Andreas Huyssen. Memory Art in the Contemporary World: Confronting Violence in the Global South. London: Lund Humphries, 2022. 184 pp.
Review by Veena Das
14 September 2023
There are three overarching concepts that underpin Andreas Huyssen’s examination of the emergence of new forms of expression through which artists in Argentina, Columbia, India, and South Africa bring the violence of colonial occupation, state repression, and the corrosion of everyday life into critical focus. The concepts, signaled in the title itself, are memory, art, and Global South. The concept of violence, also signaled in the title, runs through the three other concepts like water running along different paths and surfaces. Through close attention to the resonances and differences in the utterly original and compelling works of a small number of artists from these regions, Huyssen opens up a promising line of inquiry; yet there are also troubling questions that arise from a method that privileges the European experience of the Holocaust as necessary for understanding the artistic practices through which violence is addressed in these works.
The main thesis from memory studies that Huyssen puts forward focuses on the slippery nature of the past which is now pluralized (different contested pasts rather than a single past on which everyone agrees) so that under the pressure of present concerns, some pasts recede while other pasts proliferate and expand in importance. This is, of course, not a new or radical conception of time, but what makes for the originality of Huyssen’s writing are the threads through which he connects certain features of installation art: the necessity of cooperation in making and mounting an installation as an art form, its ephemerality, its attention to objects as bearing traces of the past, and the place accorded to the experience of the spectator as one who moves within the installation rather than contemplates it from a distance. The frame does not separate the artwork from the world; rather, several points of entry and exit mark the fluidity of the experience of an installation.
The term Global South is recognized in social theory as essentially questioning the idea of Europe as enveloping all thought. While much has been claimed for theory from the South, Huyssen’s book shows the concreteness through which the Global South marks out a conceptual space. Artists who figure in this book are not treated as representatives of their respective nations; rather, a complex interplay between their location and their ability to cross borders is claimed, but I don’t think it is fully secured. Huyssen gives fine descriptions of compelling installations with objects that are mutilated, shadowy, on the verge of disappearance; he brings the extraordinary shadow plays of Nalini Malani and William Kentridge into this discussion as well as the minimalist paintings of Guillermo Kuitca. I was struck by Huyssen’s attention to what ordinary objects such as domestic furniture, shoes stripped of heels, or sketchy, unfinished figures can be made to say in these installations and paintings. When it comes to interpretation, however, Huyssen shifts to the weighty, recognizable political vocabulary of the brutality of the dirty war in Argentina, the long civil war in Colombia, or the rise of fundamentalism in India.
In the opening passages of the introduction, Huyssen states: “Explicitly or not, the Holocaust, as the most researched and publicly discussed case of genocide, hovered in the background of all these memory debates” (pp. 9–10). He then finds traces of Holocaust memories, for example, in the motif of shoes whose owners have disappeared, like the shoes of missing guerilla women preserved by families who then gave them to Doris Salcedo. In Vivan Sundaram’s powerful installation Memorial, the violence of the 1993 Mumbai riots—crystallized in the figure of the fallen human—is prominent, but the destruction of the Babri mosque is also subtly conveyed in such moments as the flow of water that resonates with the water spilled at the entrance when wujoo (wudu), the Muslim cleansing ritual, is performed. These experiences of walking within the installation cannot be so easily interpreted through analogies with German-Jewish relations and Holocaust memory. Huyssen may be right that the intensive discussion of the Holocaust as the symbol of genocide and the utter brutality of the twentieth century suffuses all discussions of genocide everywhere, but it also eclipses the singularity of other events. For instance, Sundaram was very taken by the fact that the photograph of a dead anonymous man that he had cut out and kept in his wallet for six months—a photograph that figures in different transfigurations and different scales in Memorial—was a “found object,” something that the world threw at him and that he had to make sense of. The point is that these installations reveal not simply an event but also a whole world. And for that world to be revealed, Sundaram’s artistic milieu and the traces it leaves cannot be subsumed under the blunt terms through which political discourse is conducted.
Huyssen says that the weight of the violent past bears on life in the Global South much more urgently than it does in Western countries. One wonders. Does the demographic collapse of the Indigenous population in the Western Hemisphere after 1492, or the brutality to which slave lives were submitted, or the invention of clean torture for application to the colonies not require urgent attention? Or perhaps the artistic experiments that are underway in Europe will be able to make connections with artists from the South, global or not. I hope this might follow the wonderful provocations of this book, as already anticipated in the theme “Foreigners Everywhere” for the 60th La Biennale di Venezia. I also hope that the established languages from which Huyssen seems to draw his concepts might themselves be put under pressure so that we do not always end up with the same conceptual vocabulary that seems indifferent to the context or specificities of the crises of the contemporary milieus.
 “Biennale Arte 2024: Stranieri Ovunque – Foreigners Everywhere,” La Biennale di Venezia, 22 June 2023, www.labiennale.org/en/news/biennale-arte-2024-stranieri-ovunque-foreignerseverywhere