Should we mess around with our memories...To Create Art?

Arabian coffee dregs wiping out memories

Faten Sallameh, a Syrian artist whose artistic crafts have such an attractive exquisite feature and strong aroma, yes you have heard it well: aroma. An aroma that conquers all the visitors of Faten Sallameh’s house, which must hide, in the crooks of their memories, the masterpieces of Arabian coffee grinds.

Usually desperate housewives use coffee residue at the bottom of their darkly traced cups as fortune telling signs. However, Faten Salameh, a housewife, far from being desperate, has shaped her fortune by the usage of Arabian coffee leftovers in a very innovative way. She transforms that transient domestic material to artistic masterpieces, forming marvelous sceneries with black coffee scraps on a white blank solid surface, not only are the colors paradoxical, but the concept as well_ altering a perishable substance to illustrious artistries.

That concept led to a puzzling notion which brings attention to the longevity of her art crafts raising the question: why to work for long hours and then demolish everything in one duster wipe? It seems really frustrating. However, Salameh's attitude toward the durability of her work is far from being unsatisfying, as she explained that some pieces might take a couple of hours, whereas others take several days, but all are going to be sponged up and absorbed only in the memory card of her camera; since she documents all the stages of the work process in short videos. In addition to making new creative designs from modifying her work shots to new photographs with photo editing applications.

No memory effect

The psychological effect of erasing everything over and over again, and redrawing; might be compared to the battery/memory effect, which is a reduction in the longevity of a rechargeable battery's charge, due to incomplete discharge in previous uses. Nevertheless, some types of nickel batteries can develop a memory effect when only partially discharged before recharging. In contrast, others are considered to have no memory effect, and might live longer. Does Salameh, who completely discharges her white surface of those heavy black greds, want to lengthen her art work existence by totally eliminating them? A query far from finding answers in Faten's memory, but might find echoes in some psychological studies.

Do we have the right to erase artistic memories?

Can we erase memories? Memories do not only make part of our consciousness, they also leave a trace in our unconsciousness. Yet, new research shows that being keen to forget an unwanted memory can help erase this unconscious trace. Wanting to get rid of bad memories is certainly a justified act as a defense mechanism, whether consciously or unconsciously done, to protect our good recollections of past events. Yet, this evokes the following interrogation: Can artistic works manifest bad memories in the subconscious mind of the artist that he or she has an urge to persistently erase old memories and draw out new ones?

A core objective of art is immortality, seeking an everlasting existence through the physical personification of the art craft, to the extent of considering the artistic item as an independent persona away from its initial creator (the artist). Thus, some will question the creator's right to execute this autonomous artistic piece.


Unintentional memory loss, can preserve initial memory?

However, Salameh is not the only artist that wipes out memory to create new art. Lonni Sue Johnson has done it, nonetheless not on purpose. An artist of precisely detailed, often witty drawings, who had sudden brain damage that almost killed her and resulted in a complete memory loss and incapability to create new memories, resulting in a considerable loss of the cultural and intellectual knowledge she once held. Nonetheless, the personality of her art—the gracefully curving lines, the playful sense of humor—began to announce itself anew as she recovered. Prof. Barbara Landau has showcased Lonni Sue Johnson’s life story at John Hopkins University to investigate the connection of memory to art. Her research led to fascinating results: despite the fact of Johnson's amnesia and total blankness of her former skills and talents, her post-trauma art work preserved her personality as if we have innate skills and abilities.[i]

Overemployment of Memory to create art

Conversely, other artists over employ their memories to create art. For instance we find an excessive use of visual memory and reminiscence of detailed real features in Sarah Shamma portraits, an eminent Syrian painter, who focuses on death and humanity expressed mainly through self-portraits and children painted in a life-like visceral way. Shamma art work is a recollection of realistic life and photographs, creating oil paintings reflecting deep emotional memoirs. Her portrayal resembles retention of memories inside the frame, yet does that prevent memory loss or damage? Or is it in the first place a real representation of those memories?  Do artists manipulate memories playing on the rope of reformulating past memories despite their realistic outlook, and/or, in the case of Shamma,  to generate new memories? [ii]

Is tampering with our memories a good idea?

Whether wiped out or extensively used, memories have persistently been used in art and will continue to shape not only individual artistic works, but will, as well, mark and define the collective memory of a whole epoch, which might take their nomination like: the Renaissance or Impressionism.  However, researchers might have deeper interrogations regarding interfering in our memories. The lead researcher, MarijnKroes, a neuroscientist at Radboud University in the Netherlands, found that by purposely timing ECT bursts[iii], it is possible to target and disrupt patients' memories of a disturbing episode in their life[iv].

Such findings highlight serious issues concerning tampering with our memories, aren't memories a valued and integrated part of who we are? Our actions, our personalities, our very notions of self are shaped on the experiences we have had and on the memories we have collected, then to delete our memories would be like destroying a part of ourselves.


Lama Alhassanieh