We’re exploring Hari Kunzru’s MEMORY PALACE at London’s V&A

9 Jul

Nick Harkaway enters an eclectic installation about shared thought and memory and spots somewhere strange to sit down

Until 20 October 2013
Victoria and Albert Museum, London
10.00 to 17.45 daily, 10.00 to 22.00 Fridays

There was a vast queue at the V&A, and my heart sank a bit. I really wanted to get in to Hari Kunzru’s Memory Palace – a walk-in story that brings Kunzru’s new fiction to life through a series of artist commissions. I sighed inwardly and joined at the back, then – out of sheer neurotic habit – checked with the woman in front of me to be sure I was in the right place.

“No,” she said, “this is for David Bowie’s wardrobe.”

This is the first thing I realised today: people are mad, and they will queue for ever to see Ziggy’s shoes while ignoring Canova on one side and Kunzru on the other. I love Space Oddity as much as the next guy, but that was a very long line for some glad rags. More importantly, for our purposes: you buy tickets for Memory Palace from the Sackler Centre, which is through the shop, then left-right-left. You don’t get them from the desk directly outside the installation, that’s for the Bowie. Which would be a really annoying thing to discover after an hour or so in line with some star-struck Milanese fashion students.

I went in. On the left is a helpful glossary, introducing Kunzru’s new world: a collapsed London in the wake of some sort of electrical catastrophe, ruled by an oppressive cabal who want to bring the people into a state of oneness with nature and who penalize recording, writing, and sharing knowledge. Moving on and in, the exhibit opens out into a high-ceilinged space with an almost churchy vibe, filled with curious art objects annotated with excerpted text.

It’s a strange collection made up of different media and differing tones. My favourite was a five-panelled structure like a zoetrope. It was tall and narrow and you peered in and saw a different image painted on the inside of each of the five walls, visible only through the narrow slits at the corner of the pentagon. A worn wooden chair sat in the middle, and the whole thing was tantalising and regretful. There was no obvious way to get in, but it would be a strange place to sit: contemplative, revelatory, claustrophobic.

Another hypnotic creation you might miss if you’re not paying attention: a screen of mouths speaking, digitally arranged so that it spells out letters like a dot matrix display. The text is more of Kunzru’s book, made especially eerie by this odd mode of communication.

The running concerns are knowledge and memory set against a backdrop of what I suppose amounts to religious neo-fascism. The overall enterprise is elegant and humorous and yet very sad. The conceit, that the protagonist has turned the cell into which he is imprisoned into a memory palace – an imagined space where memories are stored as visualised objects and recollection is done by retrieving them from their shelf or alcove – is rather wonderful, and the whole thing is given shape and meaning by the text, which governs every wall and every one of the sequential art panels, installations, sculptures and arrangements in the exhibit.

There’s no attempt to render literary reality into an experience – this isn’t a dramatisation or an adaptation. Rather you have text creating a world and artists interpreting it. I found the results powerful, but if you’re looking for a literal immersion in the world of Kunzru’s latest fiction, you won’t find it – there are illustrations of the fallen Shard and narrative panels, but no replica of the cell and no apocalyptic landscapes to walk through. This is more like music drawn from poetry than a movie made from a book.

The other thing it isn’t is overtly or overly digital. There are digital bits to the exhibit and Samsung gets a nod in the acknowledgements, but you’re not looking at the next stage of narrative’s technological evolution. It isn’t so much that Memory Palace explores the idea of a book as that it makes overt the reactions of other minds to the text, making those reactions concrete and accessible as satellite artworks in themselves. There’s a bit of self-referencing going on there, because the plot of the story is partly about the sharing of information to keep it alive in a hostile environment (the book’s future dialect uses the word “internet” to mean an illegal gathering).

I really liked it, but I felt that the strongest part remained Kunzru’s prose: wry, engaging, and evocative, it breathes life into the rest, which might seem a bit disconnected without it. Go. See it. And check out the rest of the V&A while you’re there, because hey: Canova.

Also on the blog: Frank Swain watches as Liverpool’s FACT gallery turns itself inside out.

VIDEO: Nick Harkaway talks to Arc about his book The Blind Giant.

In Arc 1.2: Post human conditions: read Nick Harkaway’s “Attenuation”: a roller-coaster ride through a world transformed (but not nearly enough) by cheap teleportation.

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