Suchitra Mattai’s “Memory, History, Forgetting (After Paul Ricœur)” serves as a conceptual centerpiece for her exhibit “Sweet Asylum,” which is now on display at K Contemporary in Denver, Colorado. The assemblage consists of an Encyclopedia Britannica set from the artist’s birth year affixed to a wall. Mattai clustered the volumes into groups of four or five, such that large gaps appear along a linear plane. Extending across the collection’s horizontal axis, a mixed-media wrap created from paper, textiles, and paint encases the bound volumes.
What’s evident from viewing the piece is Mattai’s interest in and engagement with systems of knowledge. The mounted encyclopedias not only represent, but physically embody, a “comprehensive” aggregate of information that has been validated and normalized across the Western, English-speaking world. Britannica champions its encyclopedic division as “synonymous with reliable and trustworthy information for generations.” And company president Jorge Cauz stated in a 2012 article for The New York Times that the information found within their encyclopedia “will always be factually correct.”
Of course, if the postmodern era has taught us anything, it is that “master narratives,” whose function is to legitimate specific historical and cultural perspectives, are not truthful or factual in any sort of unimpeachable manner. Rather, these narratives operate as conduits for ideologies that masquerade as agents of truth through a process of depoliticization which attempts to naturalize them within our consciousness. This is not to say that the information in the Encyclopedia Britannica is false, per se; but it does mean that the form of Britannica’s content, as well as the content itself, promotes particular political, economic, and ethical ideals. And, obviously, such ideals will benefit certain communities and individuals more than others.
The paper and fabric wrap that encases the bound volumes in Mattai’s assemblage, then, offers an alternative but no less truthful narrative which works both in contrast to and conjunction with the narrative forwarded by Britannica. To begin with, the encasement prevents direct access to information between the encyclopedia’s covers. Likewise, it quite literally foregrounds its own presence. To this extent, a creative, handmade, and artistic narrative challenges a prescribed, codified, and dominant narrative in order to assert itself as equally, if not more, valid.
But the wrap does not, merely, encase the volumes of the encyclopedia. It also bridges the space between volume clusters. In effect, it fills Britannica’s knowledge gaps: the spaces in which standardized knowledge systems remain silent or absent. Whether those areas of absence and silence are a product of intentional erasure or careless ignorance is of secondary importance. What is of primary importance, though, is art’s (and the artist’s) ability to provide us with something traditional narratives cannot or will not convey.
The wrap also extends beyond the edges or parameters of the encyclopedia’s range. This suggests a reaching for or an extension into realms not sanctioned by narratives focused on empirical data or phenomenological experience. Rather, artistic narratives engage or have access to ineffable, supernatural, extraordinary, mystic, or transcendental spaces.
But simply to view the mixed-media wrap of “Memory, History, Forgetting (After Paul Ricœur)” as antagonistic or combative vis-à-vis narrative dominance would be reductive. For, in fact, the bound volumes add depth and contours to what would otherwise be a flat, less dynamic mixed-media scroll. To this extent, dominant or standardize narratives provide the framework, structure, or backbone for artistic or alternative narratives to flourish. In this context, the relationship between the encyclopedia and the artist’s wrap can be view as symbiotic.
Moreover, the mixed-media wrap does not completely obscure the bound volumes. Indeed, it leaves bare the top and bottom of each volume’s spine, presenting viewers with access to the company’s name, its logo, and, occasionally, content (e.g. “Ovid”). Whether such revelations are a product of altruism, aesthetics, or inability might not matter. What does matter, though, is the reciprocal or mutually modifying nature of the relationship between wrap and book.
The title of the assemblage suggests another, more esoteric means of engaging the piece that, ultimately, speaks to the relationship between wrap and encyclopedic volumes. In his essay “Existence and Hermeneutics,” Paul Ricœur claims that we can “conquer a remoteness” between a “past cultural epoch” (i.e. history) and ourselves by using a text in order to “appropriate its meaning.” In doing so, we transform that which is “foreign” to us into something comprehensible. Something which is our own. This, of course, necessitates that we neither accept nor ignore standard or traditional narratives; rather, Ricœur argues that we interpret or use them for our own ends.
In essence, both historical and self-knowledge derives from an amalgam of internal and external sources. To wit, our relationships with and understanding of others (and the world) help to form our own identities as much as self-reflection and contemplation. By extension, Mattai’s appropriation of Britannica—a cultural text representing an epoch—allows her to develop her own identity and history predicated upon the fraught relationship between artistic production and encyclopedic knowledge.
Ricœur’s Time and Narrative expands upon this idea, connecting it directly to narrative forms. In summarizing his treatise, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy articulates the philosopher’s belief that:
personal identity in every case can be considered in terms of a narrative identity: what story does a person tell about his or her life, or what story do others tell about it? In effect, narrative identity is one of the ways in which we answer the question “who?” Who is this? Who said that? Did that? Who is that? Who are we?
As such, our conception of ourselves and the world around us relies upon narratives; and choosing what narratives to which we subscribe will determine how we interpret and interact with ourselves and the world. With master narratives relegated to the histographic dust bin, we have more options and autonomy in formulating our sense of self.
Finally, in Memory, History, Forgetting (the namesake of Mattai’s assemblage), Ricœur attends to the “historiographical operation that characterizes the whole process of historical documentation, research, and writing, leading to the question of historical representation as an image based on both narration and rhetoric.” Moreover, he focuses on “abuses of memory” that affect history, as well as their “ethical-political” consequences. To this end, we should ask ourselves how dominate or traditional narratives affect our perception both of the world and the self. Such interrogations should lead us to a more critical awareness of how we generate, document, and disseminate historical narratives.
While “Memory, History, Forgetting (After Paul Ricœur)” demonstrates a suspicion of dominate historical narratives and systems of knowledge most evidently, nearly all of the work on display in Mattai’s “Sweet Asylum” challenges them in some way.
For instance, the epic cartographic assemblage “The Past is Present” applies pressure upon Western projects of colonization and Eurocentric mapping devices through a re-orientation of key elements within its framework.
From the central image “Castaway,” lines of trajectory emanate from the body of a small, brown child and connect with the assemblage’s other elements. While the context of this found textile remains ambiguous, the full-rigged ship and tropical location evoke Triangular Trade and the Western World’s slaving past. By sewing threaded lines from the boy’s body, though, Mattai highlights the centrality of the figure to his surrounding context and global projects. Rather than a chattel body subject to economic and geopolitical machinations, the artist conceptualizes the boy as an active agent who is central to our geographic and cartographic knowledge of the world.
Throughout history, colonial projects predicated themselves on European domination of non-European countries. And condescending idiomatic expressions developed in the Western world, such “savages” and “Third World,” act as linguistic residue of this brutal past. But by re-orienting the brown boy to a central space, as well as adding threaded lines, Mattai transforms a “Third World” child into a “Primary Child”: the nexus from her map and the center of our global community and historical narratives. In this way, “The Past is Present” challenges viewers to reimagine the white, Western World—not as the hub of civilization and knowledge, but, rather, as an offshoot or product of non-European traditions.
Similarly, Mattai’s mix-media series concentrating on architecture offers complications of East-West paradigms: an oft-invoked binary employed as a framing mechanism for systematizing global communities. In these works, the artist creates visual amalgams from iconic Eastern structures, modern Western homes, and abstract acrylic designs. By doing so, the artist prompts viewers to reconceive the East-West binary. What are the differences between these cultures? Has contemporary society’s intensification of globalization rendered these divisions moot? Are the differences as prominent as once thought? And, if so, are these differences antagonistic, symbiotic, or indifferent? While Mattai does not articulate a definitive answer to these questions, the series situates the conversation in such a way that the divide between East and West seems permeable, convoluted, or complicated.
And, perhaps, this is the beauty of “Sweet Asylum” as a whole. By juxtaposing the found and the made, digital and analog, fine and domestic art, Eastern and Western iconography, and a plethora of other binaries within singular works and assemblages, Mattai asks viewers to consider more critically systems of knowledge and conventional paradigms that we often accept as true, standard, or normative. Instead, her artwork gestures toward the constructed nature of these systems and art’s ability to open new spaces for different systems, histories, and narratives to flourish.