remembering place

Melissa returns to return, to present the catalogue essay by Narelle Yabuka.

Today I thought I’d revisit the Return show that I curated earlier this year, via the catalogue essay written by Narelle Yabuka. Like all the artists in the show, Narelle is an ex-Perth resident, who currently lives and works in Singapore.

Remembering Place

I remember Perth. My favourite time of day in Perth was late afternoon, when the hard daytime sun transformed from a force of intimidation to an agent of soft, magical spaces. As it dipped toward the ocean it would cast shadows like carpets that carved out comfortable places in a previously vast and uncompromising backyard. I would enjoy dwelling in the shadows – gently and soft-bodied, without the narrowed eyes and physical tension that accompanied excursions into the afternoon heat. The wind would drop to orchestrate a symphony of sensory response; now I could hear the neighbours cooking dinner and practicing Beethoven bagatelles the piano, see a deeper shade of green on the lawn, feel gentle wafts of breeze on my arms, and perceive creatures in the garden beds that were previously bleached out of view. I’d stretch out, physically and mentally, in the shadows until they dissolved into night.

Are my memories truthful? Probably, my romancing about cool, calm ends to hot, hard days has taken on a rosier tinge than it might have given that the only form of heat relief in my current Singaporean high-rise home is mechanical. Yes, there was a little bit of invention in my garden memory. In my mind, the story incorporated many afternoons and the gardens of several Perth homes. Collectively, this group of disparate recollections informs my memory of dusk in Perth – an impression my mind visits regularly in the unrelenting tropical heat of my new concrete home.

Do my memories make me? Philosophers struggle to understand and explain the subjective and relative side of memory – the facet, distinct from habit or skill memories (such as how to drive a car), which emerges and recedes involuntarily and subconsciously. There is no doubt, however, that memory plays a key role in determining one’s personal identity. For creative practitioners who express a sense of themselves in their work, memory takes on another level of significance – as a contributor to the shaping of creative output.

Do I make my memories? It was confronting to read, while researching the philosophy of memory, that although autobiographical memory plays a part in the continuity of the self, memories of one’s personal past can actually alter based on changes in one’s self-conception. In their article “The Identity Function of Autobiographical Memory: Time is on Our Side” (Bluck, S. [ed] [2003], Memory, 11:2, 137–149), Anne E. Wilson and Michael Ross discussed how individuals can push away or pull forward memories for the purpose of self-enhancement in the present. Memories of past selves that are viewed as negative can be pushed into the distant past and disassociated from. Meanwhile, memories of positive selves can be kept current and influence one’s present sense of self. The purpose of such self-shaping of autobiographical memory, it would seem, is to promote wellbeing.

Re-placing myself. It’s an interesting exercise to consider the continued impressions and influences of a place you have left – particularly given the profound influence that a place has on lived experience. It gets me wondering why my story of garden shadows so dominates my thinking. I don’t currently have a private garden – just a collection of potted plants in a common open-air corridor. Enjoying natural environments is a Perth experience that I mourn. But if I lived in a big old breezy tropical bungalow surrounded by shade-giving trees, palms, and vines, would I still long for Perth’s river, beaches, bush, and backyards? Would I contemplate Singapore’s environment and flora – in analytical thought and in creative projects (as I do) – if I weren’t mourning my connection with Perth’s nature?

Replacing my place. It seems that my memories of my former place influence the way I look at and respond to my current place. An enjoyment of natural environments would appear (at present, or still) to be an aspect of my personal identity – a contributor to my sense of wellbeing. If I hadn’t grown up in Perth, and what’s more, with keen gardeners as parents and thriving backyards, this may not be the case. My experience of Perth influenced my behaviour and habits, and perhaps directed my senses of perception towards flora. In Singapore, I seek the cooling experience of gardens, and find creative inspiration in the very different conditions of nature – its absence from the domestic context, and its forceful abundance in the civic context, where it is used almost like a tool (to foster an image for the city, or to influence human behaviour; garden beds between footpaths and roads disallow jaywalking, for example).  A similar legacy of thought and response may not be the case for everyone. Perhaps one can only say with certainty that the influence of one’s memories of place will depend on the person and context.

March 2010

Narelle Yabuka is a writer, editor and educator. Currently she works in publishing at the helm of a Singapore-based publishing house, with her work featuring in books and magazines across Australia and Singapore.