Intimate stories in reconfiguring the logic of narratives

26 January 2023 - no responses

My blogpost will introduce three artworks from contemporary women artists from the region of Eastern and Central Europe, whose art touches upon the questions of personal memory, family archives, and microhistories.[1] Rasa Jansone’s (Latvia, b. 1973) installation “Lost Treasures” from 2008 makes everyday moments “shine” in a new way; Inga Meldere’s (Latvia, b. 1979) painting series from 2007-2008 takes her grandfather’s photo archive from the 1960s as a point of departure; Vendula Knopová’s (Czechia, b. 1987) video “Tutorial” from 2015 is a comic collage of intimate family photos and videos, placed in dialogue with commercial imagery.

I shall first briefly describe all these artworks and then suggest one possible way of thinking about these very different artistic positions, in the context of how they share light to small histories and intimate memories, valuing multiple perspectives and fragmented stories.

Rasa Jansone’s “Lost Treasures”

The installation of Rasa Jansone consists of 8 painted figurines cast into epoxy resin, so that they resemble amber. Each of the pieces is attached to a wooden base and decorated with silver engraving with a word in Latvian: Teicamniecīte (Excellent girl), Voo-doo (Voodoo), Pēdējā revolucionāre (The Last Revolutionary), Mīla (Dear), Sapnītis (Dreamed), Džimšana (Birth), Viešna (Guest), Gimene (Family). The artist has also written a short poetic text accompanying the piece. Yet, the text is not necessarily part of the installation in the exhibition space, but is rather something that could be used, but does not have to be used as additional material for approaching the artwork.

Once upon a time there lived a woman artist. Sometimes small, hasty Crumbs of Memory came her way at the most unexpected and inappropriate moments; for example, her mum’s or boss’s scolding, or a child’s annoyance at her parents being busy. All of these were frozen moments, and one could count them, classify and arrange them into a certain system. Sometimes, these Crumbs of Memory annoyed the woman artist and, by pouring them into amber, she turned them into autonomous artworks. These are memories from somebody’s personal experience: shy and ordinary, but when shown in the right light and at the right angle, they shine like real gemstones. Maybe this is the way to count and measure Time: the true master of human life.


There isn’t a set logic for the objects in “amber” to be placed in an exhibition space; the constellation of these eight objects is supposed to depend on the context. This means that the installation is dynamic; there is no strict narrative that the viewer is supposed to grasp, but it’s more a fragmented, bodily, poetic reflection of the details of the everyday that are placed in the spotlight. As the titles of the objects cast in “amber” are given in Latvian only, the visuals themselves are ambiguous; the work is embedded in the local and particular (through the language) and more universal at the same time.

Inga Meldere’s paintings

The inspiration for the paintings by the Latvian artist Inga Meldere came from her grandfather’s collection of family snapshots from the 1960s, recording mainly family vacations and other shared events and experiences. Several photos were taken at a health resort in Crimea, where the artist’s grandfather stayed a few times due to lung disease. He liked to go for long walks and sit on park benches, reading books. Crimea, Untitled and A Valuable Purchase are inspired by the photos taken during these walks in the gardens and parks surrounding the health resort.


Family Tree and A Tree show Meldere’s grandmother, who lived on in the family’s memory through the photos taken by the artist’s grandfather.


These works represent ordinary moments that two members of a family have imprinted on the family’s personal, intimate memory, using different media. While the subjects of the photos and the paintings are the same, we can see how the memories, mediated through the photos, have been reinterpreted by a member of a younger generation.

Vendula Knopová’s “Tutorial”

The protagonist of Vendula Knopová’s playful, and yet strikingly frank, video “Tutorial” is the artist herself, who is looking through an artist’s book that she has created, mainly of her family photos. These photos were selected from the hard drive folder “Big kids” on her mother’s computer. These photos are put into dialogue with the aesthetics of commercial ads of the 2000s, which stimulates quite an absurd conversation with the personal snapshots and constructed visual spaces and aesthetics of the advertisements. This ironic gesture of adding advertisements to a family narrative creates cognitive dissonance. The video shows the artist herself damaging and changing the photos, complementing them with new drawings.

Therefore, Knopová, who has defined herself as “an ambassador of humour” in interviews, displays a playful and somewhat ambiguous relationship with the images of herself and her family members. Photos, the documents of memory, are treated here in a rather unusual manner, as if to highlight the curious and somewhat random or even violent nature of family albums. Yet this randomness reveals a deep frankness and honesty. The personal memory, constructed in this way, is dynamic, multidirectional, conflicting, and multi-layered, and yet extremely organic and contemporary.


Connecting peoples through the past

Along with Inga Meldere and Vendula Knopová, Rasa Jansone’s installation also invites us to think about the “musealisation” of individuals and families through family photos and personal stories. Meldere’s and Knopová’s works take family photo collections as a point of departure. To quote Joan Gibbons:

“[…] family photographs are never just records of the moment, whether anecdotal or formal or anywhere in between. They form part of larger interpersonal, sociological and ideological networks and are always historically and culturally specific.”[2]

While Meldere employs strategies distinctly different from Knopová’s, neither of them abides by the conventional, idealised and socially preferred version of the family history. They challenge the imaginary notion of family, offering frank and humorous realism instead.


The creative strategy, visual language and point of departure of these three authors is quite different. Yet, at the same time, they all use so-called small (her)stories as material for their art, through which they construct visual representation, but also relationships with the past. It is the bringing out of “small stories”, adding personal memory to collective memory through artistic creation, that gives these authors’ positions multiple meanings. They value the intimate and personal, add intimate layers to the collective (cultural) memory, one of the functions of which is the identity formation of a community. Although the artworks do not directly address the problem of “grand narratives”, their structure, the way they work, the way they create a poetic fragmented situation for reflection, already works against the idea of a grand or even straightforward narrative of the past. We can see how personal memory is translated into a specific cultural code, and the artworks act as apt metaphors for the fact that the important may not always be clearly visible, and is therefore not less valuable, but is hidden in the different layers. To see the layers in a new light, one needs to turn the scale and perspective around. Which each of the artists does.

It is also important to emphasise that in all three cases, although the material that the artist works with is very personal, we cannot speak of creating a self-centred and self-sufficient (family or self) portrait. The lighting out of a personal past, which could be critically viewed as a way of heroisation of a personal story, is balanced by a strong level of humour. And this aspect of humour is exactly what does not let the viewer fall into sweet nostalgia, but in valuing the particular, it also signals the awareness and problems of focusing on one specific story of a family and an individual, and making it somewhat special, compared with other stories, families and individuals.

If we look for an analogy in historiography, we could say that these artworks by Jansone, Meldere and  Knopová are close-up articulations of the past, on a small scale, and therein lies their quality and value, appreciating the particular and the detailed. At the same time, these works emphasise the use of multiple perspectives rather than one dominant perspective. Subjects, mutual relations and intimacy come to the fore in these works, emphasising the connection of people and details through the past.[3] Therefore, they work in opposition with the mechanisms of how narratives (whether they are grand or small) usually work, making it tangible, how they are never innocent and involve some sort of plotting.[4]

Therefore, to conclude, these artworks by Jansone, Meldere and Knopová bring to the fore how memory works, questioning, at the same time, the logic of one-directional narratives, and are a visualisation of multi-directional and multi-voiced realities instead. I suggest that such gestures that create open-ended knowledge and unpredictable experiences invite us to comprehend human experience in a more complex and multifaceted way.


By: Eda Tuulberg


[1] The blog entry is a further development of the short texts I wrote for the catalogue of the exhibition Archaeologist of Memory. Vitols Contemporary Art Collection, in view at Kumu Art Museum at the moment.

[2] J. Gibbons, Contemporary Art and Memory: Images of Recollection and Remembrance, London: Tauris, 2007, p.  44.

[3] J. Brewer, Microhistory and the Histories of Everyday Life, CAS e-series, Nummer 5/2010, p. 2.

[4] J. Brewer, Microhistory and the Histories of Everyday Life, p. 8.


Post a comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

The maximum upload file size: 15 MB. You can upload: image, audio, video, document. Links to YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and other services inserted in the comment text will be automatically embedded. Drop files here

scroll up