I recently wrote an essay to accompany Mark Melvin’s exhibition at Berlin gallerySherin Najjar, Forget to Remember. If you’re interested in purchasing a copy please contact the gallery: firstname.lastname@example.org or visit http://www.sherinnajjar.com/en/news
As with any artist’s work, you can approach Mark Melvin’s Forget to Remember with either anticipated familiarity or the fresh expectation of the unknown, but the exhibition’s reference to the amnesiac should already be viewed as a warning; a warning to those viewers who have seen Melvin’s 2011 exhibition, Remember to Forget, and have forgotten the original advice.
The experience of Forget to Remember after remembering to forget is akin to looking at somebody else in the mirror. We look at our own image every day with such blind faith: we take what we are given; but in seeing somebody else contained in the glass we understand that the picture reflected is always slightly distorted, that the symmetry is not quite right.
The works in Forget to Remember have been carefully selected and curated to echo the works included two years ago in Remember to Forget, recreating the ‘feeling’ of that exhibition: but the echo is never harmonious, it is distinctly jarring. The reflection has slipped slightly to show something only fractiously remembered and now newly realised.
For second time visitors the exhibition presents a déjà vu founded upon an accumulating sense of recognition and a growing uneasiness: a video piece swapped for another here; words removed from their contexts and replaced elsewhere; themes, energies and philosophies all shifted into new frames. The echoes are as subtle as the palindromic movement of the clock (Time Piece –bury your head in the sand or bury the sand in your head 2012), but they are nevertheless present. Melvin has very deliberately manufactured an experience of déjà vu for the viewer of Forget to Remember.
Where Melvin’s previous neon I’m never where I want to be, ever here I be (2009) was exhibited, there is a new neon gesturing towards the futility of aspiration, a ladder with six rungs disappearing into none: a metaphor for unachievable goals. Like train tracks disappearing into the darkness of a tunnel, words have been translated into the visual language of light but the story and sentiment remains essentially the same.
Edward Titchener described déjà vu as a ‘partial perception’, where the brain glimpses an object or situation before it has had time to fully ‘construct’ an understanding of the experience. Déjà vu is not a moment we have lived before, but one we struggled to comprehend at first glance. Inspired by Derrida’s idea of ‘différance’ and the continual deferral of meaning, this wouldn’t be the first time that Melvin has offered his viewers only a ‘partial perception’; locking them into a repetitive moment and deferring the final conclusion to an indefinite point in the future.
In Ravel/Unravel (decade) 2012, two versions of Melvin ravel and unravel a jumper to the music of a string quartet, performing déjà vu in a self-portrait which Melvin himself finds a little unnerving; over a period of ten years, he hardly seems to have aged at all. Trapped in the revival of an obsessive action this feeling is only perpetuated.
Melvin describes Ravel/Unravel (decade) as acting as a “personal signature” to the exhibition. This affirmation offers a powerful insight into just how deeply personal the conceptual philosophy underlying Melvin’s work is. If Melvin throws his viewers into an endlessly repeating déjà vu it is partly because he can’t escape it himself. “My work feeds itself,” he says, noting that the titles of his paired exhibitions mark the clock face which oscillates between wilful forgetfulness and the loss of amnesia. Melvin admits that he has essentially been “reiterating the same things” throughout his practice: themes, texts and philosophical preoccupations, are all woven thick into a contained corpus which loops back on itself.
The process of looping is not an expression of exasperation in the face of life’s inexplicable questions, but rather, a memorialisation of the essential and universal truth of these statements. If life is a journey it is not about where we get to, or as one of Melvin’s previous pieces puts it: ‘When we’re hoping for changes, we all stay the same’.
Melvin explains that “any text which is dealing with a past emotion or an impulse is doing the same thing: memorialising it and giving it status. I think that in the reading of something or in watching a video you are going through the same process – you are also reading and trying to decipher, as well as looping back.”
Melvin’s two light-box stained glass windows, Vidimus 1 (exhibited here) and Vidimus 2 borrow from a religious language of memorialisation to commemorate two abstracted statements: ‘Fail Forever’ and ‘The More I Look Ahead, the More I See Behind’. This language of perpetual fallibility, which recognises the very real stasis of our everyday lives, has been stretched to abstraction so that, at first, the viewer experiences only the aesthetic pleasure of coloured shards of blue light. But as in a cathedral, contained within the revelation of their illumination, Melvin’s glass windows invoke us to a deeper reflection.
Vidimus, meaning ‘we saw it’ in Latin, refers to the design of a stained glass window which artists were required to make before it could be realised by a glass painter. This process seems redundant here, when Melvin has ignored all of the traditional rules of craft and had his windows machine-manufactured. Deprived of natural light, Melvin believes that Vidimus 1 and Vidimus 2 “highlight their own impotence, radiating their own synthetic light,” fulfilling their function by imitating only.
These stained-windows become circles of constant affirmation and negation – in medium and physical form, and in text and concept – they trap us in their spherical loop and force us to consider the shifting pendulum of life.
Elsewhere this loop is a penance which Melvin himself has had to perform. In (the black and white) mirrors Melvin has etched words into the sprayed-out surface in his own hand; spending hours writing the same phrase over and over again, and stopping only arbitrarily to consider the aesthetic effect of this obsessive action. What may appear to us as merely the shimmer of a Prague skyline, has an enduring sense of labour and toil for Melvin.
The two mirrors bear the phrases: ‘stay with me I need support’ and ‘same old scene’. In the iteration of these sentences the emotional emphasis continually changes. Melvin is always toying with the implications of the words he uses. Whether they are meaningless pop lyrics or more personal statements buried and obscured within other texts: their resonance can vacillate wildly from the desperation of a total negation, to a careless apathy in the face of life’s mundanity.
Where Melvin’s work begins to expand the boundaries into a self-proclaimed “new territory” is with the six drawings shown for the first time in Forget to Remember. We largely recognise Melvin for his neons, kinetic works and video pieces – his practice is firmly rooted in the conceptual – but these drawings, made in pen and ink and then rubbed out with an eraser, have a greater transparency. Although reminiscent of the optometrist’s charts in form, the drawings are erratic and loosely drawn by hand. There is more vulnerability to be found here than in the self-assured wordplay of a neon or the manipulation of a video and this is where Melvin chooses to bury his truly personal statements.
“There is more of a therapy in drawing, and drawing is where it all started. Drawing is what I used to really enjoy and do when I was kid, what I was really obsessively doing when I was a child. Sometimes when you go through education this kind of falls by the wayside – you have these books of sketches but you never really think of them as much because they aren’t conceptual enough.”
In two of the drawings double layers of text are concealed in a game which challenges the value of the complementary phrases. The first reads: ‘I’m forever in a memory all about you and me, screaming out your name knowing you are there’, but hides, ‘I’m remembering you’re not here’. While the second pleads, ‘Please return to me and protect me from the rain’, but retreats with ‘pleasure and pain’. It is the closest Melvin will come to a confession.
Drawn in black, the other single-layered texts offer up “statements to be attacked”. Here, familiar lyrics which are filled with deep suggestion: ring hollow. The stability of these lyrical monuments is continually undercut; each drawing is accompanied by another, made up of left over chips of rubber from the process of erasure. These tangible remnants are the result of a physical assault made by Melvin but they point towards the conceptual disruption which resonates elsewhere too.
By borrowing “the language of a minute’s silence”, Forget to Remember’s kinetic piece, Half Life, asks us to reflect upon the cycles of life and death, and both our imitation, and resuscitation of mortal things. A single butterfly wing (taken from a solar-powered decoration) flutters under the stark illumination of a lamp on a morbid circle of black. But the butterfly wing also keeps a steady pulse: it continues improbably to mark time, to exist.
“I like the idea that looping soundtracks, or powering kinetic cycles, is kind of telling the time, (although they are just not letting you know the increments). Even though you are watching things move and you are not aware of time in the same way that if you are looking at your watch, they are still moving with you.”
Melvin has disrupted and distorted time, subverting the present moment into a repeating pattern of déjà vu. But he has created a new time within the exhibition too: there are three pieces which work together to mark its passage; Time Piece which acts as a subtitle to the exhibition and offers a different cycle depending on whether you are inside or outside of the gallery, Half Life which keeps the pulse of the living and imitated, and the unravelling melodies of Ravel in Ravel/Unravel which seem hardly to succumb at all to the slow process of aging.
Forgetting to remember comes to signify our displacement from time as we know it. Our momentary existence within a new ‘time’: directed by Melvin and comprised of a series of philosophical concepts; locks us into a reflection upon the inexplicable, the existential and the mundane.