EMPATHIC COLLAGES OF A LOST TIME
- 8mm still frames reveal emotional childhood memories
Cretien van Campen, founder of Synesthetics Netherlands, author of The Proust Effect: The Senses as Doorways to Lost Memories and many other books and articles on the senses in art and science (Amsterdam)
Cindy Konits’ work with still frames from 8mm family film activates the senses with images revealing the emotional significance of episodes from her past, and our collective histories as well. The French novelist Marcel Proust has explored and described this phenomenon extensively in his magnum opus In Search of Lost Time, published between 1913 and 1927. Many are familiar with the key anecdote of how a Madeleine cake dipped in lime-flower tea transported him to his childhood and provided him with a grand feeling of happiness. However, the ‘Proust effect’, as it is named nowadays, is more than that. As Proust explained in the volume of ‘Lost Time’, it is about the power of all the senses (e.g. seeing, hearing, smelling, touching) to evoke lost emotional memories and potentially change one’s life, self-image, even perceived identity. The Proust effect refers to the vivid reliving of events from the past through multiple sensory stimuli. Proust described the experience as meaningful and tangible transportations in time - as it were - standing with one leg in the present and one leg in the past.
In the last hundred years many scientists have tried to elicit and control the powerful Proust Effect in the laboratory setting, but with little results. Due to the involuntary and unpredictable character of sense memories, the moments of bliss, as Proust described them, did not appear, or fled like quicksilver from the scientists’ instruments of measurement. Artists have been more successful evoking the Proust effect using a variety of visual, musical and fragrant stimuli in their work. Konits’ ‘Memoire Involontaire: The Essence of the Past’ images vividly elicit the Proust Effect in their evocation of the emotional life of characters in her family history from quarter inch film frames. The work demonstrates the power of art to elicit personal and emotional childhood memories in viewers. The images are not factual reports of a precise time in the past but show an emotion-laden feeling of an era that has passed. A sense of comfort and security arises viewing Konits’ images of a toddler in the surf or walking in the sand, hands held by mother overhead. Similarly, a diffuse, free-floating anxiety might be aroused by viewing a young boy’s expression of consternation at a family holiday party.
The images give a sense of history. Even though the events represented are from a personal history, it feels like a history of lost youth that we all relate to and share to some degree. There is a sense of movement in the photographs. The images are in fact stills, but they evoke emotions, in the original sense of being moved (from e- ‘out’ + movere ‘move’ = emovare in Latin). Moreover, the visuals evoke tactile sensations, making the past almost tangible. This is most salient in the images of the playing children at the beach. The ‘Memoire Involontaire’ project images invite the viewer in to share a vivid reliving of events from the past through multiple sensory stimuli. in a meaningful and tangible transportation in time, as Proust described. The images portray Proustian multisensory memories and emotions hidden in the brain. What strikes me most is the sense of caring in her images of family life, even though a slightly mysterious element is also evident there.
Proust’s remembrance of love for his caring mother and family is a recurring theme in the sense memories he described. There is even a scientific explanation for the essential role of caring in the Proust effect. Sense memories are made in an evolutionary primary part of the human brain, known as the limbic system. This part of the brain controls emotional functions such as caring and also empathy, the fight or flight response, fear, and love. Not surprisingly, the emotional center (the amygdalae) is located here as well as the control unit for gathering memories (the hippocampus).
One might wonder how a sense memory can be constructed in the limbic system? It is not a photographic recollection of an event in the past, but rather a collage of emotional feelings that are associated with images, sounds, and other impressions from youth. In the perception of a child there are no sharp dividing lines between reality and fantasy. Children store important events differently than adults. Before the age of twelve, the senses are important tools for a child in laying down impressions and experiences. It is only later that the child develops sufficient language ability to record events completely in a narrative form. Konits’ work captures Proust’s idea of the collage of impressions comprising the compilation of memory in the child, as opposed to a record of multiple pictures and events experienced by an adult. Proust distanced himself from the idea that the memory was a sort of photographic archive of images. He believed that different senses combined to create living observations and memories of the precious lost time of youth.
August 17. 2021, Amsterdam