Özlem Altin, Meditation (frozen river), 2014, video stills - For the complete slideshow, click on the first thumbnail below.

Özlem Altin, Meditation (frozen river), 2014 For the complete slideshow, click on the first thumbnail below.


Özlem Altin

*1977 born in Goch, lives and works in Berlin.

Over recent years, the Leopold-Hoesch-Museum Düren (2012) and the Fondazione Morra Greco Neapel (2010) have, among others, devoted solo exhibition to the artist. In addition, Altin has participated frequently in group exhibition, as at the Bielefelder Kunstverein (2013), in the GASK Central Bohemian Gallery Kutná Hora (2013), and the Museum für Gegenwartskunst Siegen (2012). Özlem Altin is also the founding publisher of Orient Press. Website of the artist: http://ozlemaltin.com

Juana Berrío

*1979 in Bogotá/Colombia, lives and works in New York and San Francisco. 

Juana Berrío is an independent curator and writer. She has worked as an Education Fellow at the New Museum in New York (2012) and at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis (2010-2011) and served as a curatorial assistant for Massimiliano Gioni (2013 Venice Biennale). Before moving to the United States in 2006, Berrío taught art history at Universidad Jorge Tadeo Lozano and Italian culture and language at Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá. She earned a BFA from of La Sapienza - Accademia di Belle Arti di Roma in Rome, an MFA from the University of Minnesota, and an MA in Curatorial Studies from Bard College.

Shaping the Void: Memorialization and Memory of Trauma

by Juana Berrío

History is not only the record of the past; it is also a series of interpretations and narratives that are relevant to a present moment. Functioning as a system that selects, filters, and contextualizes information, history works as a bridge that connects and updates the past through the present and the present through the past. It preserves what it considers needs to be remembered and discards what it considers needs to be forgotten. However, there are events in history that not only resist being forgotten but, simply, resist temporality in general. This is the case of trauma. In this regard, and for the purpose of this text, I want to talk about contemporary art exhibitions as contexts where traumatic experiences are not necessarily theorized and exhibited as monolithic historical facts but, instead, are presented considering and embodying the particular conditions of trauma’s temporality.

Traumatic distress affects individuals, but it can also have a significant impact on social groups, from small communities to entire nations. Violent conflict, loss, and, therefore, trauma are constantly experienced around the world, and art is not indifferent to it. Whether reacting against violence, or changing the way history has been told, or trying to re-enact traumatic events, or, simply, attempting to create an abstraction of them, art has the ability to establish different relationships with trauma’s complex layers and paths. Recognizing trauma as an unresolved effect caused by a particular event, instead of as a conclusive fact that belongs to a particular chronological narrative, we begin to understand the belated and repetitive nature of trauma and, at the same time, the inescapable asynchronicity between its origins and its material manifestation.

Trauma is never a primal state or a starting point. On the contrary, it is consequential; it is always the aftermath of a previous experience. Etymologically, trauma comes from the Greek »trayma«, which means wound or perforation.1 It can be considered both a tangible and an intangible wound. Its temporality, however, is not only defined by the fact that this wound is the product of an earlier experience but, also, by the particular asynchronicity between the moment when the traumatic event takes place and the moment when trauma is actually experienced. Explained by Cathy Caruth in »Unclaimed Experience: Trauma and the Possibility of History«, »trauma describes an overwhelming experience of sudden, or catastrophic events, in which the response to the event occurs in the often delayed, and uncontrolled repetitive occurrence of hallucinations and other intrusive phenomena.«2 According to Freud, processing trauma involves different stages and, to explain this process, he used the example of an accident:

»It may happen that someone gets away, apparently unharmed, from the spot where he has suffered a shocking accident, for instance a train collision. In the course of the following weeks, however, he develops a series of grave psychical and motor symptoms, which can be ascribed only to his shock or whatever else happened at the time of the accident. He has developed a »traumatic neurosis.« This appears quite incomprehensible and therefore a novel fact.«3

As stated by Caruth, what is truly striking about the accident victim’s experience of the event is that the person seems to have not been fully conscious during the accident and gets away apparently unharmed.4 Such asynchronicity between the moment when the accident takes place and the moment when trauma is experienced or, when trauma is finally materialized, is the matter I want to focus on here.

Psychology studies, in fact, explain two different reactions individuals have when dealing with post-traumatic stress and, therefore, with the belated resistance to forgetting the traumatic experience. The first reaction is explained by the Freudian approach of interpretation by »association.« This can be considered a reaction in which the individual unconsciously chooses a specific element (image, smell, sound, texture, etc.) from the original traumatic scene in order to be able to return to the event.5 The second approach comes from Jung’s contribution to understanding interpretation through »archetypical symbols.« These symbols can either be a product of the fantasies of the individual’s internal world or can be archetypical symbols that constantly connect the present with the past.6 According to Jung, archetypes are innate, universal prototypes of ideas and may be used to bring together observations via interpretation.7 In other words, to interpret something via associations means to follow connections or bonds between sensations, ideas, or memories.8 While to embark in the search for the origins of something involves drawing upon archetypal symbols that might not belong to a specific event, but are present in the collective unconscious.

Thinking of the curatorial methods implemented in art exhibitions, we can recognize that some art institutions create exhibitions that follow the interpretation by association model, while other ones are more interested in creating exhibitions motivated by the continuous search for origins through archetypical symbols. Within this context of the way exhibitions engage with trauma, I want to introduce two different curatorial models: memory and memorialization.

Even though the notions of »memory« and »memorialization« share the same conceptual roots, I believe they function in opposite ways. While the act of constructing »memory« is based on the idea of »remembering« something that is not considered a conclusive truth, »memorials« function more as »reminders« of what has been somehow officially acknowledged. In my opinion, the act of remembering is exactly the opposite of dismembering: it is the active—and often imaginative—attempt to bring all the parts together. In the same sense, I consider that the act of re-minding (re- »again« + mind) involves putting something in mind again; it involves repeating to ourselves something we already know. Therefore, the nature of memory is to recollect and the nature of memorials is to preserve.

Thinking of these two ways of approaching memory and trauma from the perspective of curatorial practice, we can find, on one hand, exhibitions functioning as platforms for constructing a permanent and monumental image of something considered historical, the same way »memorials« do. These exhibitions tend to serve as sites that commemorate, again and again, the immutable character of previously asserted historical events. This is usually done through the utilization and association of symbols that produce both a collective immortalization of the event and a context for the recurrent celebration of its remembrance.

On the other hand, we can find exhibitions that prioritize »memory« over commemoration, working as platforms that highlight the mutable and impermanent character of history’s temporality. These exhibitions tend to avoid chronology and approach history by celebrating memory’s unstable and unverified (and unverifiable) narratives rather than trying to declare a unified voice for it. By prioritizing an ever-evolving process of re-membering, these platforms refuse to accept a permanent image, historical version, unique path, or singular research approach. They remain motivated by a constant search for multiple, plural, and simultaneous versions of what we can call »memory«.

At this point, I want to clarify that I don’t believe that one of these two curatorial approaches is necessarily better than the other one. On the contrary, I consider the existence and coexistence of both methods and purposes as fundamental: to »re-mind« as a means to commemorate and to »re-member« as a form of investigation. However, I think there is a necessary question that needs to be considered when thinking of memory and/or memorialization from the exhibition-making perspective: how does an exhibition can materialize and open up a dialogue around trauma without becoming a monolithic lineal narrative?

One of the reasons why I am interested in focusing on trauma’s temporality is because, by doing so, the literal representation of trauma or the traumatic experience can be left aside, revealing the complex behavioral pattern of trauma itself. This is precisely the element that, I believe, needs to be embraced when attempting to materialize trauma in an exhibition context. Whether exhibitions use the memorialization or the memory approach, they should be conceptually and physically informed either by the permanent, repetitive or ever-evolving spirit of trauma’s temporality, rather than by an assertive storyline of historical facts. An art exhibition of this kind has the potential of being an enriching and refreshing experience when the art objects and the theoretical agenda are not explicitly articulated as a conclusive statement or literal message. This being said, I’m not arguing against denouncing or exposing the actual sources or responsible entities that may have caused any traumatic experience. This is usually more interestingly and beautifully expressed through the subjective perspective of the artist in the works themselves, which can be further developed through a thoughtful parallel mediation program. This is why I think that the main curatorial goal of an exhibition that intends to materialize trauma shouldn’t be to present explanations, narratives or facts visually or verbally. On the contrary, the curatorial method of an exhibition of this kind should be mostly focused on examining, revealing, and problematizing the »modus operandi«, rather than the content, of trauma and its rather complex and indefinable ways of manifesting itself. The natural refusal trauma imposes before anyone who attempts to retell or reconstruct its origins and nature, becomes the actual path that connect us with it. And, in the case of art exhibitions, artists and art institutions have the possibility of using this very inaccessibility as a new way to understand and materialize it. After all, the very impossibility of accessing trauma is what becomes a new way of making and thinking. It is during the process of discovering the ways in which understanding breaks down that creativity can avoid any literal representation of trauma, embracing the multiple and intricate patterns of its behavior.


1 Trauma search. »Online Etymology Dictionary.« www.etymonline.com/index.php (accessed January 2014)
2 Caruth, Cathy. »Unclaimed Experience: Trauma and the Possibility of History.« Yale French Studies, No. 79, Literature and the Ethical Question: 1991. 181-192.
3 Ibid. 184.
4 Ibid. 187.
5 Jones, Ernest. »The life and works of Sigmund Freud«. Penguin Books Ltd. 1993.
6 Jung, Carl. »Man and his symbols.« New York: Doubleday & Co., Inc. 1964
7 Boeree, C. George. »Carl Jung«, on Personality Theory.
http://web.archive.org/web/20060206030011/http://www.ship.edu/~cgboeree/jung.html (accessed January 2014)
8 Association search. »Merriam Webstern Dictionary«, 
http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/association (accessed January 2014)

Agamben, Giorgio. »The Witness« Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive. MIT Press. New York: 1999. 15-39.
Caruth, Cathy. »Unclaimed Experience: Trauma and the Possibility of History.« Yale French Studies, No.79, Literature and the Ethical Question: 1991. 181-192.
Caruth, Cathy. »Trauma, Exploration in Memory.« The Johns Hopkins University Press. Baltimore: 1995. 155.
Chrystov-Bakargiev, Carolyn. »On the destruction of Art – Conflict and Art, or Trauma and the art of healing.« dOCUMENTA(13) 100 Notes – 100 thoughts No.040. Osfildern: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2011.
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Jung, Carl. »Man and his symbols.« New York: Doubleday & Co., Inc. 1964.
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