Deborah Aschheim: The Mutability of Memory

By Lisa Rubenson

In the picture, you’re eight years old. It’s a friend’s birthday party, and you’re sure you remember everything about the day. The sun beating down as you played tag, the grit of icing from a store-bought cake, the belly flop down the playground slide.

The picture triggers a connection between now and then, and you trust that these sensory details are as accurate today as they were when the picture was taken. However, cognitive science tells us that memory is inconstant. Each time we recall something, we overwrite the original. This makes memories less like file folders of irrefutable facts and more like stories that change each time they’re told.

McColl Center alumna Artist-in-Residence Deborah Aschheim has always been fascinated by the way we make and access memories. Her grandfather, aunt, and uncle all succumbed to memory-related disorders, and Deborah wants to understand how something as unreliable as memory can be so irrevocably tied to one’s identity. Much of her recent work explores this topic, something she connects to her time at McColl Center as the Carolinas HealthCare Artist-in-Residence in the fall of 2007.

Deborah’s residency involved working with memory-impaired patients at the assisted living community at Huntersville Oaks. With the help of family members, she showed patients photos from their past, recorded their recollections, then made drawings from the text of those interviews.

When asked to talk about her life, one elderly woman shrugged and said, “I married my 9th grade boyfriend, that’s it.” However, after seeing pictures of the woman wearing a motorcycle jacket and going out on dates, Deborah knew there was more to the story. The photos brought a flood of nostalgia, and soon the woman was dropping hints of a much more glamorous life than she had initially described. The “re-remembering” of these stories became the inspiration for Deborah’s creative output at McColl Center and continues to inform her work. 

Mrs. Mays, 2007, photo scans, text, acrylic, ink on paper, 30 x 22 inches

Mrs. Mays (detail)

“I want to reconcile the personal world of shifting, malleable, unreliable memories with the reliable, stable world we all have to live in,” she says. “My practice is very interdisciplinary, pulling in elements of neuroscience, autobiography, archaeology, biology, anthropology, and art history. By studying these non-rehearsed memories and interpreting them artistically, I’m able to move from theoretical space into the social space.”

From 2005 to her 2007 residency, Deborah says her work was largely “autobiographical,” focused on family photos, her own memories, and the memory loss experienced by her relatives. Prior to that time, her work was a response to the personal and cultural anxieties she felt growing up in the 1980s and 90s. 

“In my art, I’m trying to understand something that either scares or confounds me,” says Deborah. “I wanted to take this sense of cultural uneasiness, and my own fears about illness, and use my work as a structure to educate myself and others. I hoped to come out the other side somehow changed.”  

After her McColl Center residency, Deborah continued to seek opportunities that would allow her to engage with the stories and memories of others. She worked with elderly memory patients during a two-year fellowship at the University of California San Francisco’s center for memory and aging, and with another group of seniors making memory maps of Los Angeles.

In related work, Deborah collaborated with composer Lisa Mezzacappa on Earworms sound sculptures, installations that used sound to elicit an emotional response. Using a list of Deborah’s favorite words, Lisa wrote and recorded music that played on large speakers embedded in plastic and LED sculptures, prompting listeners to filter the music through their own memories and experiences.

Her 2013 exhibit, Threshold, addressed Deborah’s own imperfect remembering process. Warped and intentionally inaccurate plastic sculptures were an attempt to recreate from memory the modernist buildings she was drawn to in her youth – buildings that had once been emblematic of 1960s and 70s optimism, but now had fallen into decay. Deborah describes the installation as a “ghost city of internally lit ‘buildings,’ some over 12 feet tall, that the viewer navigated through like moving through a misremembered city in my mind.” 

She continues to feel a sense of urgency to understand her own past in the context of the time she grew up in.

“I have only impressions of what was going on in the 1960s and 70s – the Kennedys and Camelot, Vietnam, Nixon’s resignation. But people who are now in their sixties or seventies came of age during this time. They have distinct memories, because they have first person accounts. These are the people I want to hear from and learn from.” 

Deborah’s most recent work is a return to the kind of community engagement she experienced at the McColl Center. She creates ink-on-Dura-Lar film (a polyester film that combines Mylar® and Acetate) drawings that depict iconic political events from that 1960s and 70s era, and solicits responses from ordinary people who have various levels of connection with these events. In Involuntary Memories, she interviewed the visitors to a former Marine base – Marine Corps Air Station El Toro in Orange County, CA – to examine Vietnam, Watergate, and Richard Nixon’s resignation. 

August 4, 1974 (Air Force One), 2011, ink on Dura-Lar, 22 x 30.5 inches

A November 2014 exhibit titled Bienvenidos Los Presidentes/Welcome the Presidents, commissioned by Oficina de Proyectos Culturales in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, wrestled with Cold War U.S.-Mexico relations by inviting long-term residents of Puerto Vallarta to share their perspectives on American Presidents’ visits to Mexico in the 1960s and 70s.

These layered conversations – reaching across culture, history, individual and collective memory – are the ones Deborah is most interested in having. She would like us to understand that there is “no archive,” no “deep storage” for memory. It is a work in progress, as vital to our experience and as open to interpretation, as any work of art.