Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Art of History

Marian Maguire, 2005, Shrewd Odysseus finds his bearings
while Tawhirimatea, half brother of Poseidon, looks on

The mnemon epitomised the Greek's memory powers, as someone practised in the art of memory, remembering without need to resort to recording in any way. Mnemons worked in the courts, as recollectors of proceedings, writing nothing down, versed in the skills of total recall. Beyond the courts, they were the attendants of mythical figures, acting as their supplementary memory banks.

Marian Maguire, 2002, Achilles carries Penthesilea through Doubtful Sound (Auckland City Art Gallery)

Following along behind Achilles was, therefore, a mnemon, who had intricate knowledge of the complex tapestry of the hero's life. As a mnemic prosthesis, the attendant issued reminders of the potential consequences of certain actions. For example, a mnemon was appointed to remind Achilles not to kill a son of Apollo, as if he did so he would in turn be killed. This particular mnemonic act was flawed, with the reminder not taking place as required, and the mnemon's life taken instead as a consequence.

Marian Maguire, 2007, Kupe and Herakles dispute the whereabouts of the Pass while Julius Haast affects Disinterest

Epic works such as the Iliad were recited by the mnemons, whose memory training prepared them for their role as cultural repositories, as archives of myth and lore. And in Maori waiata the connections to a mythical past, as well as the navigational routes to areas of harvest, places of pounamu, the loci of the metaphysical moments, were recalled and activated in song, in incantation. Like the phenomenon of the mnemon, the remembering was alive in the ether, not frozen on the page or in a vitrine.

Marian Maguire, 2005, A New Zealander by Parkinson and Ajax by Exekias play draughts (Auckland City Art Gallery)

The role of rememberer, whether attending to the broad sweep of history or the particular history of one's assigned mythical hero, is at a point of creative fusion. Insistently pushing upon memory is forgetting, and the mnemon may draw a veil over a forgotten moment by means of a crafted apparent truth. And at this point, history and story telling coalesce, myth and truth ebb and flow, and the mnemon moves elusively through the labyrinth of memory ...

"...reality is a shell game. Our writing should be too..."

Michael Taussig (2006) Walter Benjamin's Grave

(For more of Marian Maguire's work, see

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