• Colin Sterling

Memory Palace

Es Devlin's Memory Palace, shown at the Pitzhanger Manor and Gallery in West London from September 2019 to February 2020, is an immersive installation documenting sites where significant shifts in human perception took place around the world: the caves in South Africa where humans first made marks on rock; the library of Alexandria in Egypt, the largest of its kind in the Ancient World; the garden in Cambridge where a tree taught Newton gravity. This vast sculpture weaves together 73 sites and events into an all encompassing yet highly subjective cartography of world history, one that surrounds and enfolds the viewer in a disorienting inversion of space and time.

The simple white canvas of the model ties together many disparate themes and narratives, linking art, culture, religion, politics, activism, war, philosophy and non-human life. There is something of the totalising gesture of 19th century universal history in this approach, and yet the sculpture itself subverts this reading through its very form: a cocoon of memory that recognises its own mimetic character. Surfaces are doubled and reversed, topographies echo around the space. Here the folds of history, time, space and memory immerse the viewer in a refutation of the digital. These are grounded, material sites: realms of mind and matter where human thought became ever more deeply entangled with planetary architectures.

To this end, as evocative and thought-provoking as Memory Palace is, one aspect of the experience troubled me: the centrality of the human figure to the space. While the introductory text for the exhibition makes explicit reference to various philosophical propositions circling around climate change and the Anthropocene - notably Timothy Morton's notion of the 'Hyperobject' - the radical decentring of the human that this work suggests is undermined by the room itself, which places one specific human (you, the viewer) right in the middle of the story. This is perhaps to be expected in a narrative that foregrounds human perception and remembrance, but the effect is counterproductive: instead of humility the sculpture evokes mastery, instead of situated knowledge, a kind of disembodied transcendence. The Memory Palace is all about the dense locality of remembrance, but this can only ever be partial when the human remains so central to the experience.