Memory is a tricky thing – both incredibly powerful, and easily flawed. Our memories can bring great joy or pain; they can change over time, like a game of mental telephone, until what is left to be recalled bears almost no resemblance to the facts of what happened; we can forget things – important things – entirely. And as our brains age, our capacity for memory changes too.
These are some of the themes present in the newest exhibit by conceptual artists – and sisters – Holly and Ashlee Temple. The show Associations, which opens Oct. 9 at the Sylvan Gallery in Sand City, comprises three series of works partially inspired by their mother’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis and the experience of interacting with her as her memory changes. It’s work that is personal, as much of the sisters’ art is, but also built around a universal theme.
As time goes on, the sisters say, their mother recalls fewer and fewer of the kinds of facts and details that we often turn to our memories for. But what she does remember is how things feel. “All her memories right now are about love,” Ashlee says. “It’s nice, actually, to be with her. Because she brings you to that zen moment.”
The work started, as it generally does, with conversation. What is our mother without her memories? And how can we represent memory in art? “It’s always a dialogue,” Holly says. “And that’s actually the most fun.”
Initially, the sisters thought about using literal representations of the brain but quickly decided against this route as the brain is “just so ugly.” So instead they turned to artifacts of memory – books and photos and etchings and other pieces of paper that represent both the solid and the ephemeral nature of remembering. In their Sand City studio, the sisters started collaging with these items, moving them around until the pieces began to come to life. “We really like the work to start to talk to us,” Ashlee says.
One series in the show, titled She Wore a Blue Dress, She Wore a Red Dress, are wall-hanging collages of bits of old paper, old photos and old illustrations, overlapping and partially obscuring each other, giving viewers layers to interpret and untangle as they look on. Another series, Tomes, is made of vintage drawers and boxes filled with the remnants of discarded books – objects, much like our human memory, that seem to solidly hold information and yet eventually will be subject to decay.
The sisters’ wish for this work is that it will appeal aesthetically to viewers but also catch their attention, making them look deeply at the pieces and the emotional response they inspire. It’s conceptual art, after all.
“Hopefully people will think about the show,” Holly says.