Reflections on ‘Remembrance and The Expressive Arts: A Study Day’

Image: ShinYoung An, Candlelit, 2011, Oil on Prepared Newspaper, Mounted on Canvas. © ShinYoung An.
Image: ShinYoung An, Candlelit, 2011, Oil on Prepared Newspaper, Mounted on Canvas. © ShinYoung An.

Reflections on ‘Remembrance and The Expressive Arts: A Study Day’,
hosted by Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions and The University of Melbourne on Friday 11 September 2015 9.30am-5pm at
Theatre 227, Melbourne Graduate School of Education, 234 Queensberry Street, Melbourne.

by Jane Davidson and Penelope Lee

noun: the action of remembering something or someone.
synonyms: commemoration, memory, recognition, reminiscence, nostalgia

Whether remembering family members lost in a disaster, or even reminiscing about times with a sweetheart, there is strong historical documentation and modern psychological evidence that the arts can function as useful technologies for emotional expression while also offering creative routes to recovery after trauma and loss.

In addition to those facing trauma, for those living with dementia or dealing with mental health challenges, the expressive arts can offer a means of communication, solace, a moment of clarity and even reminiscence of happier times. They can be used as a tool to construct a day-by-day narrative and form a bridge between a remembered and a changed sense of self-identity. All these interpretation of remembrance found their way inside the study room. Of course, the date of the event had is own symbolism: 9/11.

The theme of remembrance in the study day was principally stimulated by the research interest within The Centre of the History of Emotions on the interaction between memory and emotion; the acknowledgement that the expressive arts have a profound connection with acts of commemoration and remembrance; and the beginning of outreach work on a project around objects of emotions and mementos. The event was based around eight short presentations that shared research results and practical case studies with the participants. An additional and vital thread running throughout was how mementos have been used in cultural practice. All presenters and participants of the study day were invited to bring a memento to share with and a special session was dedicated to small group discussions of each memento, its history and its significance.

Participants came from a wide variety of backgrounds: visual and creative arts and music therapies; nursing and allied health work; music, arts, history and literature researchers. People travelled from afar to attend, with interstate and international representation. The shared mementos varied immensely from digital music files, books, images, textiles, paintings, jewelry and other portable objects, spectacles, books and photographs. The symbolic power and sense of attachment between person and memento was profound. Clear ground rules and emphasis on small-group work encouraged exchange and a warm and safe atmosphere for sharing.

Father's spectacles. Shared by Arnold Zable. Image by Lucy Burnett.
Father’s spectacles.
Grandmother’s crystal beads.

Further to the group discussion, seven individuals contributed in a more public outcome. Each participated shared in a 1:1 recorded interview where their objects of remembering were documented and insights into their histories, significance, associations and memories of the objects were provided. The array of the objects varied significantly. While some were clearly old family heirlooms passed down the generations, like the grandfather’s Victorian silver match box and the set of grandmother’s crystal beads, other objects where recently produced and/or identified as a memento.Two interviewees intentionally created paintings as the means of honouring and remembering someone else’s story life. The works served as a tangible reminder of the relationship and functioned as a reflective and therapeutic tool for both creators. Another person bought in a newly acquired object that represented a recent experience, thus serving as a testimony to a particular period and accomplishment in his life. He acknowledged that the object may not carry meaning for others, but that he would know what it meant and that’s all that mattered.

Grandfather’s Victorian silver match box.

All the objects stirred strong emotional responses from the participants. As they held, touched, scrutinized and reflected upon their precious objects, sentiment, love, loss, sadness, grief, delight and happiness were all expressed.

These interviews will become part of a larger public digital repository to be located on the CHE website in the near future (watch for details).

The two explicitly historical presentations dealt with different aspects of collection of objects and memory. Monique Webber (Claiming the past: Conceptual spoliation of Nazi Occupation) spoke about German artist Anselm Kiefer’s 1969 photographs that appeared in a series entitled Occupations. Looking at the images, a new layer of meaning was revealed as the spaces depicted were of well known sites previous overwhelmed by Nazi occupation. Assuming a purposefully cavalier imitation of a Nazi uniform and performing 
their salute, as a presence in each photo, Kiefer was shown to ridicule Hitler’s visual and political identity. Webber pointed out that Kiefer was not the first person to attempt a desensitisation of Hitler through misrepresentation of visual identity. The Three Stooges, Charlie Chaplin, and the musical The Producers had already done this, but Kiefer was the first to do so outside comedy.These art works, presented as a conceptual spoliation of Third Reich ideology, performed from the perspective of those who had suffered from it. The talk led the audience to consider how layers of meaning could be created, even decades after its creation. Through performance and its remembrance, Kiefer sought to alter the connotations of place and to reorient the balance of emotional power to those the Nazi spoliation had robbed.

Anselm Kiefer, 'Heroic Symbols'1969. Courtesy of the Tate Museum. © Anselm Kiefer.
Anselm Kiefer, ‘Heroic Symbols’1969. Courtesy of the Tate Museum. © Anselm Kiefer.

By outlining the original Nazi enactment of systematic spoliation from Jewish families as it advanced across Europe, Monique also enabled participants to reflect on the significance of cultural heritage and also how its appropriation as spolia demeaned and emotionally dispossessed the victims of war.By inquiring into the complex interaction of memory, emotion and place as performed in the post-war public sphere, Monique was able to explore the role of cultural imagery in confronting the past. The images were powerful and provocative.

CHE’s Angela Hesson (Vestiges of devotion: Mourning jewellery and the materiality of remembrance) offered a journey through the history of mourning jewellery from sixteenth-century Europe to modern Australian designers. She showed the emergence of the jewellery in part a response to the commercialization and increasing secularization of religious relics and in part to feed the human desire to remember.

The examples shown were sumptuous, with much focus on the inclusion or representation of human hair – whether in the form of a simple lock enclosed in a locket, or in the elaborate varieties of hairwork favoured in Victorian mourning jewellery. These provided a clear link to the relic tradition, and manifested themselves as literal representations of corporeality and intimacy of the mourning process.

Mourning Ring. Enamelled gold and woven hair under a rock crystal pane. 1791. Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum. The inscription around the enamelled edge of this mourning ring tells us that it was made to commemorate Gabriel Wirgman, who died on 12 September 1791 aged 53.
Mourning Ring. Enamelled gold and woven hair under a rock crystal pane. 1791. Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum. The inscription around the enamelled edge of this mourning ring tells us that it was made to commemorate Gabriel Wirgman, who died on 12 September 1791 aged 53.

Today such works are highly sought-after by collectors, especially those which include fragments of the body. Angela highlighted the complex history of associations and values ascribed to these objects: on the one hand, the most intensely personal of artefacts, but on the other hand, they are also commodities subject to all the impersonal processes of commerce.

Locket. Engraved gold and ivory painted in watercolour with a miniature embellished with hair and pearls. Made between 1775-1800 Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

She questioned the relationship of the modern collector to pieces which are, in essence, the love tokens or relics of a usually unknown person. She asked whether the collector choses them merely as aesthetic objects manifesting disappearing forms of craftsmanship, or whether they maintain some of their totemic status and meaning even in the absence of their original religious, familial or romantic connections.

The paper cleverly examined the manner in which love, loss and longing were fetishized through mourning jewellery, and its capacity to reflect shifting ideas and practices of memorialization.

Shifting from historical enquiry to that with a therapeutic expressive arts practice focus, Arnold Zable (Story and the displaced: A 3-act drama, with many variations on a universal tale) explored how stories empower us and how the both restore memory and assuage nos-thal-ghea, the pain of longing for the return. In a rich web of stories within stories, Arnold explored how we all have a story to tell. Referencing many leading psychologists, Arnold also highlighted the ways in which the denial of the power of story can lead to individual despair.  Speaking from the standpoint of someone who has led many writing retreats and workshops with communities who have experienced displacement, loss and grief, Arnold discussed how retrieving one’s story can provide renewed purpose for the displaced person, the asylum seeker, the holocaust survivor, the bushfire victim, and for the aged and those in palliative care.fig_tree

Powerfully drawing on his involvement in a range of story telling projects Arnold explored techniques that encourage people to recreate their life’s journey through retrieving their life’s tales. He revealed his own theorization of those who have suffered a major disruption in their lives living their life-stories like a three-act drama, with many variations on a universal tale. Act one is the time before; act two, the rupture, a specific event or series of events; and the third act, the time after, the roller coaster of a person’s life after a major change in their lives.

This talk revolved around by being able to understand the three-act nature of disruption we are able to facilitate the remembrance of stories, and help restore a deeper sense of self.

Detail from 'LOST and loving' by Anne Riggs. Image courtesy of the Artist.
Detail from ‘LOST and loving’ by Anne Riggs. Image courtesy of the Artist.

Anne Riggs (On suffering and joy) offered profound insights into how visual artists delve into shadowy places. Through examples from her own art practice and work undertaken in her community workshops, she illustrated how materials such as bones and the transformation of materials juxtaposed with themes like death, grief, trauma, and ageing provide endless opportunities for exploration, metaphor and expression. Intuitive responses to remembrance, loss and mourning were discussed through two books she had created Lost and Loving and Wander Wonder, part of a larger collection of handmade books entitled A Small Library on Suffering and Joy. The small, intimate and personal books were explored as evocations of a lost past.

Detail from 'Wander Wonder' by Anne Riggs. Image courtesy of the artist.
Detail from ‘Wander Wonder’ by Anne Riggs. Image courtesy of the artist.

Both Arnold and Anne shared aspects of their own life stories and family relationships within their presentations too, highlighting the reflective space and complex personal relation practitioners have with their own craft.

There were four papers that focused on music as a companion to memory and a technology of healing. Gary Ansdell’s “A Sympathy with Sounds:” The case of a professional musician, a music therapist and an iPad” outlined his work undertaken in the Community Music Therapy context with an 85-year-old bed-bound professional musician in a care home in London using an iPad to help with musical lifestory work .

In his presentation Gary provoked discussion of the difference between reminiscence and the ‘making present’ of musical memory that new technology affords, and also the bittersweet aspects of such work when “musicianhood” is a key factor (that is, ‘being a musician’, not just being musical). He spoke at length about the loss and longing for the performance skills his client no longer possessed.Gary’s rich contribution to the field can be found in a new series published by Ashgate: Music and Change: Ecological Perspectives 

Katrina McFerran (Teenagers expressing grief and loss with music as a form of therapy) spoke of her experience working with bereaved teens following the Black Saturday Fires in Victoria in 2009.  Community concern for young people at one of the local high schools resulted in the creation of a music therapy project that engaged a range of young school-aged men and women in three different groups.  In this presentation she described how each of the groups explored their response to the fires and reflect on the particular opportunities for growth that emerged through the therapeutic context.   Musical examples were shared to represent the distinctiveness of each group as well as the shared elements of the experience. See Music Therapy with Young People in Schools: After the Black Saturday Fires and  Creating music cultures in the schools: A perspective from community music therapy for more on her work.

Sandra Garrido (The affective outcomes of nostalgic remembering with music: The influence of personality and coping style) explored music as a trigger of nostalgia and its capacity to evoke strong emotions associated with particular times, events or people with just a few notes. Strong arguments have been made for the positive psychological functions nostalgic remembering can fulfill, particularly in situations of loneliness, personal discontinuity or meaninglessness. Sandra discussed an ongoing project titled “My Life as a Playlist” and described the results of a study in which 664 participants listened to a self-selected piece of music that made them feel nostalgic. The results suggest that nostalgia can have mixed psychological outcomes, becoming encompassed within the habitual coping style of the individual, whether adaptive or maladaptive. This project is being conducted in partnership with ABC. More information on the project is available here.

My paper (Remembrance and song: Cases from a special cohort) discussed the vital and therapeutic role of music in the lives of singing groups involving old people, some living with dementia. The short paper examined the impact of six community singing groups on several health and wellbeing outcomes for participants. I also explored the impact of music as a technology of remembrance, particularly among a cohort of ill or aged singers who are living in a highly conscious expectation of their own future death and may experience ‘preparatory’ grief. Music can play a vital role in both coming to terms with impending death, and in celebrating life. Singing, in particular, can provide both joy and a sense of companionship for those dealing with grief prior to the loss of their own lives or that of a loved one.

It was clear that by the end of the day all those in attendance were fully nourished and wanting for more. Individuals within the audience responded warmly and positively to the day’s presentations finding the content illuminating and relatable. Within days of the event, CHE was contacted by participants and interviewees providing feedback and suggestions to further develop the themes of remembrance, objects and emotions.

Forging connections between research and engagement is a vital part of CHE’s remit. Building on the formula of the day, future programs and activities are planned throughout 2015 to 2017.

Professor Gary Ansdell is one of the world’s leading scholars in the field of music therapy. He has worked with many client groups in the UK and Germany (currently in adult psychiatry) and has been involved in developing and researching Nordoff Robbins music therapy and its broader growth within the Community Music Therapy movement. In 2008 he was awarded the Royal Society for Public Health Arts & Health Award. He has written five books and published widely in the fields of music, music therapy and music and health/wellbeing. 

Professor Jane W Davidson has published extensively in the disciplines of music psychology and performance research. She is currently Deputy Director of the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions and Professor of Creative and Performing Arts (Music) at The University of Melbourne.

Dr Sandra Garrido is a postdoctoral research fellow at the ARC’s Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions and the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music. Her research in music psychology focuses on understanding emotional response to music and the impact of music on health and wellbeing.

Dr Angela Hesson is a postdoctoral curatorial/research fellow at the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotion. She is currently working on an upcoming exhibition in collaboration with the National Gallery of Victoria, focussing on the subject of art and emotion (in particular love) in European society in the period 1400-1800.  Much of her research to date has examined theories of fetishism and their relationship to femininity, as well as to practices of collection and connoisseurship.

Professor Katrina McFerran is a music therapist dedicated to examining the therapeutic uses of music with young people across a range of settings including paediatric hospitals, special and mainstream schools, as well as community programs. She is a prolific publisher in both international and local refereed journals, both within the music therapy discipline and more broadly. She is Director of the National Music Therapy Research Unit at The University of Melbourne and Associate Dean Research for the Faculty of VCA&MCM.

Dr Anne Riggs is a practising visual and community artist interested in expressions of human trauma, loss and grief. She has worked with victims of abuse and vulnerable communities internationally. She teaches arts practice, creative thinking and expression. She is a lecturer at Chisholm Institute. 

Dr. Monique Webber is an Honorary Fellow and adjunct faculty member with Classics and Archaeology at The University of Melbourne. Her current research inquires into the afterlife of monuments and objects, and its role in negotiating past and present societal concerns.

Dr Arnold Zable is an acclaimed writer, novelist and human rights advocate. He has travelled extensively, living in US, India, PNG, Europe, India and China. He has been a guest lecturer in a range of universities in Australia and internationally, and has conducted workshops for diverse groups including asylum seekers, refugees, problem gamblers, the deaf and bushfire survivors using story as a means of self-understanding. He has a doctorate from the school of Creative Arts, Melbourne University where he recently completed a term as Vice Chancellor’s fellow.


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