On Friday's On Point interview with Jennifer Egan, Tom Ashbrook called the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit From the Goon Squad a foray into “time and nostalgia and how technology changes our perception of both.” Egan says she started writing her book with the goal of trying create the sense of the sweep of time and the radical changes it brings. Inspired by Proust, her goal was to try to recreate something similar to that timescale, but in a more compressed format.
If you want to see that done visually, Maria Magdelana Campos-Pons' exhibit at The Frist — especially “Spoken Softly With Mama" — is a great place to start. Campos-Pons has done with art what Egan did through literature, and perhaps even what Terrence Malick did cinematically in Tree of Life. When I went to her exhibit at The Frist, that book and that movie were all I could think about. Describing a work of art as a physical manifestation of the process of remembering may seem overly cerebral or affected, but apparently this is a trend in art that's crossing disciplines and reaching a wide array of audiences.
A series of videos are projected onto the fabric-covered boards in continuous loops, and the longer you sit with the piece, the more the associations between the objects become apparent. For example, the video on the center board shows the artist as she breaks open a pomegranate, nudging each tiny seed out of the fruit with her fingers. The close camera angles are so sensual that you can almost feel the wet seeds, almost taste their juices. In another video, the artist walks toward the camera, the familiar stack of folded linens on her head, with pearls on the ends of each braid in her short hair. Then you move your eyes back to the left, where Campos-Pons sits at a table with a bowl of pomegranates, and it seems like her contemplation over the fruit is the thing that sparked the entire installation, like Proust with his madeleine.
"Spoken Softly With Mama" is a meditative, beautifully presented collection of personally symbolic relics, and the videos move on them like memories flashing inside a brain, putting associations onto ordinary objects. These are no longer stacks of folded sheets, but containers for lessons mothers teach children. The pearls scattering feel like every treasured thing that cannot stay put. The colossal ironing boards and the cast glass irons are symbols of domestic work that have been altered to refuse their intended purpose. Campos-Pons doesn't simply re-create the idea of memory — she subverts it, ritualizes it, fetishizes it, and turns it into something precious. But far from being artistic navel-gazing, the work makes you so acutely aware of the process of remembering that you can't help but examine your own memories and personal totems alongside hers.