Installation Space

Artist finds parallels between memory, surroundings

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When artist Robert Maloney looks at an urban area, he doesn't just see a city, he sees a manifestation of the deterioration of the human mind.

The Jamaica Plain artist's immersive work "Building Memory" invites others to experience his perception, engulfing visitors in a mix of sculpture, projection, ambient sound and animation that rebuilds the architecture on a smaller scale while using it to pull out the unseen structures within the mind.

Maloney's work — which opened last week at Installation Space, 49 Eagle St. in North Adams — concerns itself with memory, and uses the vocabulary of urban landscapes to craft three-dimensional representations of how it does, or sometimes doesn't, work. Utilizing small-scale scaffolding and other parts of buildings with his drawings and animation, Maloney recasts the pieces of a decayed urban landscape as markers in a a psychogeographical space designed to depict crumbling human memory.

Maloney originally conceived of "Building Memory" while he was in graduate school at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, and later continued work on it during a residency at Mass MoCA.

"The seeds were planted and I was connecting the dots between the connections that we have to our surroundings," he said, "and just thinking about the fragility of memory and the way that over time in some cases our memories can fade and deteriorate as well as our surroundings. In both cases if we don't strengthen the muscle of memory, it deteriorates. And if we don't have upkeep with our surroundings, those deteriorate, as well."

Maloney developed an attraction to structures like billboards, scaffolding, water towers and others that you might find in an urban setting. He began crafting versions of them in his studio and thinking further on the parallels he had begun to develop between memory and surroundings.

He also had to decide how personal to make the work, since that would dictate what kind of imagery he used in it. He wanted it to be an immersive experience, but questioned whether it could retain that quality if he skewed the work toward biographical elements of his own. Wouldn't it be better to keep the imagery more universal and, therefore, the installation as well?

"It wasn't about my own past," said Maloney. "It was about that process of deterioration and recollection."

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That led Maloney to films about people who are struggling with memory, such as Andrei Tarkovsky's "The Mirror" and Christopher Nolan's "Memento," and drawings culled from those movies followed, which Maloney would use in animation in the final installation.

"It was an opportunity for me to meditate on their headspace," he said. "I had the series of portraits and then I was actually documenting them as I was doing them. So I was taking little snapshots of the the drawings at the beginning, the middle, the end, and then morphing them so that you could see the drawings go through a time lapse, but not the kind of time lapse where you see the actual brush stroke happening. It was like more like the drawings appeared and then disappeared."

It was a way to capture time as part of his presentation, putting in view not only the process of losing memory but also the process of capturing that loss. Maloney then incorporated textures and washes with the images to lend a ghostly aspect to the transformations, letting each manifestation creep into view and fade away even as it imprints itself on the viewer's brain and haunts their perception.

Maloney added further elements of time by capturing images of industrial scenes during his residency at Mass MoCA, with projections of portraits of the owners of Arnold Print Works and Sprague Electric that Maloney had drawn. Memories, in this case, are like specters.

"I was thinking about structure and history when I was there and working on my residency," he said. "I was absorbing and reflecting on the history that was there, and doing prints and drawings of the architecture that was in the area. So the two owners of those two companies I did portraits of and projected, I was thinking about them like the ghosts of the previous inhabitants of the properties."

But while the project is not about Maloney's specific memories, there is an autobiographical element to the installation, or at least one that draws from his own experiences with dyslexia and challenges to his working memory, which refers to the short-term memory specifically relating to areas like reading and math.

"My own struggles with memory have been something that's been of interest to me," said Maloney, "and this has been a way for me to explore it in a creative way."

It's also been a way to do work that has included aspects of North Adams, which has become a significant part of his life over the last few years, with frequent visits.

"I proposed to my wife in the museum," Maloney said. "It's a unique community, and I really love the history and everything is so expansive and grand in a really personal way that I'm really excited to have the chance to exhibit there."


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