photograph remains for ever the same. Nowadays it’s always easy to capture whatever crosses our way with the camera or on video. And this has given rise to the external memory.

But what about our internal endogenous memory? This is where a metamorphosis occurs in which the past, like a fundament or sediment retained over years and decades, expands, enriched by all that we’ve lived through and experienced, into a new entity in which the layers of forgetting connect with remembrance in the present moment. And so a memory becomes immediate without ever being a repetition of the moment of which it is the remembrance.

To take this yet a step further, our memories are even more expansive because every single thing that we have ever experienced, heard or seen in our lives is stored in our memory – no matter whether we can recollect it or not. The memory bank of our brains is gigantic and our memories are a living system that continuously connects our memories in new associations just as it connects them with what we experience in our present condition.

Under hypnosis people remember things they have once heard or seen without being aware of it. Once awakened from this exceptional mental state, they have as little memory of what they have recollected as they had before they entered it – even though under hypnosis they have voiced or given the most vivid descriptions. All our memories are latent, only few of them are accessible to us. Sometimes such submerged memories can be triggered by sensual catalysts such as smells or scents, sounds or music and many other things.

But what about the visual aspect? The young girl looking at the painting spoke about her memory of “things she’d never seen before”. When we speak about seeing, we generally mean seeing people, objects, landscapes and so on that really do exist. Yet our vision too is not quite as straightforward as we would like to think. When two people look at the same thing, it’s by no means certain that they are actually seeing the same thing. And when they remember what they’ve looked at, their descriptions of what they’ve seen can easily differ or even be wildly different from one another even though they’ve both had exactly the same physical experience of seeing. In such an act of perception some people will simply fail to notice what to others is blatantly, startlingly obvious.

So it’s certainly possible that OUBEYs pictures don’t just possess the quality of a catalyst for the senses that awakens dormant memories in the viewer. Perhaps when viewing his pictures something in the unconscious strikes a sympathetic chord with what we are seeing. And that’s an idea that’s as daring as it is seductive.

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