Sensing the Palimpsest of Memory
With artist Jonathan Michael Ray.
To what extent can one trust human memory? How much do you trust yours?
Human memory is a phenomenon, always reconstructive, dynamic, and even malleable. There are explicit memories that one begins to form in the neocortex at the very first moment the event is recalled. Then there are implicit memories that one could not consciously remember yet are still indeed processed in the primitive, unconscious, innermost part of the brain.
Artist Jonathan Michael Ray gifted me a book by Rodrigo Quian Quiroga, a neuroscientist, about his encounters with the fabulist Jorge Luis Borges; from which I learnt that apart from chronicled events, neurons respond to abstract concepts and sensory perceptions, consolidating them into long-term memories, a process which we are unconscious of.
Most of us tell a seemingly coherent story of our own lives with the disproportionately limited explicit memories we retain by chance, while leaving much of the lived experiences that shape us untold. However, if we pay close enough attention, and live with curiosity to embrace our senses, we might just find them responding to everyday interactions, with animate and inanimate beings.
Upon encountering Jonathan Michael Ray’s works of various mediums and scales, I could not help but notice the bodily sensations that arose. For instance, when I first saw Cell (2021), an artwork made of a colour photograph of ocean waves mounted behind a leaded lattice of reclaimed glass within an oaken frame, my shoulders dropped and I let out a soft sigh as my chest slightly tightened in a most physical capture of a sense of deep longing. My theory here is that these automatic responses stemmed from a collection, a mosaic of implicit, long-term sensory memories I have stored, thus signalling a series of neuromuscular, biochemical reactions in my body.
Synesthesia, the title of the project this text is situated within, might aid in explaining this phenomenon. By definition, it is a neurological condition in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway. On the other hand, Ray describes the effect of his works as ‘having a memory of something you have not experienced’. A sense of felt connection is achieved by bringing objects that have emotional associations, whether personal, collective, generational and/or cultural.
Ray’s works are emotive, to say the least. While I could also give an art theoretical or technical account of his practice, his works’ ability to transport us through our own limitless internal worlds is a scarce quality to come by. In an era where we are constantly confronted with the demanding, if not daunting, task of contextualising an inundation of information, Ray’s works are a window to the familiar unfamiliar. They open ambiguous spaces that are loosely connected by our innate response to material memories. His dedicated practice and contemplation of collecting material and objects may be attributed to this particular power of his works.
These collections range from damaged and reclaimed church-stained glass windows, and found objects gathered on walks or purchased from specialist dealers, to serpentine and granite stones native to the local landscape of Cornwall, and an archive of analogue photographs taken during his travels. Although, unlike formal collecting practices, say, in a museum, the approach and materials Ray assembles in his works seem to lack any such categorical hierarchy.
The objects Ray collects, both by serendipity and through dedicated searches, serve as memorabilia—emblems of memories—loosely woven together into a material world for him to revisit and make the connections when they are ready to be made. Pedagogical collecting in western institutional history has long been a powerful means to control sociocultural narratives, justified by logic and epistemology; Ray’s collecting gently subverts and undoes the legacy of such a flattening practice.
He is invested in seeing, discovering, understanding and revealing objects’ long and layered lives. Through his interventions of collecting, restoring and assemblage, the objects ‘do something on their own terms,’ as Ray puts it, creating a multiplicity of narratives encompassing material histories and imaginary futures.
The found objects themselves have lived their own individual lives prior to their new associations imagined by Ray. For example, the bricks in Earthen Cairn (2017), are old London bricks picked up from the Thames foreshore at low tide, mudlarked if you will, that were handmade to imperial metrics since 1877 during the building boom. However, these particular bricks, rounded by decades of tidal actions, display an organic, spongey form, with marbling of black, brown and yellow, carrying all sorts of impurities into their hosts. This tower of an indoor sculpture is a site of confluence, a meeting of the UK’s architectural and urban histories, and a witness of its geological movements.
As well as collecting objects, such as the bricks, that contain the essence of their lived experience, Ray also amasses markings in stone of all ages, leftover from human contact. Mark-making is a timeless act of crystallising one’s presence in a place. Isn’t it something inherent in the inexplicable desire of this species – making meaning by leaving one’s mark, a legacy so that our lives are not wasted on us?
To the artist, the act of mark-making is more than what is being marked. In his engraving across different pieces such as Ere long done do does did (2021), A Large Boulder the Size of a Small Boulder (2021) and Not Really Now and Not Anymore (2019), he plays with and exposes the value system ingrained in our mind. Childish symbols are inscribed in formal scale, colours and design, alongside and superimposed with dates, names and events seemingly of significance.
These works also question how historical ‘graffiti’, in the likes of markings from Victorian tourism and mediaeval religious pilgrimage, are valued differently from contemporary street graffiti. How is one an act of reverence and the other a crime? How is ‘I was here 1600’ more precious than ‘I was here 2022’? And why is this value system assigned to the human species’ collective memory a linear one, when it seems so strange and unnatural in relation to how our minds negotiate personal memory and time?
In these assemblages of emotionally associated objects, and Ray’s playful yet solemn engravings, the imaginary palimpsest is rendered visible. The constructed layering of different marks are difficult to distinguish one from another, alluding to the non-discriminatory truth that marks are marks, but meanings are layered. And, by meeting the intricately woven multiple lives of material objects face to face through Jonathan Michael Ray’s sensibility, we are given the freedom to escape the unavoidable limits of our conscious brains, and our single-bound lives.
Have I convinced you to believe in the interpretation of my own implicit memory? Though, I shall remind you that this too is an incomplete reconstruction.
1. Rodeigo Quian Quiroga, Borges and Memory: Encounters with the Human Brain, trans. Juan Pablo Fernandez, (MIT Press, 2011).
Words by JANICE LI