Das Platforms / Contemporary Art

Memento Mori: Collective memory and the wounding image

by Naomi Riddle

02 Nov 2012

One of the fundamental preoccupations of the modern is with the disintegration between the public and private, and the collapse of traditional understandings of time, space and place, centre and margin. There is a contemporary focus on the tension between the individual and the collective, between the single and the whole. The image, both still and moving, is in itself directly associated with this bind, and the current proliferation of images and media runs parallel to the continuing breakdown between public and private. Drawing on the work of theorist Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida (1980), I want to argue that the image performs the function of a wound, an incision, a cut on the subject that leaves an ever-present mark, a scar that is not fully healed. As Barthes suggests, the still image is ‘an essence (of a wound), what cannot be transformed but only repeated.’[1] That is to say that the image performs a direct attack on the subject’s corporeality, the image is violent, aggressive: it ruptures coherent concepts of time and space, freezes the past, opens up scars, opens up memory as a destabilising force.

This notion of the image as wound is of particular importance when looking at visual media that directly engages with History, the archive, documentary, political and collective memory. It is this preoccupation that reveals the image as directly related to the disintegrating public/private divide, as fluid, transitory, as Barthes argues ‘the ‘private life’ is nothing but that zone of space, of time, where I am not an image, an object.’[2] I want to suggest that work that engages with collective memory allows for the most powerful incision on the subject, a cut that bleeds the individual’s own memory with the collective imaginary – a direct blend of public and private. Two films by the late Chris Marker (1921-2012) embody this understanding of the image and memory. La Jetee (1963) and Sans Soleil (1983), made twenty years apart, engage with notions of History, politics, memory, time, and death: they suggest the way the image opens up new understandings of temporality, the slippage between past, present and future.

The use of still images by Marker in La Jetee when charting the course of one man’s need to return to a single memory (a memory of a single image), in order to escape an apocalyptic landscape, self-reflexively highlights the image as a wound, as a complex mediation between memory/time/space. As Catherine Upton suggests in the essay Memory’s Apostle (2007), ‘the use of still photographs distils the essence of cinema’s appeal and its impossibility: the desire to fix that which is forever in motion, the desire to possess the presence of that which is forever absent.’[3] The film exposes the image as Roland Barthes suggests, ‘a clock for seeing,’ as that which has been but cannot be reclaimed, where time becomes ‘engorged,’ fluid, liquid.[4] La Jetee plays out this very personal understanding of time and memory, the ache of loss, the inability to reclaim and to ever hold fast to the image in its entirety, against a public and political background of war, torture, the disintegration of law, order and science. Marker seeks to highlight the way ‘the foolhardy experiment to look into the future ends in death.’[5] The film is as much a meditation on the image of death as it is of memory; these two concepts are interwoven. The memory that the protagonist wishes to return to is not one of peace and solace, but one of death, his own death, frozen in the image.

It is significant that the pervasive theme of death in the short film corresponds with Marker’s use of the still image, which is in itself a signifier of death. Barthes suggests ‘the terrible thing’ that lies beneath every photograph is ‘the return of the dead,’ and this is just what La Jetee reveals: the revolving return/resurrection of a dead man.[6] The audience is in turn wounded by what Barthes calls ‘asymbolic death’, where the Life/Death paradigm ‘is reduced to a simple click,’ the viewing subject’s own mortality is rendered through the objectified image.[7] Time, and subsequently memory, becomes circular rather than linear, continually moving between the beginning and end of the film, a perpetual cycle between the initial memory and the time traveller’s death, a bookended resurrection. Sans Soleil builds on these preoccupations, where moving image replaces still with collected footage of Iceland, Africa and Japan. The politics that are only underlying in La Jetee are brought to the fore in Sans Soleil and this brings an added layer to Marker’s representation of temporality and memory, but the theme of death, absence, loss remain. The voice-over narration and the footage is meandering, rhizomatic, unfixed, again it is a self-reflexive reference to temporality and memory. For me, Sans Soleil creates an ache, it is painful, nostalgic, public and private are interwoven, and most significantly it bruises, cuts open: it wounds.

The images sent to the unknown woman narrator from a freelance cameraman in Sans Soleil immediately trouble the boundaries between public and private, between collective and individual memories. The only clear narrative is how to place an individual image of three Icelandic children. This image bookends the film, and the narration suggests the function of the image from the outset:

‘The first image he told me about was of three children on a road in Iceland, in 1965. He said that for him it was the image of happiness, and he had tried several times to link it to other images, but it never worked. He wrote me, one day I’ll have to put it all alone at the beginning of a film with a long piece of black leader. If they don’t see happiness in the picture, at least they’ll see the black.’

Sans Soleil translates as Sunless, or Without Sun, and underlying this film is a dichotomy between the image and darkness, a reference to transition and mortality, and how these images will influence the viewer, how they will form and fashion memories outside of the screen.

There is no doubt that these images and scenes are personal, and yet they are also small fragments of ritual cultures that make comments on the very nature of politics, society, and the relation between the individual and the state. It is a view of History that is transitory, where the collective memory surrounding communism, socialism, war and revolution is brought to the fore. I want to take up Barthes’ understanding of the process of History and the image, as he argues:

‘Is History simply not that time when we were not born?...Thus the life of someone whose existence has somewhat preceded our own encloses in its particularity the very tension of History, its division. History is hysterical: it is constituted only if we consider it, only if we look at it – and in order to look at it, we must be excluded from it.’[8]

This is a breakdown between a public/collective understanding of History, of progression and the individual’s relation and memory of such History. Marker plays on this, particularly with the long sequences of Japanese rituals for the dead, for lost cats, for political disputes and new buildings. As in La Jetee, temporality is not linear, it is confused, the past slices into the present. This is even further confounded when the film is viewed today, as the film itself becomes a historical object, images of Japan, particularly Tokyo, and Northern Africa that now seem distant and irretrievable. Marker discusses his use of the political and collective memory: ‘What fires me is History, and politics interests me only to extent it represents a slice of History cut in the present.’[9] It is another wound, another incision on time, the image, and the viewer.

The very nature of Sans Soleil reaches out to the viewer, they are themselves caught up in their own interwoven memories, which then bounce back and inform the screen. It is a complexly interwoven web, as Catherine Lupton suggests, the film’s long sequences without narratorial intrusion ‘trace [and I want to add, question] the habits of our own inner processes of recollection, which condense, displace, plunge us abruptly into forgotton recesses of our past.’[10] For me, what marks the film is these long sequences: a woman sleeping on the train, debutantes talking on the phone to their families, the heat of the African desert, and commuters travelling through the turnstiles. What these images do is play out the process of real time passing, the passage and creation of living and collective memory. It is in this moment that the public/private divide is at its weakest. But this impact of the image is always self-reflexively referred to, the cameraman himself questioning the validity and significance of these images, ‘the last twenty fourth of a second.’

This violent power of the image in relation to collective memory, to ‘fill the sight by force,’ to undo notions of temporality, has continued to impact on visual media.[11] Just one example of this is the exhibition Liquid Archive at Monash University’s Museum of Art (MUMA) this year, which brought together international and local artists and collectives creating work on the nature of the modern archive. This exhibition draws on preoccupations similar to those of Chris Marker, which have now become even more pertinent with the proliferation and availability of images and film technology. Both essays in the exhibition catalogue suggest the continued preoccupation and significance of the image and memory, of unstable temporality, and the confused line between the public and private. As curator Geraldine Barlow  argues, ‘archives embody our collective social memory, encompassing the personal and the collective, the private and the institutional,’[12] whilst in her essay Liquid Archive: On Ambivalence, Julie Louise Bacon examines the continued focus by artists on the ‘intimate space of memory and the collective field of history.’[13] I want to argue that this focus is a contemporary one, and that visual media will continue to be a unique medium for engaging, destabilising and reinventing ideas of collective memory, history and time. It is the image’s ability to wound, to cut into the viewer’s subjectivity that further troubles these ideas. The narrator in Sans Soleil translates a Japanese text when discussing the notion of time, nostalgia and pain:

‘Who said that time heals all wounds? It would be better to say that time heals everything, except wounds. With time, the hurt of separation loses its real elements. With time, the desired body will soon disappear. And if the desiring body has already ceased to exist for the other then what remains is a wound. Disembodied.’

It is this essence that remains with the image: a wound and an absence – disembodied.


[1] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida , (London: Vintage Books, 2000 [1980]), p. 49

[2] p. 15

[3] Catherine Lupton, ‘Memory’s Apostle: Chris Marker, La Jetee , and Sans Soleil ’ in Criterion Collection (2007), p. 9

[4] Barthes, pp. 15, 91

[5] Samuel Douhaire; Annick Rivoire, ‘Marker Direct’ in Film Comment,  39.3 (2003), p. 38

[6]  Barthes, p. 9

[7]  p. 92

[8] Barthes, pp. 64-5

[9] Samuel Douhaire; Annick Rivoire, p. 39

[10] Lupton, p. 12

[11] Barthes, p. 91

[12] Geraldine Barlow, ‘Liquid Archive’ in Liquid Archive  (Monash University: MUMA, 2012), p. 99

[13] Julia Louise Bacon, ‘Liquid Archive: On Ambivalence’ in Liquid Archive  (Monash University: MUMA, 2012), p. 126