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Writing > Essays

Remembrance of Things Past, Present, and Future

I was on a cross-town bus through a city that was new to me. I would be staying for only two months, not long enough to call it home. I looked out the bus window at unfamiliar places, trying to map this new territory, but each site reminded me of another place. My eyes were seeing the present; my mind was seeing the past. It probably was not a coincidence that I had decided to read Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past during those two months away from home. This place was nothing like Combray, the air was not filled with the smell of freshly baked madeleines. How was it possible that Proust’s memories were reaching into my own, bridging the gaps of time, gender and culture? How was it that memory, highly personal and malleable, could be made into a subject matter common to anyone? There are many artists who have used their pasts both to lead us into their lives and to re-examine our own. When these bits of life stories are made into artists’ books, we can read them as if they were diaries. We can hold these intimacies in our hands, turn the pages and enter our own psychological space.

The places we have known do not belong only to the world of space on which we map them for our own convenience. None of them was ever more than a thin slice, held between the contiguous impressions that composed our life at the time.1

Laison Tong exposes thin slices of the past in Homing2 a small Coptic-sewn volume the size of a Polaroid picture. The book is a memory photo album of places the artist has lived. It is something private, yet shared with us. The square, sepia-toned photographs show bits of buildings, a yard, a neighborhood. Every other page is UV Ultra paper, a translucent veil through which we see the images. The paper acts as a physical metaphor for the veil of memory. In order to see the picture more clearly, you pull aside the veil or turn the page. The place is no longer the same. Now in sharp focus, it has its own daily reality that is harsher than we thought it before. Simple texts are printed on the translucent paper, beginning with the address of each building. The specificity of the address anchors the memory bits, which also float through the page: “always smelled like rain on the second floor.” We may not know that building, but we know that place. The bare bits of information give us clues as to the lives lived there, which in fact may be quite dissimilar from our own. We make mental jumps between our memory pictures and the artist’s.

The Binnewater Tides
Women’s Studio Workshop Press
Volume 9, No. 1, Winter/Spring 1992