Zsolt Asztalos, who represented Hungary at the 2013 Venice Biennale, says of a video series featured in his current exhibition, “Memory Models”: “I just wanted to present the processes of remembrance. During the video work Remembrance, I asked different people to remember their whole lives in front of a camera. During this process, the story of their lives is reborn in them, like a film. From the outside we see nothing of this, we only see the image of a static, motionless person, a monotonous still-life. The stories remain hidden, elusive.” In addition to Remembrance (2016–20), the show (scheduled to run until February 28, 2021) presents new Memory Model constructions created during the pandemic. Examining these works, I wondered about the elusive nature of memory, the means of its extraction, and how these concerns have been expressed by an Eastern European artist.
Asztalos’s video works have a compelling static quality—the light is fixed, a gaze is captured—and there is an eternal stillness, each person in a state of recollection. Asztalos captures the moment through an ineffable sensitivity to light; one feels the transition of time, of twilight or early morning, without an actual change happening in a conclusive reality. We remain in a state of anticipation as we absorb the work, in a process similar to how our skin soaks up the sun. A corporal sensation is translated into illumination as the subtle expression on the face of a singular individual is revealed. Each silent visage is caressed by light as gentle as in a Rembrandt portrait. The viewer is present in the moment, waiting, understanding in a shared experience of humanity. The sitters become luminous objects in their acts of remembrance.
The Memory Models—compositions of wood, kitsch objects found in novelty stores, carpentry tools, and architectural elements—appear to shape the act of memory itself, of mentation. Landscapes of the mind are conjured, which we traverse and explore. “The Memory Models illustrate 45 different scientific results of memory research. These are abstract sculptures that are basically conceptual artworks. They express the mechanism of processing and managing our individual and collective stories,” Asztalos explains. “Each scientific statement is represented by the appropriate Memory Model—in this sense, they are waiting to be deciphered. It was not my intention to didactically depict the scientific theorems, but rather to present them with subtle references in the installations. I used Bauhaus and other visual-abstract systems from the first half of the 20th century.”
Asztalos, by applying his research into the nature of memory from the standpoint of scientists and psychologists, demonstrates how identity is a memory window that we self-construct and reconstruct with each recollection, interpretation, and further application to our perception of future potentialities. “Memories are really our present state from an aspect of the past. The real stories are a kind of inspiration to write a standalone new version of them that only partially fits the original story. Memories are about ourselves on the one hand, and the real events that have taken place on the other,” he says.
Explaining his intentions for viewers visiting the installation, he says, “This exhibition is like a lab or a store where the visitor wanders. It’s like a science magazine where you can flip anywhere; the visitor will always find something to read or see. The texts and the Memory Models need to be linked together to become a complete unit. If the visitor reads through and looks through all 45 scientific items, he or she will make an exciting journey.”
“Memory Models” comes at a critical moment, as we are forced to examine and reconstruct cultural mores and historical memory manipulated through monuments, academic canons, systemic racism, and oppression. Asztalos notes, “Which events we select, how to make memories out of them, how to write them down, and how to edit them from time to time, they are always about our current state, our current world. Memory is also related to our vision. The future is always written from the experiences of the past according to our current state. So, our vision for the future cannot be separated from our memory.”