Memory Machine

Patricia Eustaquio, Psychogenic Fugue, displayed at Chimera, 2012 (Photo by: Flickr)

BY SHERMAINE TOH

As I walked through a narrow corridor in the Singapore Art Museum, I approached a small dimly lit room, and in it, a piano; or at least what I assumed resembled a piano. The only thing illuminating the small space and the artwork was a light tucked inside the sculpture.

Upon closer inspection, I realized that there was in fact no piano, but a piece of cotton lace draped over an invisible piano. Curious, I searched for some armature or wire framework underneath the lace that made it hold in this form, and of course, I could not resist touching it.

I anticipated a soft touch from the cotton lace, but to my surprise it was hard as solid rock. The cotton lace had been soaked in epoxy resin and left to dry, resulting in a hardened cast of a piano; I could immediately draw comparisons with the skin a snake leaves behind after shedding – a trace of what was once there.

I did not read the curator’s description that was mounted on the wall at the gallery despite my curiosity and desire to know more, partially due to the poor lighting in that room, rendering it unnoticed in obscurity. The space in that room was limited, and the strange placement of the artwork on a raised platform very close to a wall made it look rigid, and somehow encouraged me to only look at it from the front.

Nonetheless, the artwork spoke for itself. All that was left was a shroud of a piano. It evoked mystery, perhaps due to the negative space inside of it. The light placed inside the artwork shone through the multiple eyelets in the cotton lace, emphasizing the emptiness inside and the absence of a piano. There was no one else in the room except me at that time, and it was peaceful just standing there looking at it. A connection was made as I stood there long enough to admire its beauty and craft, I could almost hear music playing in my head as my mind wandered off to reminisce of childhood days picking up the piano. A wave of nostalgia struck me, maybe because of the connection I could make with the artwork, with music.

The term “Psychogenic” has a psychological origin, memories or flashbacks perhaps, things that go on in our heads, which explains the absence of a physical piano. It is fascinating and ironic how the absence of a piano could make me think so strongly of a piano. Someone once challenged me with this phrase, “Do not think of a pink elephant.” See what I mean? The image of a pink elephant will inevitably pop into my head, which leads me in wonder as to how absence reminds us of presence.

A “Fugue” is a typical pathological amnesiac condition where the mind dissociates from a normal mental state and starts to wander off to create a new identity. During the fugue, memories of one’s former life are forgotten. The mind is conscious during this state however one will not have any recollections of this when they return to normal.

Though I cannot fully comprehend this medical condition, I believe Eustaquio did not title her artwork Psychogenic Fugue to create awareness for the amnesiac disorder of the same name. That fleeting moment of casting aside one’s typical consciousness to seek a new one, the loss and acquisition of memories new and old, was likely what she was exploring. In a nutshell, it all boils down to memories and the metaphysical aspect of it all.

The artist builds her work around memories and it is quite easy to experience and grasp the concept, nothing too abstract or fanciful to decipher. However this concept is undermined in the Chimera exhibition by the overuse of dim lights and dark spaces to suit their overall theme. I quote Eustaquio from her blog, “My works weave objects into a narrative and rely on the spaces in between what is actually there. The objects serve as clues, to complete the puzzles in our heads while our mind-cogs grind into the social, archaeological and art-historical spheres that our lives encounter.”

Memories are like fuzzy text printed on the pages of our mental journal, you cannot read all the lines clearly, but you also cannot erase them no matter how hard you try. Vividly etched in our brains, they can be recalled but never forgotten, and therefore this is aptly interpreted in the hardened cotton lace of the artwork; the dried lace will not lose its sturdiness and the piano’s form will always be fixed there. I believe Eustaquio chose cotton crotchet lace instead of just a plain old piece of cotton fabric so as to allow light to pass through the textile, creating the illusion of the sculpture floating, much like how memories linger in our minds regardless of how insignificant they may be.

Patricia Eustaquio, Psychogenic Fugue, displayed at Death to the Major, Viva Minor, 2008 (Photo by: Manilaartblogger)

Death to the Major, Viva Minor at SLab, 2008 (Photo by: Rogueart)

I discovered that Psychogenic Fugue was not originally made to be a solitary artwork, and instead is supposed to be a site-specific component of a larger installation, displayed together with other complementing artworks to create a spatial narrative, as seen at Death to the Major, Viva Minor exhibition.

The concept of the fond remembrance of existential memories is explored in this exhibition where Eustaquio wants her audience to experience fragments and little snippets of events through their interactions with the spaces between her themed artworks, like scattered pieces of puzzle pieces waiting to be put back together. Psychogenic Fugue being one of said pieces. On the contrary, the very act of placing Psychogenic Fugue in the Chimera show by itself distorts the meaning the artist intended her work to evoke. It was like trying to complete a jigsaw puzzle with only one piece.

It was quite natural to draw immediate associations with Rachel Whiteread’s installation House, the primary difference being that her work involved making a cast of inside a house, while Eustaquio’s are the shells of objects that were once there. The concept though, is similar.

Whiteread’s work explores the traces of human interaction with the space and everyday objects within a house. House seems more of a remembrance piece, while Eustaquio’s work touches on fragments of a memory, instilling a sense of curiosity to demystify and reassemble the pieces, prompting me to see and imagine beyond the piano. She usually makes multiple artworks instead of one in order to tell a story.

Despite not seeing the other accompanying works with the Psychogenic Fugue, I could still let my mind wander just by gazing and analyzing that piece by itself, like she was giving me the tools to imagine and recreate my own narrative, be it fictional or not. If I’m going to be generous, perhaps that was part of the creative intention of the Chimera exhibition to leave out the accompanying artworks, to create a more intimate space between the viewer and the artwork, and to encourage recollections of our own personal memories.

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