University of Canberra Faculty of Art and Design: On Forgetting. Belconnen Arts Centre, Pivot Gallery, 118 Emu Bank, Belconnen. Until May 9.
I think that everyone knows someone who is facing some form of dementia - from those who occasionally forget where they left their car keys or to turn off the outside lights when they go to bed, to those who can no longer recognise closest members of their family.
Last year in Sydney, I bumped into an old friend who had been a prominent poet and an active editor of literary journals and who was being led through a park by his carer. I quickly realised that he had no idea who I was and this distressed him greatly. His carer told me that a few months ago they had organised a party for his 80th birthday and invited his closest friends; sadly, the poet was alarmed by what he perceived as a crowd of strangers that had invaded his house.
This is an exhibition on forgetting by 15 people - Hakim Abdul Rahim, Monica Andrew, Rhonda Ayliffe, Dianne Firth, Caren Florance, UK Frederick, Katie Hayne, Paul Hetherington, Kerry Martin, Paul Munden, Fanke Peng, Bethaney Turner, Jen Webb, John White and Jordan Williams - all associated in some way with the University of Canberra. A number of them are very well-known visual artists and they form the core of the exhibition.
Thematically, most of the participating artists have a personal perspective on dementia. A memorable piece is by emerging artist Kerry Martin whose parents were both diagnosed with and subsequently died from Alzheimer's disease and like a black angel it hovers over her head. In one of her pieces, Fear [when winners are losers], 2018, there is a game of Dementia Bingo with pieces reading from mild forgetfulness to "forgetting to breathe".
One of the outstanding pieces is by Rhonda Ayliffe, an artist from the bushfire-devastated town of Cobargo, where in her vast and sprawling installation Fugue, 2007-2021, on which she has been working for 14 years, a threaded book made from pages of decommissioned encyclopaedias swirls around like a snake. It explores the no-man's-land where the need to forget confronts the desire to remember and the whole process becomes this constant tussle and a moving self-portrait.
A highlight of the show is Remembering Herself, 2021, an artist's book by Caren Florence. The artist reflects, "I've long heard of the power of music on memory ... My mother is experiencing early-onset dementia, which progresses in experiential bursts. At the time of writing she knows me and our relationship, but remembers very little of my life after I entered my teens. She remembers her own very early years vividly. Our best conversations are triggered by music, so I have started curating playlists for when we are together, to test which songs work best ... This book will be the first of a series reflecting upon my mother's progressive dementia, with this one responding to her reactions to music and is accompanied by a radio that allows music to thread into the gallery space, prompting the viewer's own memory."
This is a disturbing and deeply moving experience.
On Forgetting is not an easy exhibition and in places it is intense, raw and disturbing. Whereas we have spent much time arguing about the role of memory and memorising laws and rituals, forgetting is a topic to which we need to devote much more energy, as it is one that is surrounding all of us today.