AboutThe National Maritime Museum examines the ways in which human beings interact with the sea, stars and time à¯¿½ immemorial phenomena that help us understand our place in the world. The Museumà¯¿½s explorations of these relationships expose the subjectivities that form the myths of history as a remembered, rather than as a documented, concept. Such distinctions are at the heart of Esther Shalev-Gerzà¯¿½s artistic practice. For the last 20 years the Paris-based artist has been exploring the nature of democracy and the politics of public space, unpacking relationships between collective and personal memory, and mining anecdotes that influence and construct history.
Echoes in Memory responds to the enigmatic history of the Queenà¯¿½s House. On first visiting the Queenà¯¿½s House Shalev-Gerz was struck by the à¯¿½impressive emptinessà¯¿½ of the Great Hall, a perfect cube that rises through the centre of the Houseà¯¿½s north side. On the completion of the House in 1638 as a private à¯¿½house of delightà¯¿½ for Queen Henrietta Maria, the Italian painter Orazio Gentileschi was commissioned to decorate the ceiling of the Great Hall. This series of nine paintings, Allegory of Peace and the Arts under the English Crown, shows the female figure of Peace surrounded by 23 other women holding objects alluding to subjects that include astronomy, victory, reason, music and arithmetic. Removed in the early 18th century, the paintings (somewhat altered) now fill the hall ceiling of Marlborough House, London.
The starting point for Echoes in Memory is a series of filmed interviews with people who have researched and worked in the building. Shalev-Gerz opens each exchange by recounting what she has learned from the previous speaker. The respondents dispute ghost stories, imagine the space as a contemporary à¯¿½house of delightà¯¿½, recall historical facts and describe the unclear history of Gentileschià¯¿½s paintings. Shalev-Gerz recalls: à¯¿½In asking questions about the stories, I was inevitably led to another anecdote, to another personal point of view, and to another link with the building and its history. I was interested not only in what the individuals told me but also in how they relayed each tale à¯¿½ their à¯¿½ways of operatingà¯¿½, how they expressed themselves and how they personally became implicated in their discourses.
On a pair of screens the respondents can be seen silently listening to the artist, all the while wordlessly communicating with subjects seated within, or looking into, the Great Hall. Behind each sitter computer-generated figures can be seen in the background. Alluding to Gentileschià¯¿½s allegories and to the subjective nature of history, each of these sculptural constructions has been inspired by women whose appearance and activities have inspired Shalev-Gerz à¯¿½ artists, writers, figures from popular culture and intimate friends. These figures are also shown in 24 photographs placed around the Hall, echoing Gentileschià¯¿½s allegorical women à¯¿½ however, this time the generic representations are replaced with specific and subjective figures.
The words of each conversation reappear, detached from the images of the interviewees, in a murmured soundtrack that fills the Great Hall with a continuous discourse of fragments of history, rumours, dreams and interpretations of the architecture. On listening, it becomes impossible to dissociate facts from fables. Echoes in Memory proposes that history operates as a continuous line of contingencies communicated by unreliable narrators. Just like memory, history is personal, political, collective, fragmented, and always influenced by the present. Echoes in Memory creates a space for reflection on the present and on the past, opening up the ways that we understand our place in the world, inviting those who encounter the work not only to look and listen but to engage and ask questions.