Memory Palace: a Hegelian survey art gallery with an Escherian perspective
December 8, 2006
Each painting seemed to open into a virtual space like Escher’s print gallery offering infinite possibilities of alternate space-time continuum. During storms, or on the quiet days entire rooms full of Baroque treasures were mine alone. I accumulate hours in front of particular paintings returning again and again. Good art never stops answering back. Bad art just stays there repeated how pretty it is. It took years but eventually I could conjure individual works of art in my mind, then entire rooms and finally after ten years, the entire gallery. But that wasn’t enough for memory work. I taught myself to go inside certain paintings, through a detail, perhaps just a reflection in a glass where the blue skies and brick buildings across the street from the studio appeared in miniature, complete, unexpected, like a secret painting within a painting. The more I learned about social histories the more that seemingly inconsequential details revealed links to expanded pictures behind the easel. Without knowing the theory at the time, I was breaking through the Hegelian linear history of art into a more rhizomic web of inextricably linked stories. Eventually the absent became so forcefully present that at times the artist’s intentions were completely subverted. His hero shape-shifted like a trickster and the conquered started to speak.
Only recently I read about the story of Matteo Ricci who wrote A Treatise on Mnemonics (1596) in Chinese for the governor of Jiangxi Province. Ricci lived in China as a Jesuit missionary from 1582 to 1614. I am not sure where the concept of the memory palace as mnemonic device began, perhaps in ancient Greece, but it was developed in medieval Europe. Although I began with an actual building, the National Gallery of Canada and its permanent collection, it became my mnemonic device. By systematically building a virtual architecture in which each element is associated with a fragment of memory, any memory can be restored by taking a virtual walk through its hallways and rooms.
Spence, Jonathan. . The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci.