Karen Hanmer @ Artemisia Gallery
Section 19, Township 104, Range 28, Fairbault County
January 31 – February 23, 2001
The rationale for Karen Hanmer’s exhibit is unequivocal: to tell the story of her immigrant grandparents and their progeny, the family’s connection to its Minnesota land, and the artist’s connection to both. The story is not without interest. Yet it is the larger issues that unfold as the story is told – about the elusiveness of memory, its effect on our conceptions of time, and the rituals that shape the act of remembering – that give Hanmer’s exhibit its significance.
The exhibit is arranged around three works: Bequest, a flag book; Homestead, a hand-cranked scroll; and Section 19, Township 104, Range 28, 30 floor-to-ceiling cloth panels hung in five rows of six panels. Bequest introduces the exhibit’s subject. The book, whose pages are interleaved like grains on a stalk of wheat, combines black and white family and farm photos with a spare text about the grandparents (recounting from where they emigrated, where they met, how many descendents they had). The paucity of information implies these few sentences describe the family’s only uncontested memories.
Homestead, the hand-cranked scroll, also incorporates family and farm photos, but the text is gone, as is the conventional linear structure of narrative. Here, the artist superimposes family photos over blurred images of farmscapes shot from a speeding car. Some of the photos have been printed so lightly their subjects dematerialize into specters of memory that resist being fixed. The scroll is constructed so it can be started at any point in the story and unwound in either of two directions. Family history and time, the artist suggests, are continuous but not necessarily directional.
Memory, of course, is what gives history and time its continuity. Memory can also compress history and time, an idea Hanmer explores with elegance in her cloth panel installation. Arranged in a grid that evokes the square parcels of land on which homesteaders raised their crops, the installation is a family tree of sorts. Each row of the white, nine-foot high panels has been printed in black ink with family names. The grandparents are on the first row and their progeny (214 thus far) on succeeding rows. Hanmer varies the type and transparency of her cloth – which stirs and flickers in the viewer’s wake – so that the viewer sees each name, ghosting one on top of the other, when standing in front of the work. In an instant, the gap between generations dissolves, as individual memory becomes collective memory.
Each work in the exhibit requires a heightened level of engagement – paging, unwinding, walking around – to be experienced in totality, which transforms the act of viewing into a ritual of remembering. Rituals also circumscribe the creation of our memories (think scrapbooks, photo albums, diaries). The artist underscores this point in the meticulous, almost obsessive, way she crafts and presents each work – using materials whose shelf life is limited, particularly when handled repeatedly.
Hanmer’s earlier exhibitions examined apocryphal recollections of her mother. Section 19, Township 104, Range 28, Fairbault County finds the artist digging deeper in her genealogical excavations. In the process, she expands her ruminations about memory to explore not only what we remember but how.