By Kai Mira
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
– T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding
Two years ago a tortured man skipped town in the middle of the night, and with that a love affair concluded in a way that broke my heart. It nearly broke my mind as well.
In an effort to process the weights of loss that comes with any ending, and to transmute the shades of confusion and grief that come particularly with dishonest ones, I took to building cairns.
Humans build cairns as markers: a pile of stones to catch the eye of a traveller toward an otherwise overlooked turn in a mountain trail; to pin the presence of a human body in the landscape in a visible way; to mark the site of a burial; and as a burial mound itself. All of these functions were at play in my practice: I marked a trail across the landscape of our memories by leaving real cairns in the places we had inhabited together. Slowly I began to build them wherever I found myself thinking toward him in any significant way: as a way to externalise these internal processes, so that I may move beyond them.
The cairns became a mnemonic bridge between my present solitude in that physical place, and the pasts in which we experienced those places together. They allowed a way to acknowledge the overwhelming moments in which I was not alone in my head, yet denied his physical presence. It allowed a way for me to acknowledge him and leave him behind. The process of gathering those stones, and of placing them one atop the other, all held within the passage of time in which this activity occurred, was the alchemy that transmuted the base metals of grief and pining to the gold of forgiveness. Here were the places I buried a part of his memory each time, the places in which I marked my passage through this process, and the places in which I have now started to celebrate in memory. For, as these cairns began as a memorialisation of a loss, they also chart a journey of growth.
I have left a trail of cairns upon the landscapes of Earth as well as my mind. And through this highly personalised, accidentally begun, form of Practice as Research, I have begun to draw conclusions on the ways humans negotiate the processes of memory and the role of the human body within these processes. Practice as Research, or PaR, is a research methodology taking shape within the liberal arts, in which art-making is consciously engaged with as a means of research into a phenomenon. It operates in the form of what cognitive scientist Daniel Hofstadter terms a ‘strange-loop’.
For example, in order to understand more about the ways humans negotiate memory, one engages in ones’ own rituals and performance praxes. These praxes are centred on personal negotiations of remembering and forgetting. These experiences are then articulated, through the art-making process, product and residue, as well as through the language of simultaneously-engaged theory on the subject one is exploring. The bodies of theory a PaR researcher works with informs the way the art-making practice is articulated in relation to both itself and the subject, and in turn, the art-making practice, and observations and articulations around it, inform the way the theory is negotiated, and renegotiated. Thus new theory is born through art-making, and new art-making born from theory.
My work arises through movement within the physical and mnemonic landscapes and explores the edges of things: the edges between reality and fiction, pasts and presences, and primarily how these are negotiated through the dissonance between performance practices and their forms of archiving. In this case, it is the act of building the cairn, not the cairn itself that functions as memorial. The cairn is just residue. It is the cairn that can be photographed, and thus legitimised through archival processes. While skilful negotiations between these articulations of the practice and the ephemeral practices themselves are important, I have found dwelling in the liminal spaces the most generative.
The two year cairn-building process which has only recently found its title, is one of my first and most extensive interrogations into the phenomenon of Liminality and its uses. For this article, I will focus on discussing this work in relation to observations on relationships between spaces of Memory, and the two places they are primarily negotiated in: that of the (document) Archive and the (embodied) Repertoire.
Essentially, humans have developed two main ways of keeping track of their pasts. The first way of recording past is through the form of what performance theorist Diana Taylor terms Repertoire. The repertoire is a performed body of memory, and an essentially oral and embodied tradition. In its simplest form, it is the stories and ritual choreographies we pass down from one generation to the next, in order to understand who we are and our places in the worlds. Memory, in the Repertoire, is embodied: you carry your narrative of the past in your body through the choreographies of performance and rituals you know and the stories you have learned and may share in your turn. These are the vocabularies we carry in our bodies.
The second way humans have come to remember is through the concept of Archive, as put forward by philosopher Jacques Derrida. In the logocentric, materialistic Anthropocene, the Archive is the favoured way of negotiating memory; if something is written down or physicalised in the form of an artefact that exists beyond the human body, it carries a legitimacy denied to the spoken word.
Pasts recorded in a document- a book, a picture – are more easily considered fact. These artefacts, stored in the Archive, are drawn on by scholars, historians and other members of our society with the social authorisation, when forming historical narratives. Repertoire takes on a flexibility that our society with its post-Enlightenment hangover finds difficult to deal with. Storytelling practices, in fact, even encourage that with each retelling you ‘throw some words away’ in order to maintain the voracity of the story’s healing and acculturating function. The Repertoire, then, is an internalised, embodied memory practice, and the Archive a static, externalised one.
My research has led me to the awareness that an understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of both forms of memorialisation praxis, both Archival and Repertoiric forms, are important in order to maximise the potential of our social human body to move forward consciously toward sustainable futures: both with ourselves, and with each other. A repertoire practice, the cairn building, led me to transmute at the level of my heart: my body feels different toward my experiences with this man as a result of this practice. Coming to terms with articulating that practice to myself and others, as well as negotiating its legitimising within the Institution through embracing forms of Archiving, has helped me extrapolate the effects of this repertoiric engagement toward the general human body. Through Archival process, I can map to domains otherwise closed to me.
A body requires both a heart and a head. The heart (repertoire) is not complete without the head (archive), and the head cannot function without its heart. They are both two different forms of brain. But neither can function without hands; a form of being in the world centred wholly toward not the past, or future, but the present moment. That is the learning that has occurred through this project. Through self-observation practice, I came to understand that the act of arriving in a place, the choreographies of collection, movement and (re)placement of stones…
These all left indelible marks upon the landscapes I wished to preserve in memory, which ironically altered their ontological nature. Through my efforts to preserve them, I changed them. And through changing them, I changed. Through an essentialised form of PaR – doing and reflecting upon that doing and then doing some more ad infinitum- I have come to understand that, at the end of it all, Too Much Remembering Leads to Forgetting.
This is the use of memory:
For liberation—not less of love but expanding
Of love beyond desire, and so liberation
From the future as well as the past.
– T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding
 Pinkola Estes, C. 1995. Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman
About the artist:
Kai Mira is a hybrid human female practicing from the planet Earth, in the Galaxy known as the Milky Way
Image: Kai Mira – Kleinplaas Dam Redhill 1 May 2014