Robin Cameron’s exhibition Memory Palace at Franz Kaka sits on the second floor. The stairs to the second floor are just inside the glass doors on Campbell Street, which look to a construction site. Though I’ve been here in reality, it is also a location in my mind, one that I can interact with, perhaps by imagining the construction site is a sundial, which casts a shadow across the dial as each new floor is built, slowly covering the street, then the sidewalk, then the doors, then the stairs. In Memory Palace, Cameron – a Canadian, New York-based artist – experiments with externalizing the way scenarios are built in our minds. Patterned on places, stacked with their objects and citations, these environments and data coalesce to form a place that stands slightly outside memory.
Memory Palace cites the much older concept of memory theater, which originated from the Greek poet Simonides’s experience of a tragic accident. As told in various ancient treatises including Cicero’s De Oratore (55 BC), a banquet hall Simonides had been in collapsed after he left it, killing those who remained inside. The spatial arrangement of the hall and those in it became indelible in Simonides’s memory, and he realized he could activate this memory as a heuristic device by associating information with loci from the scene, such as where the deceased had been sitting. To activate the device of the memory theater, one imagines a familiar room, makes connections between specific information and objects in that room, and then accesses that information subsequently by walking through that room in their mind. Simonides does not stage the banquet hall as a memory theater while he is inside it, but only when forced to relate with it as a memory. In its earliest iteration, the memory theater is predicated on a loss, or rather, a fractured throughline between recollection and experience.
In Cameron’s Memory Palace, we are invited to walk with her through the various rooms of her mind. Termed “pictorial archives,” and at once featuring images of Cameron’s work while being Cameron’s work, the focused exhibition’s five prints and three architectural brass sculptures compose scenes with a surrealist approach to perspective and scale, allowing some objects to balloon over others, or float rather than sit. In the print Memory Palace (Lobby) (2019), we see the ceiling lights of the Met Breuer lobby, and underneath, Cameron’s rendering of her earlier work, 11:44 (2015). Similarly in Memory Palace (Garden) (2019), a pair of disembodied hands holds a drawing of another work, Movement IV (2016), in front of an exact rendition of the trees in David Hockney’s lithograph Pacific Mutual Life (1964). On top of each print Cameron has drawn abstract geometric shapes in watercolor pencil, whose translucency evokes both stained-glass windows and a Helen Frankenthaler color-field painting.The thin brass wires of the sculptures echo the structural whimsicality of the prints, plying a basic architectural outline to make playful, airy shapes and spaces. In the sculptures we see Cameron’s conceptual process come full circle, the echoey objects of her memory rematerialized into the inchoate objects of art.
Myriad figures have invoked the mind’s aptitude to construct scenes from objects with emotional associations, of course – Marcel Proust, most namesakedly; Louise Bourgeois, Georges Perec. However, by pushing against a reading of Memory Palace as purely autobiographical, we can see that Cameron is not passively invoking Simonides’s concept, but commenting on the supposedly transportive potential of imagery. In the surrealistic quality of her works, we see a problematization of the colloquialism that seeing a picture of a familiar place takes you there. Even when Cameron begins with a depiction of her own work as it exists in reality, such as the 2016 print Movement IV in Memory Palace (Garden), by licensing the inclusion of her mind’s imaginative association and placing this object beside David Hockney’s trees and underneath a panel of orange and green, she undermines the possibility of a vicarious experience of this location. The creative mechanism that governs the arrangement of locations in the mind prevents the externalization of these locations from being accessible to others.
Robin Cameron, “Memory Palace (Lobby),” 2019. Courtesy Franz Kaka.It might be comforting, during this time when the global pandemic limits our physical access to spaces, to feel that we can rely on the ability of visual imagery to emulate experience as a stand-in for the real thing. This is certainly the impulse that purveyors of virtual tours seek out. Akin to Simonides’s banquet hall, the places we went – and thought we were going – are lost in the memory theater. As Cameron demonstrates, the process of moving from a rendering of an environment to a representation of an authentic memory sees the identifiable overtaken, made ineffable, unplaceable. When I look at the formation of objects in Memory Palace I don’t feel that I’m being taken inside Cameron’s mind. You weren’t in mine when I saw the sundial scale the street. Neither of us feels that we are walking through the Getty when we click through the Baroque room. But in this time of waiting, waiting to return to the places we were going before, Cameron reminds us that we have an occasion to walk through these sites more playfully – as a memory palace with shifting scales and perspectives, a site of seeing our own hands in its construction.