Have you ever returned to your childhood playground, or school grounds, or even your childhood home, and remarked upon how small it now seems?
That childhood haunts are always bigger in the mind than they are in reality is often attributed, of course, to the physical differences in size between a child and an adult. But this is only part of the reason, and doesn’t explain why space as well as time stretches out endlessly before a child. A week feels like a month. A summer vacation might as well last a year.
The other part has to do with memory. When the world is unfamiliar, senses are heightened. Everything expands. We make more memories. The more familiar the world becomes, the more it shrinks. We make fewer memories. And yet we still keep the ones we made as children, even after we realize they weren’t exactly drawn to scale.
Bay Area installation artist Genevieve Hastings makes memory—and with it longing, nostalgia, and the persistence of the past—the central theme of her current exhibit. Perhaps this is why one of the first things you’ll see when visiting the show is an elementary school classroom, complete with arts and crafts supplies with which visitors are encouraged to play. While installing the show, Hastings invited a group of elementary schoolers to write on the chalkboards, hang their drawings on the walls, and toss around a few paper planes, giving the space a patina of playful innocence and (most likely) stickiness.
Titled “Recollections: A Series of Stratochronistic Rooms,” and currently on view at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art, the exhibit isn’t only about the memories we have, both collectively and individually, but is crafted in such a way as to maximize the forming of new memories. Visitors are encouraged to climb inside a vintage Volvo, fiddle with the dials on an old-fashioned radio, rifle through a box of letters, and enter a small, one-room house that turns out to be a miniature movie theater. The abundance of things to smell, hear, and touch makes the experience that much more potent—and, thereby, more memorable.
Hastings, who holds a BFA in photography and an MFA in new practices in art (a program I previously didn’t know existed), became interested in memory after taking a course about perception.
“I’ve been really interested in memory, and kind of how memories pile up and how they change,” Hastings explained from Seattle, where she was working on another project. “Every time we remember something, it changes. And the more we remember it, the less accurate it becomes. It’s really kind of about triggering memories in my viewers.”
A fine, but nonetheless significant, line separates Hastings’ installation from merely being an elaborate exercise in shabby chic decorating. The difference may lie in the considered manner in which the installations have been constructed. Memories can become composite, doubling over one another like twice-exposed film, and Hastings seems to play with this concept. Furniture and collectibles from different eras are repurposed to create a single scene, into which more composite items are inserted: a short film made from 16 different black-and -white home videos, for example, has been edited to appear like several scenes from a single family.
“Recollections” also showcases Hasting’s uncanny ability to plant secrets inside ordinary objects, catching visitors off guard. In her vintage Volvo, for instance, explorers can find tiny films playing in the holes where the door handle used to be and a constellation drawn onto the hood of the car.
And if memories are altered every time we revisit them, the interactive exhibit can be taken as a physical expression of this idea. Visitors are encouraged to handle the objects in “Recollections,” to change the dials on the radio, and even, in some places, to leave behind their own contributions to the space, thereby altering the exhibit. Naturally, most visitors are afraid to touch anything in a museum, but this is only because most museums protect their objects with guards and glass. “Recollections,” on the other hand, seems to welcome signs of time’s passage.
“Stratochronistic” is a term Hastings invented from the words “strata” and “chronology,” indicating layers of time. The idea is reflected in one of the recordings that plays from the vintage radio, culled from a podcast called The Memory Palace. The speaker tells us about Guglielmo Marconi, an Italian inventor known for his work in long-distance radio transmission. Marconi believed that sound waves, once emitted, never died, the speaker says. If he built a radio powerful enough, and tuned in to the right frequency, he believed, he could hear lost sounds—the voices of his parents, or Shakespeare, or Jesus!—thereby transcending the layers of time.
Beside the radio, an ornate writing desk rather cutely beckons the visitor to compose his or her own love letter. Elsewhere, the smell of a vintage suitcase can be piped out into the air. Out of the earpiece of an old-fashioned telephone come recordings of strangers recounting their road trip memories, playing on a constant loop.
The individual recollection of a viewer is a hard thing to evoke in an art exhibit. That is to say, as an artist, you can evoke memories all you like—but there’s never any guarantee that the pictures in your head will crop up in anyone else’s as a result of having done so. “Recollections,” then, feels more like a temporary museum dedicated to memory in general—a museum that, befitting of its subject, shifts every time it’s revisited.
Arts Editor Anna Weltner forgot to write her own tagline. Contact her at email@example.com.