Declarations

WHAT ARE YOUR MOST VIVID MEMORIES FROM THE LAST FIFTY
YEARS, AND HOW DO THEY INFORM YOUR WORK?

From birth to death, from wars to discoveries, both our personal lives and events on the world stage are reconstituted as images alongside, or even in place of, our own experience of them. This repetition can can take on the force of the uncanny, the inspirational, or the philosophical. Guggenheim Forum asks eminent figures from a wide range of disciplines to offer their reflections on the concept of memory and its representative media in its myriad manifestations.

 

Kathryn Harrison

Author of The Kiss, The Seal Wife, Envy, and While They Slept

July 21, 1969. I am 8. My grandfather is 79. Together we watch Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the surface of the moon. The picture is black and white, the sound raked by static, and the astronauts mysteriously translucent, the way ghosts are said to be.

For days we’ve been following the progress of the rocket’s white flame through a black sky—a simulation, of course, because who is hanging in space to film it?—and I’ve been unable to share my grandfather’s excitement, bored by this story in which nothing seems to happen.

Tears run down my grandfather’s cheeks as he watches the figures move in their clumsy spacesuits. He seizes the top of my arm, and this, along with the tears, frightens me, the vehemence of his grip unfamiliar. “If anyone had said such a thing would happen in my lifetime, I would have said he was mad. Do you understand?” He shakes my arm, demanding a reply.

I nod yes. All my life I’ve begged my grandfather for more stories of a boyhood spent in London, in the 1890s, a city without cars or radios or television, a city whose nights were illuminated by gas, lamps that had to be lit one at a time, by a man carrying a flame.

Suddenly, the way the astronaut walks, the lack of gravity, of the force that grants him his weight, offends me. I want a solemnity that isn’t possible for a man who leaps and hops to test his new lightness.

 

Rosalind Krauss

University Professor of 20th-Century Art and Theory, Columbia University

It was 1999. I had just given a Walter Neurath Memorial Lecture in London, in honor of the founder of Thames & Hudson. Its title was “ ‘A Voyage on the North Sea,’ Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition.”

From there I went to Barcelona to work at Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona on a proposed exhibition. The museum was staging the work of William Kentridge and between working sessions, I went to look at the show. One of the animated films was Ubu Tells the Truth. At one point the Johannesburg Police Building appears in close-up, its luminous windows framed in black, the image of frames of film—the very picture, that is, of the work’s medium.

After this is a sequence of prisoners plunging downwards from the building’s rooftop, their black forms passing the luminous windows as they fall. The illusion created is that the windows are a filmstrip rising behind the falling bodies as if to rewind into the gate of the projector. Twice, then, Ubu stages the medium in which it is made—scoffing at the contemporary contempt for “medium specificity” that is the hallmark of the decades-long tradition of modernism, a contempt that had spawned the many multimedia productions of installation art, which I had identified as “Art in the Age of Post-Medium Condition.”

As the brilliance and truth of Kentridge’s work was revealed in that moment, it showed the continuing presence of that modernism I thought (and think) necessary to instill art with meaning.

 

Temple Grandin

Professor of Animal Science, Colorado State University

Diary entry, July 31, 1973

Almost every packing-plant employee has ambivalent feelings about the destruction of cattle. In some ways the meat-packing plants are more humane to the cattle than the feedlots. It is easier for a feedlot to deny the reality of the fate of the cattle because they do not actually witness the animal’s death. The feedlot just loads the cattle on a truck that takes them to market.

On the wall in the office at Swift is a picture of the first steer butchered and the one-millionth steer butchered. These two cattle are now individuals and they even had a kind of ritual for those steer. It’s very ambivalent and there is not a cut and dry answer as to what is right or wrong.

Some of my friends were very shocked when they found out that I had knocked some cattle at the slaughterhouse. They felt that it was wrong and I should not have done it. I told them that when they buy the meat in the store they pay the knocker’s salary.

After I pulled out of the parking lot at Swift one time, I looked up at the sky and the clouds were really spectacular. All I could think of was maybe all the cattle go up in the clouds. It is a paradox: unless there is death, life could not be appreciated. Having first faced the paradox of power at Swift with regards to the role of producer and consumer, I was now faced with the paradox of life and death.

The thing that is upsetting is that there is no answer. Philosophers have written about it for centuries. Unanswerable questions have forced people to look to God.

 

Jeanine Basinger

Corwin-Fuller Professor of Film Studies and Chair, Film Studies Department, Wesleyan University; Curator, Wesleyan Cinema Archives

My parents claim I was born at home on my mother's birthday, but they have no proof. I remember when I first came alive. I opened my eyes in the darkness. Gene Autry waved. I flew over the rainbow, and a tear formed in the corner of Ingrid Bergman's eye. Betty Grable tap-danced on her pin-up legs, and Rita Hayworth laid some serious blame on Mame. Bing Crosby crooned "White Christmas," Fred Astaire danced with firecrackers, and it rained on Gene Kelly. Abbott and Costello tried to figure out who was on first while Betty Hutton's rocking horse ran away. John Wayne rode up with the cavalry. The American flag flew triumphantly, and I bought a war bond. Elvis Presley gyrated because he really wanted to dance with me, but Marilyn Monroe's skirt was blowing up. Where was James Bond to help? Indiana Jones? Clint Eastwood rode in on a mule carrying a "make love, not war" sign. Obi-wan Kenobi applauded.

Maybe I was born at home on my mother's birthday, but nobody can prove it. No matter. I can find myself. I follow the signposts back to my past and never get lost. Come up and see me sometime. I'll take you back with me. We'll drink ice-cold Coke in a slim green bottle and eat popcorn from a red-and-white striped box. I'll show you my wonderful life, and you can meet all my beautiful friends.

 

Alexander Chee

Author of Edinburgh and The Queen of the Night (forthcoming)

Some memories that haunt me:

Trapped in the bathroom in the 4th grade by boys outside who say I need to use kung fu to escape.

A dream of being a woman with long red hair, and, as I wake up, gasping as I reach back and feel the close crop of my actual hair, still believing I was her and that my hair had been cut off as I slept.

In the lake at night in Maine, at 13, my first sexual experience with another boy, the light around us the color of a gun.

The red flood on the floor of a liquor store in San Francisco after the ‘89 quake, all of the bottles in the store broken open and seeping under the door into the street.

The water of the Iowa floods of ’93, coming in through the walls of my basement apartment.

The ashes of the towers falling on Brooklyn like snow of the wrong color, and knowing they contained human remains as I ran through them to get home, a wet cloth over my head and mouth.

Taking off my clothes after that, and bagging them, forgetting them, and then finding them three years later.

My spade hitting an old ceramic soap dish, a soap dish I’d seen in my mind for weeks, and knowing instantly the image had been the most useless premonition ever. Understanding also that the future might never reveal its most dangerous self, but just the dull parts.

 

David M. Lubin

Charlotte C. Weber Professor of Art, Wake Forest University, author of Shooting Kennedy: JFK and the Culture of Images

Sometimes our most vivid memories are secondhand. I remember the day I was born because my father has told me about it countless times—how there was a blizzard that afternoon and our football team was playing in a championship game and my father didn’t have chains and no one was around to help him get my mother to the hospital. I have inherited this memory and meshed it with memories of my father recounting it at so many birthdays that now I wince to hear it. And yet, despite my emotional detachment from an event in which I played a crucial but supernumerary role, I think of it as the central paradigm of my life, as well as his and everyone else’s: We emerge in a state of emergency, alone, helpless, without chains to give us traction.

On a later birthday I watched “live” as Jack Ruby burst out of a crowd of newsmen to shoot Lee Harvey Oswald. I’ve looked at the pictures many times since and always noticed that Oswald was literally chained—handcuffed—to the police detective who was leading him through the subterranean passageway where the killing took place. It’s a world of Greek myth, of Theseus and the Minotaur, the Furies, or Laocoön, where private and public destinies are indissolubly linked. My memories of the event in Dallas and my watching of it in Ohio are themselves chained together and every bit as secondhand as the memory of my birth.

 

Linda Nochlin

Lila Acheson Wallace Professor of Modern Art, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University

My earliest memory: about 75 years ago, in Miami Beach. I am crouching on the grass, looking at, or rather, through, my cousin’s stout, Cuban-heeled shoes. I tell her that I too want shoes you can “see the ground under.” What I mean is I want shoes with heels instead of my flat sandals. She doesn’t understand; I keep insisting. It ends in tears.

We are at a rally for the Spanish Republic. There are lots of people. A little girl, only slightly older than I am, is singing. I want to sing too but no one will let me. I am highly dissatisfied but I keep it to myself.

My mother is trying to teach me to read using some system where you draw lines and connect them up to make letters. I can make absolutely no sense of this—I look at the “letters” and they mean nothing. I remember vividly not being able to read. (I remember just as vividly a few months later, when I am five and a half, they suddenly mean something.)

I have the grippe. I am in bed. My mother is reading to me the beginning of Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, where for some reason there are a lot of animal noises. I am about eight and enjoying it.

I am about twenty-nine. I am seeing Grünewald’s Isenheim Altar for the first time. What I remember is the profile head of one of the musical angels—intelligent and concentrated with spun-gold hair.

 

Dave Soldier

Composer

I'm in a kitchen listening to '70s college radio. It's raining and dreary until the R&B DJ takes over. Between Isaac Hayes and Minnie Riperton comes the sound of a backwoods guitar interrupted by village sounds of bongos, like a Folkways field recording from Nigeria, but blaring and stinging, not the sweet sounds of the African drum choir. Then, amazingly, melodies like Coltrane's emerge, arranged for trombones, trumpets, and baritone sax. A clear tenor voice sails above it all in longing and pain. The horns lines evolve into dense strands, yet in phrases firm and clear, composed with a liberty that seemed to say in music, anything that can be imagined is possible.

There is a deceptively decorous start for a piano solo that sounds like McCoy Tyner but more thunderous and emotionally unstable. As the piano chords smash, the clouds break. The sun streams through the kitchen window as a chorus chants mis la vida, mi preciosa, transforming the woods where I am near Ashford to a Henri Rousseau vision of rural Caribs trapped in the city, rebelling with their own version of the blues. More and more complex, this was a music I had imagined could exist from listening to Bach and watching trapped-looking Latin mill workers in Willimantic.

The DJ announces we heard Eddie Palmieri playing “Puerto Rico,” with Ismael Quintana singing and arrangements by Barry Rogers. That day, I resolved to be a composer and try to resurrect that sudden warm sun breaking through the window.

 

Ben Goldsmith

Executive Director, Farm Forward

1960
According to the USDA, nearly 4 million farms operated in the United States.

1961
2.5 billion chickens, turkeys, cattle, and hogs were slaughtered annually.

1962
“The modern layer is, after all, only a very efficient converting machine, changing the raw material—feedstuffs—into the finished product—the egg—less, of course, maintenance requirements.” —Farmer & Stockbreeder

1976
“Forget the pig is an animal. Treat him just like a machine in a factory. Schedule treatments like you would lubrication. Breeding season like the first step in an assembly line. And marketing like the delivery of finished goods.” —Hog Farm Management

1989
“Broilers blooming to market size 40 percent quicker, miniature hens cranking out eggs in double time, a computer "cookbook" of recipes for custom-designed creatures—this could well be the face of animal production in the 21st century.” —U.S. Department of Agriculture

2007
Only 2.2 million farms remain.

2008
9.5 billion chickens, turkeys, cattle, and hogs were slaughtered annually. Industrial animal agriculture began in the 1920s and grew largely unchecked and out of public view.

In the last 50 years, industrial methods have taken over virtually all animal agriculture, replacing long traditions of animal husbandry with factory farming. Conscientious consumers have cut down on the amount of meat, eggs and dairy they eat, or they have insisted on buying from local family farms. For the first time in more than half a century, the number of farms in the United States is beginning to rise.