Emma Kay

May 1, 2001 - July 29, 2001

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Emma Kay confronts us with our culture’s desire to pinpoint an individual who can embody and authenticate the ideal of encyclopedic knowledge. Highlighting the effort and absurdity of flexing the mind muscle, she discloses the humor and beauty of its inescapable limitations. She explores the capacity to retrieve knowledge from memory in works like Shakespeare from Memory and The Future from Memory in order to address the fantasy of the human capacity to acquire universal knowledge.

About the Exhibition

By Jan Verwoert

When it comes to the capacity to retrieve knowledge from memory, our culture sets a high standard. Although we are surrounded by an ever-growing number of libraries, archives, and digital databanks, the brute exercise of the mind is still, paradoxically, rated as a key aspect of cultural competence. We have numerous ways of testing and measuring an individual’s ‘memory performance’: from memory training and recall tests to quiz shows. We seem obsessed with chasing the phantom of a master "memory performer" who actually embodies the ideal of encyclopedic knowledge. TV audiences marvel at child prodigies regurgitating complex number sequences from memory. The face of the first man to win the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire blockbuster quiz show was on the front page of every newspaper. When world chess champion Gary Kasparov fought (and lost) against the IBM chess computer Deep Blue in 1997, he set the classic example of a heroic human memory performer competing with a digital database. As the effort of exercising one’s mind is made more and more redundant by the accessibility and omnipresence of storage technologies, our culture clings to the fantasy of the human capacity to acquire universal knowledge.

It is in this cultural arena, where exercises of personal memory performance compete with fictions of total recall, that Emma Kay situates her conceptual projects. She conducts the experiments which take the paradoxical standards of our culture for real by carrying out personal memory performances in which she deliberately disconnects herself from available archives: in The Bible from Memory (1997) she chose to write down the content of the Bible without any recourse to the Bible itself or other reference material, relying solely on her memory. The summary is presented in a factual style as a simple text piece. The account, rendered in approximately sixty paragraphs on a single page, is visibly incomplete. In Shakespeare from Memory (1998), she reconstructed all twenty-six of Shakespeare’s plays. Employing a typeface conventionally used for film scripts, she gave a short synopsis of each play on a sheet of paper enclosed in a simple white frame. Most of the synopses contain fragmentary plot lines and quotes, but for some of the plays she could recall only the title. In these cases the rest of the page remains blank. More

Jan Verwoert is an art critic who lives in Hamburg. He is a contributor to Frieze, Springerin, Afterall, and Camera Austria

Hammer Projects are made possible by The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation and The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. Additional support is provided by the Los Angeles County Arts Commission and Peter Norton Family Foundation.


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