top of page

An art exhibition as a resource of knowledge and cognitive form

Memory Palaces


Recently, the book ‘The art of memory’ by Frances A. Yates was recommended to me by professor Krajewski. This book describes the history of mnemonic techniques through the centuries. Mnemonic techniques are ways to memorize facts, for example dates of historical events, the keynotes of a speech or your shopping list. Greek scholars used to memorize lengthy passages this way, before the widespread use of paper. Nowadays we have paper as a tool to help us remember, but this is not the only reason mnemonic techniques have become arbitrary. We also have devices like smartphones connected to the internet, making you able to look up facts on the spot.

Are mnemonic techniques still topical? Is this way of thinking something that can be used in the arts? I set out to answer this question. In the following text, I would like describe my research and elaborate on mnemonic techniques in contemporary art.

An important reason to start studying mnemonic techniques was the fact that I work spatially. My work, often installations that are telling a story, have some links to memory palaces. A Memory Palace, also referred to as Method of Loci, is one of the most important mnemonic techniques. Using this method, you build a ‘palace’, a series of ‘loci’ in your head. The sequences you want to remember, you place on a certain route through the building. You have to do this in a memorable way, for example, by splashing the objects with red paint.1 The modern day recommendation for building a memory palace, is to choose a location that you know very well, for example your house, and to make the things you want to remember stand out in your personal way.

The Memory Palace is a fictitious structure, existing in one’s head. There have been attempts to build a material version of a memory palace. Guillio Camillo was one of the first. He wanted to build a so called ‘memory theatre’ and the French King wanted to support him. In the end he didn’t succeed, because he was lacking funds. Only a miniature version of the theatre was realized, capable to fit two people.

Camillio tried to order all knowledge into a system. The idea that we can know everything, ended a long time ago. Erasmus was the last person who was able to read all printed books. Instead of focussing on absolute knowledge, the two following examples of specific knowledge are inspiring to me. They both arose in the Netherlands in the 17th and 18th century.

A perfect example of a memory palace made material is the planetarium in Franeker, build by Eise Eisinga in between 1774 and 1781. Eise Eisinga was an amateur astronomer. Following in the footsteps of his father and becoming a wool comber, did not make him able to study fulltime, yet he had the opportunity to join lessons at the university. This is where he acquired his knowledge about the universe. An acclamation by preacher Eelco Alta, sparked a need in Eise. The preacher claimed in outrageous fashion that the world would end in 3 days. Eise was aware this wasn’t true, since he knew exactly how the universe ‘ticks’. He wanted to show other people what he could visualize in his head and he did everything is his power to do so. Seven years later he finished building a planetarium in his own living room. Up to this day, this is the oldest, still working planetarium. I visited it when I was a little kid. The funny thing is, because I remember the room vividly with it’s blue ceiling and bedstee (a Dutch

1 Frances A. Yates, The Art of Memory (1966)

traditional build-in bed), I remember the historical facts that where told during the tour up until this day.

Another example of a materialized memory palace are the Dutch ‘pronkpoppenhuizen’ from the 17th century. ‘Pronkpoppenhuis’ can be translated as ‘dollhouse to show off with’. The dollhouses where property of rich housewives, often obtained just after marriage. From what the records show, these women where not particularly young. It is also known that the houses where not for play, since the materials used where very expensive. The silver, hand painted objects, lace and other fabrics that the miniature household goods consisted of, could make the dollhouse cost as much as a real canal house.2 Apart from kunztkammers, the dollhouses could have served as a tool for ritual.3 It is known that toys where used in 17th century Holland, to teach children the Dutch virtues. Little boys where brought up to be strong leading men, girls got toys that taught them how to nurture. Toys are the first objects that children encounter to symbolize their role in society, assigned in a playful manner. Accourding to Michelle Moseley-Christian, there is a link between these pedagogics and the dollhouses of grown women.4 These women were married to wealthy men, who played important roles in Dutch society. In the meantime, women where the rulers over the household, ensuring everything goes perfect. ‘[T]he Dutch home itself was seen as a structural model of the Dutch Republic’.5 As a metaphor for the woman her power, she gets a miniature of that what’s hers, to (literally) look over. The dollhouse is a tool for the mind. But it is more an oppressive tool assigning role, than a practical tool. Miriam Schapiro noticed the dollhouse, as toy or tool, reinforces gender6. She made the work ‘Dollhouse’, during the Womanhouse project in 1972.

Visualizing memory in a spatial way, made me think of ‘les Lieux de memoire’. The term Lieux de memoire was coined by French-Jewish historian Pierre Nora. You could translate it as ‘sites of memory’. Memory in this case does not refer to remembering, but to commemorating. Accourding to Nora, history has changed into memory. History has become personal. In this way, smaller groups of people can commemorate their particular, but collective memory and address trauma that has not been brought to light before. Studying different historians on their view of Lieux de memoire, I formed for myself a comparison. History is like a monument, memory is the ceremony of remembrance. The symbols in the monument are solid, where a ceremony is an active and fluent occurring. Like a monument, history is an already determined story, memory, how we think about the story, is something active. This is why memory can change perspective on the past.

2 Seventeenth-Century Pronk Poppenhuisen : Domestic Space and the Ritual Function of Dutch Dollhouses for Women, Michelle Moseley-Christian (2010)

3 Seventeenth-Century Pronk Poppenhuisen : Domestic Space and the Ritual Function of Dutch Dollhouses for Women, Michelle Moseley-Christian (2010)

4 Seventeenth-Century Pronk Poppenhuisen : Domestic Space and the Ritual Function of Dutch Dollhouses for Women, Michelle Moseley-Christian (2010)

5 Seventeenth-Century Pronk Poppenhuisen : Domestic Space and the Ritual Function of Dutch Dollhouses for Women, Michelle Moseley-Christian (2010)

6 Revisiting “Womanhouse”: Welcome to the (deconstructed) “Dollhouse”, Temma Balduci (2006)

An example of an artist working with Lieux de memoire, is Gregor Schneider. His works are strongly influenced by the place Schneider was born, namely Reyhdt, Monchengladbach birthplace of Goebbels. Another thing that Gregor his works have in common, is that he uses houses as a medium. This in a way that I have not seen other artists do. All Schneider his works have an ‘unheimlich’ feeling over them. Schneider does not reveal much about his work, but an important clue to what he is about I found in the book by Imogen Racz. ‘Schneider is interested in places that become charged through traumatic events, and says that although things might be over, they leave their traces’7 A significant work by Gregor Schneider regarding Lieux de memoire is ‘Hauptstraße 85 a’. This work consists of a former synagogue. The building was not torn down during the second World War, because somebody proclaimed it to be their barn.8 The Star of David was covered with mortar. The place became lost in memory, because it was masked. Gregor Schneider did two things, by with the site was placed on the map again and could function as a ‘lieu de memoire’. First of all, he gave the building an address. This made people remember the site itself. Secondly, he covered the whole building behind the façade of a quit normal looking home. The walls are now a soft yellow. This history is kept in a shell. You could think the synagogue is masked again, but Schneider addressed the site in the right way, literary by giving it an address. This makes people notice the place where a synagogue stands. The fact that it is hidden behind a façade is a symbol of all the history that gushed over it. It also sparks imagination, making the place exist stronger in the imagination of people.

‘Dialog loci’ an art festival, organized on the ruins of Kostrzyn, is another example of art working as ‘Lieux de memoire’. Kostrzyn has a very particular history. It used to be a German fort in the 16th century. This rich history has been covered in the veil of war ruins. Being a German city before WWII, it ended up being a Polish ruin after, not build up until this day. Learning about the festival, there where 3 works that struck my attention. Roland Scheffersky, Zbigniew Sejwa and Kresenty Gładzik all made works, imagining the houses of the former fort. Zbigniew Sejwa placed a door in a ruin opening it up to the mind. Roland Scheffersky placed a wall cupboard inside. This sparked questions for me. Is this a Polish mebloscianka, or is it an imagination of a German interior? Maybe Scheffersky tried to re- envision the site as a place that had not been swept away by war. In that case, German people would live in these houses. Kresenty Gładzik is also looking back on the past. He does this by creating a window, placed on the height of what used to be the second floor. The imaginary home is expanding. Form this home, you would have a view of the Oder. The Oder is now a river defining the border between two countries, but it used to be just a natural border running through the ‘Oderland’. The imagined view out of this unreachable window, is one upon the past, a view on a completely different political landscape.

Artworks creating sites of memory are connected to the concept of memory palaces. They both are using spatiality to lay-out thoughts. The works I discussed until now are all build on the foundation of a house. All of them are regarding ‘Lieux de memoire’, and this is what might have brought them so close to home. ‘Lieux de memoire’ is about the past becoming personal. Of course, in the realm of our houses, where we are in private, we are closest to our personal thoughts. Bachelard, a French philosopher, wrote about the value of daydreaming in your corner of the world, hidden away safely in your house. He wrote ‘Now my aim is clear: I must show that the house is one of the greatest powers of integration for the thoughts,

7 Racz, Imogen (2015) Art and the Home, Comfort Alienation and the Everyday. London: I.B. Tauris 8 lecture by Gregor Schneider: (25-05-2019)

memories and dreams of mankind’9 prescribing the house great abilities to help us processing. These monuments and sites of memory are breaking barriers from the public into the private. This is why the monuments are not rigid and unveil some (collective) memories. There is another place that can be seen as the borderland between public and private; the museum.10 De word museum derived from the word ‘muse’. In Greek mythology the nine ‘muses’ where the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne and the personification of memory. Museum is the place where memory is kept, for example archaeological museums, but it is also a place memory can be created or revealed.

A school example of a museum as a memory palace, is ‘the Museum of Innocence’ constructed by writer Orhan Pamuk, a Nobel Prize winning author from Istambul. The museum has inspired a book of his, and the other way around. Every chapter is represented by a cabinet with an installation of objects that correspond to the story. These objects have been collected by Pamuk over years. He bought stuff in second hand stores that reminded him of the Istanbul of the nineties, the setting of his intense love story. The space is a representation of a story. Although I think Pamuk took a very different approach to building installations than an artist would, his museum, together with the book, is a real memory palace

Storytelling has been called ‘an even more powerful device’ for remembering.11 When it comes to artist using this technique, I think Laure Prouvost is one of the greatest examples. She is a contemporary artist speaking to a large group of people. All of this whilst her message remains an unclear, but positive chaos. Prouvost is an artist from French origin, but has worked for years in London, where her (lack-off) language skills became a big inspiration for her art. Now she lives and works in Antwerp, Belgium. In 2013 she won the Tuner prize for her work ‘wantee’, recently she had a big overview show in Antwerp and at the moment she is representing France at the Biennale in Venice. Laure started off as a video-artist. Nowadays the videos are accompanied by an installation of art-objects like chunky, unpractical pottery. But the most important thing Laure her narratives are accompanied by, are the stories she makes up. ‘Wantee’ for example was about her Grandfather, a famous fluxus artist, best friend of Kurt Schwitters, who got lost digging a tunnel. Doing interviews and lectures, she never breaks ‘out of character’. Her persona as artist is an extension to her art. And, although she is making up stories the whole time, her lively personality is real. With Laure Prouvost it is not about the exact story, it is about the attitude. Her work has been described to have liquid modernity as a theme. In her artworks, the story is malleable. Everybody can create a story for themselves, immersed in the pleasant chaos of objects, images, sounds and mistranslations. Being immersed is the goal of Laure her installations. Her impression of the world is strongly reflected in the works she builds, making it an extension of the world (or her worldview). In a Belgium news article her work was described as ‘(...) an artistic expression of mental thought processes, of psychoanalysis, of our relationship with the outside world and objects.’12 The phones and rubble floating on a thin layer of water at the Venice Biennale, are mirroring the objects in the world and the world behind the objects, that has also become a part of our daily lives.

9 Bachelard, Gaston, ‘The Poetics of Space’ [1958], trans. Maria Jolas (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994) 10 Pipilotti Rist in an interview (25-05-2019)
11 The Museum as Memory Palace, Michael Neault (2012)
12 Siska Vandecaastele ‘De ongrijpbare wereld van Laure Prouvost’ (2019)

Pippilotti Rist is a Swiss video artist, who has been active since 1986. Thanks to the fact that she is constantly renewing her art, it remains very contemporary. She always tries to work with the latest media, because she is aware of how it shapes our viewpoint.13 She is also aware of how technology has been limiting us. The fact that screens are rectangle is just out of practicality, it has nothing to do with our way of looking.14 Pipilotti Rist has a lot to do with how we are looking, or how we can learn to look and, through that, think and feel. She has had a few big exhibitions lately, in which she designs the whole venue to fit to her video-art. This makes that her art becomes installation art. The video’s become part of the room, projected onto objects or the ceiling so that they change your position in the room. ‘Pixel forest’ is a work in which you feel as if you are inside an exploded screen. Pipilotti actually shows her known video’s ‘through’ Pixel Forest in an innovatory way. Her works, just as those of Laure Prouvost, are multilateral. They seemed to me like very personal works when I got to know them. For example, the work ‘I’m not the girl who misses much’, in which she stars herself. The video has a more brought context though. The fact that she used television as a medium, made her infiltrate the male-dominated political landscape of Switzerland. The work ‘I’m a victim of this song’ also seems very hermetical, but in an interview, Pipilotti explains that she found out that this song was collectively stuck in people’s heads.15 Up until this day, at a moment where Pipilotti gets whole museums for her disposal, she continues making work, connecting people. In the design of the exhibition, she takes them into account, having the knowledge that the other bodies walking through the installations and watching video’s laying down, is part of your experience. According to her ‘the museum "lifts us all into a common thought bubble" where we are able "to share knowledge, feelings, inner images and suggestions.".’16 Through designing space, Pipilotti makes her video’s act on the senses as much as possible. But her works are as much bodily as they are cognitive. They connect all Pipilotti her insight about that what is natural, cultural and political. This together with the ‘thought bubble’, she creates a complex network to experience and enhance your mind.

Houses again play an important role in art as memory palaces, also inside museums. Laure her work ‘wantee’ was shot in an installation that represented the house of her Grandparents. Pipilotti uses furniture, like beds and other homey objects in her museum exhibitions. Her goals is to ‘transform the museum into "a shared apartment where you can visit each other's brains and bodies."’17 ‘The ultimate realization of a museum memory palace is a narrative deconstructed and displayed in a house’18 The reason for this might be the creation of a private realm inside the museum, where we can come at ease, open up our minds and ourselves to each other.

13 Pippilotti Rist interviewed: (25-05-2019) 14 Pippilotti Rist interviewed: (25-05-2019)

15Pippilotti Rist interviewed: (25- 05-2019)
16 (25-05-2019)

17 (25-05-2019) 18 The Museum as Memory Palace, Michael Neault (2012)

Yelena Zhelezov is an artist that I got to know through the video-work ‘Oceanfront Manhunt’ that was shown on the WRO 2017 Biennale. This work also uses a house for its concept, but this is not a house in real space, nor in a museum. Yelena used a 3d rendering that was available on a house marketing site. With her Belarussian/American background, she gives us commentary from two cultures upon a globalized, yet westernized world. Using the points in the 3D rendering, walking through a space that is virtual, but also existing in the real world, she makes us aware of how we are experiencing the world not only in real space, but also in cyberspace. Space is often a directory in her work, crossing over from virtual space to real space, but not only. For the project ‘The building remembers’ Yelena made small cardboard object, stamps and a stop-motion. She focussed on architectural space, looking at specific buildings that arose as churches, changed into exhibition spaces and evolved back for religious use, this all in Belarus. She is referring to points in time, creating sort of a timeline or map for our mind of the political landscape. The work ‘Liquid Love’ makes me think of Laure Prouvost. Because of the chunky ceramics, and because it is also referring to the fading borders in liquid modernity. The ceramic figures are modelled after stock-photos of people working in bed on their laptops. The theme is therefore the ‘diminished boundaries between personal, professional, and consumer lives.’19 This work has also a lot to do with memory palaces according to me, because Zhelezov materializes a fictional scene that exists on the web. This inversion makes us realize again, how we spend time in cyberspace in our real lives. She is connecting 3 points in total, intertwining reality, fiction and virtual space. The work ‘H-ear comes the judge’ (2017) brings us back to where we started off. It consists of cloths with print screens and embroidery on it. The print screens are poor quality and the cloths are exhibited layered and slightly sloppy. It’s about the quick fashion we are ‘searching for that which we don’t already know’20. Yelena takes everyday internet activities out of the virtual world into the real world, showing how a device like a smartphone is connected to our memory and becoming part of our mind. We are at a moment in time, where we don’t store our memory, thoughts or even perspectives in our head anymore. A lot of this exists in virtual space, which is again constructing our political and historical worldview.

I started with the question if the technique called memory palace can be used to make art. The examples of artist I gave, show in how many different ways you can use space to lay bare memory, cognitive processes or the relation between our psyche and the world. The spaces used can be virtual or non-virtual and are always intertwined with the political landscape. These spatial artists are making our minds expand, literary.

19 text by Ceci Moss (25-05-2019)

20 Dulce Dientes, Aaron Horst (2015) (24-05-2019)


Literature list

Arendt, Hannah, ‘The human condition’ (1958)
Bachelard, Gaston, ‘The Poetics of Space’ [1958], trans. Maria Jolas (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994)
Racz, Imogen (2015) Art and the Home, Comfort Alienation and the Everyday. London: I.B. Tauris
Yates, Frances A. ‘The Art of Memory’ (1966)

De ongrijpbare wereld van Laure Prouvost, Siska Vandecaastele (2019)

Dulce Dientes, Aaron Horst (2015) (24-05-2019)
Memory Palace: palace (15-03-2019)
Memory Palace review – thinking inside the box, Laura Cumming (2018)
Moving through memory: a cartographic exercise, Isobel Parker Philip (2016) Seventeenth-Century Pronk Poppenhuisen : Domestic Space and the Ritual Function of Dutch Revisiting “Womanhouse”: Welcome to the (deconstructed) “Dollhouse”, Temma Balduci (2006)
Dollhouses for Women, Michelle Moseley-Christian (2010)
The Museum as Memory Palace, Michael Neault (2012)
The weird conceptual universe of the artist Laure Prouvost

bottom of page