The Utopian Horizon of Memory Art: A Conversation with Andreas Huyssen

By Abigail SusikOctober 16, 2022

The Utopian Horizon of Memory Art: A Conversation with Andreas Huyssen

Memory Art in the Contemporary World: Confronting Violence in the Global South by Andreas Huyssen

IN JUNE, Lund Humphries published Andreas Huyssen’s Memory Art in the Contemporary World: Confronting Violence in the Global South as part of their “New Directions in Contemporary Art” series. Building on two decades of work related to the oeuvres of artists such as Doris Salcedo, Guillermo Kuitca, William Kentridge, Nalini Malani, and Vivan Sundaram, Memory Art in the Contemporary World is also, in part, a summa of Huyssen’s career-spanning engagement with the way the processes of historical consciousness and globalization impact one another. As one of the founding editors of New German Critique and emeritus professor and founding director of the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society at Columbia University, Huyssen has kept his research rooted in the question of how critical theory can help us understand current cultural and political phenomena.

In this conversation, we discuss the contribution contemporary art criticism can make to antiauthoritarian discourses, and the way it illuminates transnational solidarities in the face of state atrocities and accelerating neofascisms.


ABIGAIL SUSIK: Your book demonstrates that contemporary memory art is riddled with the cognitive and sensorial traces of past political violence and trauma, resulting in a hybrid temporality that is further activated by viewers. How has your prior work impacted this approach?

ANDREAS HUYSSEN: Having been born in 1942, I was a member of the first post–World War II generation in Germany, and memory and forgetting have been central to my published work since the 1970s. The rise of memory studies since the 1980s led me to observe and write about traveling Holocaust tropes and trauma narratives in Latin America after the end of the dictatorships in Argentina and Chile, in postapartheid South Africa, and in contemporary India. Doris Salcedo read some of my work on Holocaust memory and sought me out. So did Nalini Malani and Vivan Sundaram, both of whom I first met at a conference in Mumbai in the late 1990s. Guillermo Kuitca and I met in Argentina during those same years. I was deeply touched by William Kentridge’s film Felix in Exile when I viewed it at documenta X in Kassel in 1997 and then met him in Johannesburg during the second Joburg Biennale later that year. Slowly, my interest in the role of Holocaust memory in other traumatic histories gave way to the issue of transnational comparison across the Global South as I became aware of the growing networks of truth and reconciliation commissions, memory museums, and commemorative projects around the world and what Michael Rothberg later called multidirectional memory.

Considering current controversies in Germany regarding the comparability of the Holocaust with colonialism, did you face any methodological or ideological challenges in contextualizing the Holocaust in relation to disparate international events?

Asking questions about the comparability of the Holocaust with other historical traumas was never an issue for me. The historical specificity of the Holocaust is not inevitably diminished, as some would claim, by comparison, nor by the use of Holocaust images, tropes, and narrative elements in other cases of state violence, terror, and genocide. On the contrary, I see a clear benefit in the ways that atrocities in the Global South can be made to resonate nationally and internationally by comparison with Nazi racial genocide. Comparison, after all, includes both similarities and differences. Thus, for instance, the Argentine military dictatorship [1976–83] was deeply influenced by Nazi thought and language, but the target of its terror was the political left rather than a racial or ethnic minority. And yet, the title of the official report on the Argentine state terror was Nunca Más — Never Again, a Holocaust trope if there ever was one. It is equation that should be taboo, not comparison.

You articulate the way in which state violence in the Global South has often been enabled by Western support of “autocratic regimes and their embrace of neoliberalism.” As you remind us, the designation “Global South” “is not meant in the strict geographic sense. It rather refers to a history and a condition of entanglement with the North under the rubric of globalization.” How does this “history and condition of entanglement” also implicate the positioning of these works in the global art market and Western centers of capital? 

Of course, the work of these artists has become quite successful and influential over time. They were barely known internationally in the 1990s when I first encountered their work and began to write about it. Clearly, their work challenged me to think beyond German history, especially in their frequent use of Holocaust tropes and images. Their international stature today benefits from transnational memory debates and the privileging of remembrance, rights, and social justice in the culture at large. It has thus gained in market value, but it is definitely not market-driven.

Much could be said about the ways these memory artists critically negotiate commodification and the bank-asset value of art. Many of their works refuse the individual collector or make the work of the curator exceedingly difficult, not only in the limited temporality of some of the installations. At the same time, the works do not transcend the ties to the market, to galleries, museums, and cultural institutions. This is a small price to pay as their success garners remembrance and nurtures public mourning at a time when memory revisionists everywhere are abusing memorialization for openly nationalist and racist purposes.

Andreas Huyssen.

Your point about the current proliferation of neofascist and racist “memory revisionists” is key for me. I was struck by a passage in your book in which you describe the fraught context of “national and transnational struggles for human rights in the face of a rising tide of 21st-century fascisms facilitated by finance capitalism’s neo-liberal policies of dispossession and its ruinous effects on social cohesion.” How do these examples of contemporary art from the Global South differ or diverge from authoritarian memory revision on the level of strategy, form, or tactic (since obviously the content and aim of memory art and reactionary memory revision are opposed)?

Reactionary memory revisionists across the world create nostalgic phantasms of nationalist pasts that deny historical realities of conflictual relations of class, race, ethnicity, religion, and gender. A falsely harmonized (often white-supremacist) past confronts a decadent and corrupt present that deserves to be destroyed: for example, MAGA and “drain the swamp.” This strategy pursues a neofascist power politics. Memory culture’s focus on victims of past injustice, racial violence, and trauma is adopted by the right’s claim of being itself victimized by the left, by “political correctness,” “wokeness,” and the oppression of free speech. It is a kind of reverse victimization that works by a tactic of mirroring and projection.

It seems clear that the recent rise of memory revisionism is a reaction formation to the strengths of progressive memory discourse. National memory battles have become ever more ferocious, not just in the United States, where the 1619 Project or the battle over preserving or dismantling Confederate monuments challenges the underlying self-understanding of US democracy and its history. Make no mistake — what’s at stake is not the past but the future.

Is there a concrete way in which memory art can resist or counter reactionary memory revision?

The memory art I discuss in my book never posits some unitary notion of national memory as a safe place to return to or to draw inspiration from. Neither does it believe in the cult of the infallible witness. It avoids the direct message of political art devoted to a specific cause. Its politics is found in the ways the forms and media of art acknowledge and actually reproduce the structural vicissitudes of all memory: its ellipses, its inevitable erasures and gaps, its sudden eruptions and traumatic repetitions. While always tied to national histories of violence, it operates in a transnational sense of cultural and political solidarity that has emerged in the context of the tenuous international human rights movement of recent decades. This art translates the difficulties of grasping a haunting past without voyeurism, victimology, or facile compassion; it acknowledges the embattled structure of social memory in its very forms while leaving no doubt about who bears responsibility for past and present violence. It advocates affective response and political accountability for historical trajectories gone wrong.

Even while you emphasize the interconnectivity and interdependence of national contexts and cultural phenomena, you also discuss the importance of aesthetic autonomy. Writers such as André Breton formerly debated the possibility of politicized art retaining its independence from the utilitarianism of propaganda (in the 1930s, for instance). Why is this issue relevant today?

The idea of aesthetic autonomy is indeed central to my approach. It is simply meant to reassert the affective and cognitive power of artworks at a time when relational aesthetics have abandoned any idea of autonomy in favor of a celebration of the viewer’s “participation” or immersion. Autonomy is no longer the kind of ideologized autonomy of art as a complete separation of the realm of art from social and political reality — that notion of autonomy Walter Benjamin had dismantled so efficiently in his essay on the mechanical reproducibility of art. It is rather an aesthetic autonomy localized in the active and activating relationship between the sensuous organization of the work and its viewers’ always historically mediated aesthetic experience.

Without adopting Adorno’s notion of the autonomous work as closed monad, I reread his statement that the work is both autonomous and social fact as articulating the dialectic of the work’s form and the historically located aesthetic experience of the recipient. Such a rereading clearly departs from Adorno’s view that social fact only refers to the genealogy of the work itself, its location in a historical trajectory of artistic forms and genres. For me, the notion of social fact includes the additional dimension of an always historically specific reception. Production of the work and its aesthetic experience must be thought together.

Of course, talk about art’s autonomy is still taboo for many. I do think, however, that the radical postmodern attacks on notions of aesthetic autonomy as purely ideological no longer serve a political or even cognitive purpose at a time when the politics of art is on everybody’s mind. In this situation, it is important, I think, to insist again on art’s formal autonomy against an understanding of the political in art as simply a reflection of the artists’ identity or the causes they espouse. More importantly, it allows us to distinguish between works of formal complexity requiring affective contemplation and message-oriented agitprop art, which aims at direct action and intervention. In the field of memory art, both are valid, yet different, acts of memory.

In terms of rejecting the notion of the work of art as a reflection of the artists’ identity, you refuse a monographic approach — the paradigm so favored by academic art historians. A comparative schema allows you to avoid the monumentalization of any one artist’s biography or legacy, which in itself suggests a critical orientation toward the tendencies of the art market.

As you know, I am not an art historian. I take comparison as investigative strategy from my primary field of comparative literature — comparison, that is, not as establishing hierarchies of value and power relations, but rather as close reading of aesthetic and material practices embedded in a larger history, which is always more than simply context. We act in history and history acts upon us. This dialectic energizes my approach.

For instance, differing cognitive and affective uses of minimalist sculpture emerge in the comparison between Salcedo and Sundaram. The very comparability of their works, however, is grounded not just in their transformative postcolonial appropriation of Western minimalism but also in their political urge and commitment to work through their respective national histories of violence — the ongoing Colombian civil war and the ethnic-religious violence of the Indian partition and its aftereffects today. What emerges is not some global memory art, but highly differentiated aesthetic and political practices that speak to each other across national and geographic boundaries.

Andreas Huyssen with Doris Salcedo in October 2017.

I have no illusions about these works’ impact on specific human rights struggles and political culture at large in their countries, whether India or Colombia, Argentina or South Africa. I simply want to assert the affective and cognitive power of memory art to create a semblance of human solidarity between cultures that remain largely distant to each other, to open up horizons of human history and commonality that befit our living together on this planet: comparison as a challenge to the imagination, nurturing transnational connectivities and learning about each other.

How does this question of aesthetic autonomy within the realm of politically activating art affect your focus on the medium of installation?

Installations expand on traditional forms like sculpture, painting, or drawing, incorporating them into a larger whole using technical support systems like film, video, slide projection, animation, and assembly of objects. Installation as medium and form goes back to the legacies of modernism and the historical avant-garde, but only in recent decades did it become the polyphonic mode of art production that it is today. As open form, the installation represents the latest stage of what Adorno first described in the late 1960s as the fraying of the arts. It radicalizes boundary crossings not just between aesthetic media but between national traditions, in such a way that spaces for new encounters and experiences are opened up across the world.

The memory art that has emerged in such installations in the Global South is not captured by the notion of hybridity or of being in-between cultures, nor does it represent some global flow. Instead, it creates palimpsests articulating entanglements, translations, and appropriations from Western and non-Western image and text traditions alike. Installation sets viewers in motion as active participants, challenging the ways they look at things. Grounded in a specific place and time, installation projects a potential transnational solidarity through the power of its aesthetic strategies. Such creative translations confront heterogeneous audiences with the limits of their understanding and challenge us to rethink and reimagine our place in the larger world.

Imaginative boundary-crossing remains vital in a world in which national borders and separating walls have reemerged with a vengeance in the struggle against the false promises of globalization. It is through this art that national memories can be remade and repositioned, beyond the respective national case; viewers are captivated and introduced to other frames of memory, to other histories, other lives. Whether powerful agent in the world or merely message in a bottle, this kind of memory art keeps open a horizon that one could call utopian.


Abigail Susik is an associate professor of art history at Willamette University and author of Surrealist Sabotage and the War on Work (Manchester University Press, 2021). She is co-editor of the volumes Surrealism and Film After 1945: Absolutely Modern Mysteries (Manchester University Press, 2021) and Radical Dreams: Surrealism, Counterculture, Resistance (Penn State University Press, 2022).

LARB Contributor

Abigail Susik is associate professor of art history at Willamette University and the author of Surrealist Sabotage and the War on Work (Manchester University Press, 2021). She is the editor of Resurgence! Jonathan Leake, Radical Surrealism, and the Resurgence Youth Movement, 1964–1967 (2023) and co-editor of the volumes Surrealism and Film After 1945: Absolutely Modern Mysteries (Manchester University Press, 2021) and Radical Dreams: Surrealism, Counterculture, Resistance (Penn State University Press, 2022). Her work has recently appeared in The New York Times and The Washington Post, and she has hosted a radio show, Studio Visit, devoted to the Portland, Oregon, art community.


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