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Collective Amnesia: An Alternative Reading of Kelly Tribe’s film H.M.

H.M Collective Amnesia’: How quickly do we forget?         © pipe

I have been thinking quite a lot about a work we saw this week. Kelly Tribe’s film H.M. (2009) made a significant effect on me for a few reasons. Firstly, she was a new artist to me and I found most of her work in the Camden Art Centre engaging and thought provoking. Secondly H.M., as a film alone, had a real narrative and cinematic power, which set it apart from most other contemporary art ‘video pieces’. However as I was feeling a little reflective and fragile that day, the work communicated through its conventional movie style, a clear idea about human history and our collective consciousness. I accept what I have read about the piece being about the ‘fragility’ of all human memory and other similar biologically directed questioning. However I felt it posed other questions about history and society itself. Therefore, here is my alternative reading:

We see two identical films projected side by side, one played twenty seconds behind the other. With the audio played from the leading film. This presentation is a reflection on the film’s subject: H.M. The subject was a real life story of a man suffering from severe amnesia after undergoing experimental surgery in the 1950s as a cure for epilepsy. The procedure involved the removal of part of his brain, and because of this, his short-term memory was restricted to a length of only twenty seconds.

Beautifully filmed and faultlessly acted, we view H.M. (played by the actor Darrell Sandeen, who sadly died in January 2009), recall his life and the events he remembered up until his operation. The narrator leads us into the story with other information on this man’s fascinatingly, yet tragic case. As H.M. is questioned by a variety of doctors and specialists, how I perceived the meaning in this piece began to become evident me.

The emotive use of archival footage and imagery from 20th century history, which appears randomly and without introduction during H.M.’s story, carries the real purpose of this artwork. When I viewed the various clips from wars and other iconic events, like Vietnam, the Cold War, the Civil Rights movement, the students in Thiamin Square, to name only a remembered few. I wondered then just how well our collective memory differs from that of H.M... The brief reminder we get if we cast our gaze to the left, of all these same events in the twenty second delayed film subtly but with significant impact, is also key in creating this sensation. If I was to make the point that to truly remember such events is to learn from them. What have we learned? The fleeting and muted imagery that repeats itself in the secondary film is a further cry of disaster. I felt it was like a finger being pointed at the viewer, saying: ‘Look just how quickly this is forgotten.’ H.M. acts like a sort of metaphoric being of his times, and ours’. We feel disgust and outrage one minute, but just how swiftly this is gone.

When viewing this piece, if I were to look a little closer to home and events from my own very recent times, it was the very day the phone hacking scandal arouse. Disgust and outrage is understandably being expressed yet again. However I remember the same sentiments being conveyed at the M.P’s expenses scandal, not much over a year ago, and the hacks getting a good old slap on the back for that one. Then there was Iraq, David Kelly, WMD the list is extensive.

The final point I make is, how do such events, scandals, wars and crimes actually become part of the collective consciousness, and how does this relate to Tribe’s H.M.? I would say by being conveniently fictionalised and largely forgotten. We may recall them longer than twenty seconds, but what difference does this make if our memories are detached from our reality, and nothing is learned from them, or more to the point, done about them?

If you didn’t get a chance to see Kelly Tribe’s exhibition Dead Star Light at the Camden Art Centre it opens on 17th of July in Bristol at the Arnolfini Gallery 16 Narrow Quay, BS1 4QA

Information about the show can be found here


  1. A very good piece of work to look at at the moment, given the collective amnesia that's been talked about at the Select Committee:

    But perhaps the disgust and outrage has some value at the time, even if it is forgotten for a while. Who is to say the current anger has not been magnified by the expenses scandal and the WMD/David Kelly story? We may be learning something, at least I hope so.

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