Memory Palace: in defence of the life of the mind

“Here is how to remember. First you must choose a place. It should be somewhere you know very well. Most people pick somewhere spacious and grand – a great hall, one of the ruined towers of the city. You get to know this place as well as you can. You walk around it, impressing every detail on your memory, until you can tour it in your mind when you are not there. Then you place the things you need to remember around the building, in the form of pictures. These pictures must be startling enough to trigger your imagination. They can be the faces of people you know, or common things combined or altered in an unusual way. A man with the head of a fox. A waterfall flowing uphill. If there is a list of facts you need to remember you can put them in some specific order. In this way, when you need to recall something, you merely go in your imagination to the spot where you have stored it. There it will be, waiting for you.”

So begins ‘Memory Palace’, both a short story by Hari Kunzru and a physical exhibition, now showing at the V&A until 20th October. Drawing on sources from the Classical and Medieval periods, this is a narrative about the art of memory, re-envisioned in a future where ideas are contraband, the Internet is a forbidden meeting of minds, and a physical, anti-intellectual focus on the body usurps the primacy of the mind. In this future, everyone is a warrior or a farmer. The thinkers of the past are dubbed ‘lawlords’, no longer allowed to practice their art but forced to conform to a life of non-imagination.

Unlike many mid-twentieth-century futuristic visions, which predict an overflow of information, technology and robotics, Kunzru’s world is an exploration of what would happen if the information age combusted, whilst also pushing at issues of freedom of thought and information censorship present today’s society.

Kunzru tells the story of a man who refuses to conform, and is imprisoned because he continues to think. He’s no hero though: just a man who, he implies, can’t go through life without having ideas. Yes, we all think, imagine having no ideas… No scratch that, do not even begin to imagine in the first place. In the darkness of his cell, the man falls back on the only thing he knows he can trust: his mind. In isolation, he begins to cover the cell with his memories, to stop the walls from closing in on his mind.

And this is only the beginning of the story. Kunzru’s real achievement (with twenty others) at the V&A is an exercise in precisely the use of imagination prohibited by his utopia – an interdisciplinary collaboration between illustrators, artists, writers and cartoonists. The impact of the artworks that support and tell this story is dependent upon the visitor’s ability to draw connections, play with ellipses – to mind, and fill, the gaps. We realise how impossible it must be to lead a life entirely of the body through the abundance of thought-provoking installations.

I began the day I visited by reading Hilary Mantel on Susan Sontag: “What ultimately matters about Sontag… is what she has defended: the life of the mind, and the necessity for reading and writing as ‘a way of being fully human.’” (Los Angeles Times Book Review). In Memory Palace, this cause seems at first very necessary to defend, but then, also without need of such protection. Because you can’t begin to contemplate the absence of mind without defending your right to think, the privilege of being able to imagine.

I adored this exhibition largely because I love learning about arts of memory, reflecting on how impoverished our current abilities in this field are today; moreover, I enjoy galleries and museums that tell a rich, multilayered story. The artworks themselves are genuinely worthy of sustained scrutiny (actually, something that Sontag would not have enjoyed. She preferred being able to take in paintings “at a glance” which is why she doesn’t like Breughels). At the conclusion of the experience, visitors are encouraged to record their own memories through the intimate littleness of an iPad. After witnessing the story of how fragile memory can be, to offer your own memories to the museum seems an irresistible and momentous experience. The fact that the doodles are then made into weekly posters, downloadable from the website, may trivialise this experience for some; however, these collected memory tablets provide yet another insight into the power of bringing together crowd-sourced content around a central, universal theme. I spent a happy two hours in this single room space, near deserted because of the popularity of David Bowie Is, next door. So I really recommend that you go (preferably early on a Sunday morning), read the walls, and learn how to adorn your own with your memories. Fill in the gaps. Exercise the life of your mind.

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Filed under London, Museums, Reviews

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