Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Can Memory Be Trusted?

Recently, as I worked away at a little iPad painting of my childhood home, the question of memory and its reliability popped into my head. There aren't many photographs of that house you see, and at the moment I began painting, there were certainly none at hand. I had no choice but to be completely reliant on my own personal memories. Memories of a place I had not seen in years. I asked myself: could I be certain that the image I was recalling in my mind was accurate and true?

 I've represented that house in different media before: a ballpoint pen doodle in between phone calls at work, a line drawing done in dip pen and India ink, as well as various pencil drawings. When once I laid them all out next to one another, I was struck by the differences in them. Differences, not as a result of the varied techniques employed, but rather architectural details, that while found featured in one drawing, were missing completely in another. Windows, columns and railings seemed to appear and disappear from one image to the next. Could my memories, even of a place I looked at every day for decades, be that inaccurate and subject to such changes?

 After I'd finished and posted that iPad painting of my old house, I set a small challenge for myself to explore this subject - a simple exercise where I would draw the same object, twice: once from memory, and then again, a second drawing done from careful observation. I would choose something I was very familiar with; something I see everyday. I chose as my subject a lamp that sits on a table in my living room.

 I began with the drawing you see above, on the left. Just a quick simple pencil sketch. Made sure I kept my back to the subject, resisting the temptation to peek. I was pleased enough with the end result as it did it's job, I thought, of representing the shape of the thing. "Well, that looks quite like it, doesn't it"?, I said to myself. How different could the next drawing possibly be - the one I would now undertake employing direct observation? Yet, as I turned round to face the actual lamp on the table in front of me, I was quite taken aback. The reality didn't look anything like the image I had in my head as I was making that first drawing. How did that happen?

 I sat there and began my second drawing, the one on the right, already knowing how different it was going to turn out. Looking at the two finished sketches side by side really surprised me. I found it all rather amusing; very interesting, but also a bit disconcerting. My memory had literally bent iron! Moved the shapes around, almost completely inside out. How many other memories of mine are that inaccurate, I wondered? How many are equally 'inside out'?

 On Facebook recently, a friend from childhood referred to me as 'The Man With The Bionic Memory'. This was after I'd written about an incident at another friend's home from many years ago, in great detail. When he called me that, I smiled and I believed him. Now, after this little drawing exercise, I am inclined to doubt that title. Regardless, I find the way that the human brain works, (or doesn't work) and the way that memories are captured, filtered, remembered, misremembered and/or forgotten, utterly and completely fascinating. I may set similar drawing challenges for myself in the near future, as I found it to be a lot of fun, if not a little bit unnerving. A lot to think about!