Inspiration: “The Art of Memory” at Victoria & Albert Museum

I am very much into all things related to structuring information & visual storytelling. So it is exciting to hear that London’s wonderful Victoria & Albert Museum stages an exhibition exploring new ways of visual narration and the forgotten art of memory: “MEMORY PALACE”, opening today.

Based on a novel by writer Hari Kunzru, the museum has commissioned a series of works by visual artists from various fields such as typography, illustration, communication design and information visualisation. The exhibition caught my attention not the least because two of my favourite info viz artists were asked to contribute works: Stefanie Posavec and Francesco Franchi.

Hari Kunzru’s novel unveils the vision of a dystopian future, long after a storm has eradicated all known infrastructures of producing and disseminating knowledge. Leadership is taken by a group of five kings, who envision their citizens to live in harmony with nature.

All attempts at (re-)gaining and distributing information are strongly oppressed. So it is an instance of political resistance that a group of activists are trying to revive the ancient art of memory, as it is the only means of collecting and transmitting information that they have at hand…

The exhibition is conceived to epitomise the novel as an immersive walk-in story. With the text featuring a somewhat caleidoscopic structure and unfolding in individual scenes, each of the visual artists received a particular part of the story to work with.

Francesco Franchi opens the string of visual works with his grand historical panorama tracking western theories about the art of memory. The piece is a timeline, with time running upwards and the big black circle referring to the few ancient roman sources that have survived.

Francesco Franchi, The Art of Memory, 2013

Francesco Franchi, The Art of Memory, 2013

In a design that recalls Robert Fludd’s famous graphic on senses and the structure of the universe, Franchi unfolds a comprehensive history of all authors in western history to have substantially contributed to the theory of memory. The circles visualise not only their core ideas, but also their connections among each other.

The head drawings on the bottom symbolise the ancient method of memorizing: to imagine a complex architecture (e.g. a palace) and enrich this image with “attaching” bits of information to particular spaces within the imaginative architecture.

It is enthralling to realise that this practical method has been buried in oblivion for a long time, as we have an abundance of storage media for knowledge at hand. I wonder when we will finally see this technique applied using virtual architectures in order to make large bodies of information easily accessible.

Stefanie Posavec’s “data narrative” presents a succession of three “maps” in a triptych of large prints. The three pieces each envision one of the main events in the Hari Kunzru’s story. Stefanie says:

“For this project I was exploring the idea of using data as an illustrative tool, and trying to explore how I could use data as the basis for subjective, emotional communication…”

Stefanie Posavec: “Accounting”, 2013

Her first print shows a world in which each and every bit of information is recorded and stored. Lines connect various capitals around the world, with their altitude data, distance data and information about the resulting triangles constituting a web of seemingly comprehensive but still meaningless information – forming a wonderful metaphor for our present day faith in data.

Stefanie Posavec: “Accounting”, 2013, detail

The second piece visualises how this international system of accounting collapses, causing our knowledge infrastructure to wither, with the data falling down from the map onto a pile of non-structured information.

Stefanie Posavec, Withering, 2013

Stefanie Posavec, Withering, 2013

The third piece shows wilderness spreading in a world where living in harmony with nature is the postulated ideal. The story recounts how people in London are living in the “detritus of this past world of computers”.

Stefanie Posavec envisions the pile of displaced data to be the bed from which a “forest” of plants is rising. She based these drawings on data about weeds indigenous to London.

Stefanie Posavec, Wilding 2013

Stefanie Posavec, Wilding 2013

The exhibition also incorporates instances of self-reflection, when the role of museums as a storage of memory is discussed. Berlin-based illustrator Henning Wagenbreth delved into the notion of the museum being a place for inspiration and instruction. In his contribution, he created an exhilarant vision of a “dream-like” museum: a cabinet full of stories and memories, ideas and characters…

Henning Wagenbreth, Museum, 2013

Henning Wagenbreth, Museum, 2013

As you can see, I really like the rich web of references that this show stretches, and I am excited to see the full exhibition, including all the other great works I wasn’t able to discuss here…

All images © the artists/courtesy of V&A. Thanks Stefanie, Francesco and Henning Wagenbreth! Sky Arts Ignition: Memory Palace runs at the V&A from 18 June – 20 October 2013. Thanks also to Zoe & Amelia.

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