Over the past year, our global experience of collective memory has evolved into a strikingly prescient phenomenon. The pandemic has fostered a sweeping capacity for intuitive recognition of what those two words, when brought together, might mean. Yes, there’s our global adaptation to COVID-19, but there’s also the collective dangers associated with mental health, financial livelihood, shelter, and how these collisions subsequently fork and diverge at the intersection of class, race, and other categories of oppression. These variances don’t reveal something new; instead, they reveal that biographies outside the limelight of recorded history have always been there—we just weren’t looking closely enough.

Prior to the pandemic’s takeover, the curatorial and programming team at Utrecht’s FOTODOK planned a year of events based on interpretations of collective memory. They explored the topic through exhibitions, writing, publications and, despite COVID protocols, were able to put together a group show called Pass It On. Private Stories, Public Histories. The exhibition brings together the work of four artists working with archives: Marianne Ingleby, Pablo Lerma, Inge Meijer, and Lebohang Kganye.

Installation view of “Operation Detachment” by Marianne Ingleby, in “Pass It On. Private Stories, Public Histories” at FOTODOK, photo by Studio Hans Wilschut

As soon as the pandemic hit, curator Daria Tuminas knew she had to drastically re-interpret her ideas for what an exhibition could be. Perfect prints on the wall felt like a waste of atmosphere; how could she breathe life into a theme without leaning on the classical exhibition format? “I started my research in May, and by that point it was abundantly clear that I had to put together a show that could exist in our current circumstances and still make sense,” she explains. “After much thought, I decided to approach the exhibition as a way to facilitate artists continuing their work on incomplete projects that they felt stuck with. We used the exhibition as a tool to help artists in their ongoing process, rather than presenting final work, investing in the production of their experimentation.”

The exhibition space comprises four rooms, with one artist allocated to each, transforming each enclosure into an intimate physical encounter with their materials. “Because crowds are no longer possible in museums and gallery spaces, we wanted to take advantage of the possibility for more personal encounters,” says Tuminas. “It’s important to facilitate these encounters, because the images are tricky to work with—there’s an impossibility that comes with passing on their history, and the original context of the stories can never be fully passed on. The artefacts might move on, but how much is left behind? What is missing?”

From the series “Operation Detachment” © Marianne Ingleby

The first room contains the work of Marianne Ingleby, whose project is titled Operation Detachment—an homage to her deceased grandfather. After his death, Ingleby’s mother gave her a box of photographs that Bruce made in Iwo Jima as an official US army photographer during the Second World War. Unlike Joe Rosenthal’s iconic Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima, Ingleby’s family archive depicts a gruesome battle subsequently erased by the heavy hands of history. It’s an archive of prints, test sheets, and negatives, with photographs documenting the personal and professional sides of occupation. Ingleby describes the images as the “army rejects,” since most of her grandfather’s photographs were deemed unnecessary for official documentation by the National Archives in Maryland. Through her work, Ingleby tries to determine where her grandfather’s archive should end up; legally, it’s hers, but ethically, where does it belong?

From the series “Operation Detachment” © Marianne Ingleby

Approaching the answers to these questions feels like trying to slay a hydra—as soon as one question is answered, a multitude of others spring from its roots. “My grandfather never spoke a word to me about the war,” Ingleby explains. “At first, I had no idea what I was looking at, and it took awhile to piece things together. I also went through a process of understanding that these images were not documented by an anonymous photographer; for each and every gruesome scene, my grandfather was present. The photographs show us how victory was celebrated, with men posing and drinking beers, and how Passover was conducted in the warzone, with a prayer book in one hand and a pistol in the other. There are also explicit images of intimate encounters in brothels. Through these images, ethical questions arise: how do we show them, and must we?”

In a video work created for the installation, Ingleby’s hands sift through the materials, writing questions to her grandfather on white pieces of card in a monologue of written word. When she encounters photographs containing nudity and recognizable faces, Ingleby describes the images, rather than showing them—a combination of impact and metaphor that aptly demonstrates the complexity of redistributing a collective memory that was systemically forgotten.

Installation view of “It Doesn’t Stop at Images” by Pablo Lerma in “Pass It On. Private Stories, Public Histories” at FOTODOK, photo by Studio Hans Wilschut

The next room houses the work of Pablo Lerma, who also excavates the unseen narratives in archival materials. The title of this project, It Doesn’t Stop At Images, is a nod to a passage in David Wojnarowicz’s seminal Close to the Knives. Lerma presents three narrative threads unearthed from IHLIA LGBT Heritage’s collection of the magazine Homologie, a periodical founded in the late 1970s by a group of queer professors at the University of Amsterdam.

In his previous work, Lerma entered the normative storytelling of vernacular images in order to reveal their potential for queerness, but when Tuminas approached him about the FOTODOK exhibition, he decided to work with an explicitly queer collection instead. To his surprise, he found himself disappointed at first. He couldn’t identify his own experience as a gay man in the archive’s slough of explicitly voyeuristic content. But when he saw the images and narratives at play in Homologie, he was immediately struck by their casual nature and relatability, and began isolating the images throughout the pages of each issue.

Installation view of “It Doesn’t Stop at Images” by Pablo Lerma in “Pass It On. Private Stories, Public Histories” at FOTODOK, photo by Studio Hans Wilschut

For the exhibition, Lerma created three vitrines—one for each of his excavated threads. The first contains images of Homologie’s icons and heroes, the second is about the body, and the third is a collection on love and community. The icons and heroes include images from Fassbinder films, as well as portraits of Jean Genet and heartthrobs like James Dean and Joaquin Phoenix. Images of the body are presented as a poetic constellation, and the images of love and relationships contain everything from photos of demonstrations to family life.

Each vitrine contains three internal layers. The base displays the original magazines, opened to reveal Lerma’s selected spreads. Hovering above this base is a layer of transparent glass, which holds facsimiles of images from the spreads, floating just above their source. The third layer of glass is what Lerma describes as “the experience of the viewer,” where his audience can visualize their own encounter in their reflection, looking down through the artist’s geological setup. On the wall, Lerma hangs one enlargement from each of these threads, themselves connected through the gentle exhale of their subjects’ closed eyes. It’s a peaceful closure to an important new conceptual chapter for the artist. “I wanted to find a way to portray gay men as dreamers, sleeping,” he says. “It’s another way of showing how different ways of representing gay men have always been there—we just have to find them.”

Installation view of “It Doesn’t Stop at Images” by Pablo Lerma in in “Pass It On. Private Stories, Public Histories” at FOTODOK, photo by Studio Hans Wilschut

The third room curtains Inge Meijer’s project A Garden Revisioned. In 2019, Meijer attended an artist residency in Gwangju, which happened to be located across the street from a giant six-story building, set to be demolished. An acquaintance mentioned that from 1988 to 2006, the building was the largest wedding hall at the city; at the height of its popularity, the facilities would host around 200 weddings per day, offering a slew of services including gown rentals, catering, hair and beauty salons, as well as photography sessions in studios and an “outdoor photography garden.” The building was set to be demolished, and a few days prior its demise, Meijer went inside to explore. Within its walls, she discovered contact sheets and negatives scattered across the abandoned structure’s floor. Feeling drawn to the materials, she collected them up to preserve them, bringing them together in an archive that also includes VHS tapes, interviews, and video documentation of the subsequent demolition.

“Photo studio” from the series “A Garden Revisioned” © Inge Meijer

Meijer was slated to return to Gwangju in 2020 to develop the work further, but then COVID hit. The artist now finds herself in the shoes of “an accidental, temporary owner and carrier of the archive”, and used her space at FOTODOK to engage in discussion about her problematic predicament. Together with artists Real Lee and Alma Kim, she creates digital images from the materials, running videos of the building’s rough demolition to contrast with the quiet solitude of the outdoor photography garden, overgrown and unkempt. The installation allows Meijer to play with these materials in a multitude of new forms, complicating the narrative threads initiated by her unexpected status as keeper of the archive.

Installation view of “A Garden Revisioned” by Inge Meijer in “Pass It On. Private Stories, Public Histories” at FOTODOK, photo by Studio Hans Wilschut

The exhibition’s final room contains the work of Lebohang Kganye, whose photographic practice consistently addresses the generational layers of potentiality and information lost and restructured with the passage of time. Kganye approaches collective memory from the perspective of her own family’s oral histories and photo albums. Travelling through The Free State of South Africa, the artist recorded the life stories of her relatives, while simultaneously recreating family photos. In the exhibition, Kganye presents Re Palame Tereneng e Fosahetseng (We took the wrong train) and O Emetse Mohala (She is waiting for a call), two works that commentate on the difference between the narratives of her collected oral histories and the stories envisioned through her family albums.

Installation view of “Ho thubeha ha lebone (A breakage of the light)” by Lebohang Kganye in “Pass It On. Private Stories, Public Histories” at FOTODOK, photo by Studio Hans Wilschut

Kganye’s installation manifests in a new historical form, reimagining her images as fragments of movement and light, making the oral into something visual, and static images into kinetic forms. It’s an alchemical manifestation of atmosphere over stasis, challenging the contexts lost and inflated through our preferred historical methods. Kganye’s work is a visceral take on the discrepancies that can be uncovered in photographs, which are tricky materials to work with, simultaneously deceptive and grounding.

Installation view of “Ho thubeha ha lebone (A breakage of the light)” by Lebohang Kganye in “Pass It On. Private Stories, Public Histories” at FOTODOK, photo by Studio Hans Wilschut

From the 5th of April, viewers from across the world can explore the space of Pass It On. Private Stories, Public Histories through a virtual tour. It’s a compelling investigation into how we might conflate the concepts of artist and archivist, and is proof that it isn’t necessary to rely on finished, polished products in exhibition spaces. The overarching archival bent of each artist is strengthened by their individual investigation into how their materials can effectively interact with the public, providing each archive with a sentience beyond their potential consumption as lifeless objects.

Each artist, in their own way, manifests a multitude of counter-narratives at once, not only embodying the theme of collective memory, but challenging it—a crucial practice in this revolutionary time. “My hope is that the installations reveal a lot of vulnerability, because the artists don’t necessarily know what their final works will look like. But what is ‘the work’?” ponders Tuminas. “I think the border between a maker’s process and their final piece is much thinner than we like to think. The process also deserves a stage for understanding and engagement.”