Hari Kunzru’s Memory Palace at the V&A

by rebeccaswirsky

From Proust to recent Man Booker winner Julian Barnes, memory is a juicy topic – ironically so given its insubstantiality. Now author Hari Kunzru questions what happens when we’re denied this most intimate of our possessions. At the V&A, Kunzru has teamed up with 20 international artists and graphic novelists to turn his specially commissioned novella on the subject into a 3-D immersive graphic novel.

Installation image of Sky Arts Ignition: Memory Palace at the V&A.
Installation image of Sky Arts Ignition: Memory Palace at the V&A. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Kunzru presents us with a dystopian future world in which memory and data are wiped in a planet-wide magnetic storm. Mark-making and the written word have also been banned by a totalitarian regime called ‘The Thing’. Kunzru’s incarcerated narrator believes that ‘without memory, civilisation is doomed’. Painstakingly using his prison cell as a physical repositary for memories, he revives the ancient art of ‘Ars Memoria’, or ‘Mnemonics’. Thus the ‘Memory Palace’ is created – an apt name for a museum. As Kunzru tells our group of journalists at the press view, “The V&A is one of the world’s great treasure-houses, which seemed important to whatever I was going to write.”

Installation image of Sky Arts Ignition: Memory Palace at the V&A.
Installation image of Sky Arts Ignition: Memory Palace at the V&A. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Writers are accustomed to having their words speak for themselves, and Kunzru’s novella is sold as a piece of stand-alone fiction in the V&A gift shop. Yet to become an exhibition, the story led to a collaborative process: the chinese-whispers responses of international artists, designers and graphic novelists, who offer multiple interesting slants. Architect CJ Lim has designed a dirge-grey space with embedded church-like naves and windows, allowing artists to offer visual responses to Kunzru’s text. The result is a mixed-media, walk-in ‘book’, merging artists and Kunzru’s versions of a dystopian future.

Installation image of Sky Arts Ignition: Memory Palace at the V&A.
Installation image of Sky Arts Ignition: Memory Palace at the V&A. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

“We realised it was a big ask,” says Laurie Britton-Newell, co-curator of the exhibition along with Ligaya Salzar. “We had to take into account visitors not interacting with the exhibition in a linear way, so Kunzru’s text needed to make sense wherever they stood. Pairing artists with Kunzru’s passages was a long process, but despite their wide range of backgrounds, the artists’ commonality was a strong engagement with narrative and words.”

Installation image of Sky Arts Ignition: Memory Palace at the V&A.
Installation image of Sky Arts Ignition: Memory Palace at the V&A. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

As no information labels accompany exhibits, visitors are offered a map of the exhibition, as well as a glossary of words in use through Kuzru’s text. Near the exhibition’s entrance, artists Isabel Greenberg, Némo Tral and collective Åbäke offer their take on a crucial point in Kunzru’s story. All three separately foreground The Shard to indicate how London’s modern sensibility has been shaped by recent architecture. And despite Kunzru stating (in the partnered Sky Arts documentary, aired June 18th) that his intended focus was the financial crisis and the demise of the NHS, medieval Christian iconography bleeds through many exhibits, with Jesus the martyr making more than one appearance. This is perhaps unsurprising, given Kunzru’s bible-like tone of language. In fact, female visitors may bristle at the largely male-centred traditionalism of the language, and rather archaic dearth of strong female characters.

Installation image of Sky Arts Ignition: Memory Palace at the V&A.
Installation image of Sky Arts Ignition: Memory Palace at the V&A. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Designer Jonny Kelly concludes the exhibition with a bang, developing a web-based drawing tool in which visitors are free to draw their own memories. Downloadable weekly as posters, they offer a dynamic way of combining the personal practise of storytelling and curating. As Britton Newell and Salazar state in their contextual essay accompanying Kunzru’s novella, ‘Memory Palace explores what happens when a story leaves the pages of a book and enters the gallery space.’

A nice premise. Given the exhibition’s many spinning plates, does it ring true? The answer is – nearly. Reading Kunzru’s novella (available for £12.99 in the V&A gift shop and £11.99 on Kindle) certainly is necessary to make more sense of the exhibits. And labels contextualising the artist’s different responses would have been truly in the spirit of the collaboration. Perhaps also each could have been presented with Kunzru’s all-important question posed in the Sky documentary, ‘if you could take only one memory, what would it be?’

This review was first published in June 2013 on the online Royal Academy of Arts Magazine.