Memory is a fickle thing. On the one hand, it can dupe us into believing a falsehood or even half-truth. In contrast, it can benevolently comfort us when faced with a loss. It is both individual and collective, complexly tied to things like memorial culture or psychoanalysis. On a basic level, memory enables our every action, as we daily recall mundane learned activities: the words needed to construct a sentence or simply how to walk. Watch an Alzheimer’s patient forget words or stumble, because her brain no longer remembers what was once second nature. Fundamentally, memory is a narrative we remind ourselves–both subconsciously and spoken–that aggregate together to create an identity.
“Ira Eduardovna: A Thousand Years” at 1708 Gallery in Richmond, Virginia, explores memory-making and the self, both individual and collective, through two films: To Prague with Love (2015) and A Thousand Years (2014). A New York-based emerging artist, Eduardovna’s films use common tropes from television—documentary, sitcom, or reality TV—to recall her childhood growing up in Soviet Uzbekistan during the 1980s. Her films highlight the truths and fallacies of memory, history, and storytelling. For the exhibition, the usual white interior of the gallery has been blacked out, the walls painted a dark gray and the windows covered with paper.
Visitors are greeted with To Prague with Love, a single-channel video on a flat screen television. Headphones encourage listening as the English translation runs along the screen. The film follows the story of her and her sister’s futile attempts to locate a person from her sister’s past. While a young child, Eduardovna’s sister wrote letters to a girl from Prague. In 2013, while on a two-month residency at FUTURA in the Czech Republic, Eduardovna placed an ad in a local newspaper attempting to locate her sister’s correspondent. Four women responded to the ad, which hangs as a framed print to the left of the television; while each participated in the exchange program, none were her sister’s pen pal. The film begins as a documentary, factually recounting her sister’s experience in 1987. It abruptly shifts to the present to interview the four women through a reality TV framework: four discerning judges’ votes tally along the screen to determine fact or fiction. Theoretically, Eduardovna’s pairing of documentary and reality television sounds clever, but in application the paradigm is jarring and falls slightly flat: Criticality and satire work best when seamless. The framework receives too much attention at the expense of the narrative.
In contrast, A Thousand Years more effectively weaves together the machinations of television with the sitcom format. The three-channel video takes up the bulk of the gallery: each frame is projected directly onto the wall. Surround-sound speakers fill the room, layering spoken English, a chorus of Hebrew song, and heavy silence. The left frame shows a couple sitting in a living room, watching television. The male is bored and disengaged while the female tries to spark conversation. Their dialogue is like a William Burroughs novel: nonlinear, repetitive, and seemingly random. In the center frame, a choir performs in Hebrew the prologue text from Israeli author A.B. Yehoshua’s book Journey to the end of the millennium (1997). The third frame follows the choir’s female conductor: she leaves the second frame to walk off stage and into a basement dressing room, where she sits in front of a mirror. On her dressing table is a television screen with the sitcom couple engaged in dialogue.
At the beginning of A Thousand Years, the viewer assumes each channel offers a different storyline. Only by the end of the film does it become clear that the narratives merge, each frame providing a parallel perspective of the same story in one vast warehouse space. the sitcom couple act on stage; the chorus stands directly across from them in place of the television; and the conductor has escaped to the basement of the building.
There is a sharp dichotomy between A Thousand Years and To Prague with Love. It is most apparent in the formal choices: the number of channels, narrative framework, linearity, sound, and languages. Taken holistically, these differences negotiate between types of memory. Like a cinema house, a large audience can view A Thousand Years. In contrast, To Prague with Love, listened to through headphones or read as subtitles, is intimately experienced by a handful of people at one time. The pairing of these two films suggests that Eduardovna is examining broader notions of public versus private remembering or even, more vulnerably, offering her own public and private histories in an effort to critique the way we construct memory and identity either out loud or to ourselves. At its most successful, Eduardovna’s films prompt self-criticality and awareness, sparking a dialogue that leaves us uncomfortably searching the recesses of our own memories.
“Ira Eduardovna: A Thousand Years” is at 1708 Gallery in Richmond, Virginia, through May 30.
Amanda Dalla Villa Adams is a PhD student and instructor in art history at Virginia Commonwealth University. She is a regular contributor to Richmond-based Style Weekly and has written about art for AEQAI, ext.1708, and Artforum.com Critic’s Picks.