String Theory: Remembering the future

You have to begin to lose your memory, if only in bits and pieces, to realise that memory is what makes our lives. Life without memory is no life at all ... Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it, we are nothing.

Luis Buñuel, Memoires[1]

A lived experience is not only what has been lived, but also how we remember and recount it. Memory, on the other hand, is something we draw on in our everyday life; it forms the foundation of who we are and how we present ourselves to the world. The interplay between lived experience and memory is complex and will never capture all that we know or feel. Nevertheless, it provides a way into thinking about how lived experience translates into art. Memory and lived experience, together with tradition and culture, are at the heart of String Theory.

Curated by Glenn Barkley, and shown at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, at Perth Institute of Contemporary Art followed by the Museum and Art Gallery of the Nothern Territory in Darwin, String Theory shows a refreshing return to craft. This exhibition engages and recontextualises the craft traditions of Aboriginal peoples through sculpture, photography, painting and video by 30 artists and artist groups. Memory is deeply bound within each object, put there by thought as well as by the hand. The two projects I will discuss here: the amazing Yolngu string installation from Yirrkala in the Northern Territory and the lively series of dolls by the dollmakers at Narrogin in Western Australia embody this phenomenon. However, the role of memory in the process of making is deeper than many of us realise.

Memory gives great value and meaning to all the objects in String Theory. Each work is embedded with memory, placed there by the hands that shape fibres into string and that weave string into forms. As the artists’ work with the materials they recall experiences of the past, both lived and inherited, and intricately weave their own lives into each object while simultaneously celebrating the future in the continuance of culture.

Frances Djulibing: Yukuwa
Frances Djulibing, Yukuwa (Feather string yam vine) 2013, Banyan tree bark, cockatoo feathers, beeswax. Collection: Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney 

Feather String Yam Vine

Recent research by Monica Gagliano at the University of Western Australia suggests that even plants are capable of retaining memory and of changing behaviour over time.[2] In Frances Djulibing’s Yukuwa (Feather String Yam Vine) (2013), perhaps when we think of memory in art, we might also consider the hidden memory of the material. Like the wood in bark paintings that continues to shift and move once created. The layers of memory within an artwork are often complex and unseen. In Djulibing’s work the twisted fibres and bound feathers assume a great presence in the exhibition space; capturing the essence of ceremony and making it speak as fine art, but it also retains a deeper memory in the material. In a further echoing of memory Djulibing’s work is a reprisal of a work made in 1984 by Mary Gubriawuy, adding yet another layer of memory to its meaning.

String has always had many purposes in Aboriginal cultures, not only is it used for fishing line, nets and carrying bags but also for adornment and ceremonially in necklaces, belts and headbands, and often in ritual. For the Yolngu in North-Eastern Arnhem Land, string features in many stories. Its creation is attributed to the ancestral beings, a skill which they passed on to the Yolngu. Its link to creation ancestors has embedded string with sacred resonance and power held in reverence to this day. String is featured in ceremonial dance and is displayed as a form of identification. It is then presented to the custodian for safekeeping and only shown again at the next ceremony, thus strengthening its place in the lives and memories of Yolngu people for generations.[3]

A series of string figure prints within the exhibition reconnect to an encounter between Yolngu and anthropologist Fred McCarthy in Yirrkala in 1948. He studied the Yolngu methods of constructing the string figures, and their meanings. Ngarrawu Mununggurr collaborated with him to create a collection of 192 mounted string figures, now held in the Australian Museum in Sydney. In 2010, the community reconnected with the collection and made a series of etchings of the string figures. The prints were made by older women, most of whom had not worked with string for years; it required them to remember how to make designs as they went along, exploring and thinking through how elders would have worked before them. The results are impressive, giving fresh energy to a long held practice.[4] These elders show a determination to keep cultural practice alive, as well as a willingness to experiment and experience new approaches to remembering and reminding others of their past. 

Noongar Dolls
Noongar Dolls, 2010–11. Exhibition view: String Theory: Focus on contemporary Australian art. Collection: Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts, 2013. Photo: Aaron Bradbrook

Contemporary doll makers

The doll makers of Narrogin presented twenty black dolls, bringing together works by women from two communities in the Southern Wheatbelt region of Western Australia. In the original catalogue Nicola Davison claims that the styles of doll-making we see today derive from workshops with Nalda Searles and that the dolls are based on figures seen in paintings by Pantjiti Mary Mclean. They inspired “the first dark-coloured dolls the women had ever seen, building a strong sense of identity and connection to what they were creating”.[5] The dolls represented family and community members, both past and present.

Although the first series of workshops was conducted in 1994, it was not until 2010 that the practices learnt came into their own when some of the participants from the 1994 workshops expressed interest in teaching new generations. The participants recalled their grandmothers, aunties and mothers, making dolls in 1994, some twenty years earlier. While the initial workshops were held every two months, the later ones developed into a weekly community event. The results of which can be found in the National Gallery of Australia, the Western Australian Museum and the University of Wollongong Art Collection.

While each of the 30 artists and artists groups involved brings something different to the overall exhibition, memory provides us with what scholar Malcolm Bowie calls “a cross-weave between past, present and future” that “exists and is available for inspection” within the “experience of art, and in those complex acts of remembrance that works of art invite us to perform”. We are invited to use our own memories in String Theory, as the art tells us “when to look back, when to look ahead in expectation, and how to layer and interconnect different time-levels inside the onrush of artistic experience”.[6] While so many artists today are creating inexpensive artworks that celebrate mass-produced plastics, the art objects in this exhibition display both a desire and a necessity for the revival of the handmade in fine art. Contemporary art without memory, reverence or recall, without makers, without leaning into the past means an unclear future.

Memory is the connecting thread; it gives us stability and personal identity, joins us together and keeps us from falling apart.



  1. ^ Harriet Harvey
  2. ^ ‘Memory in plants’, The Economist, 19 January 2014.
  3. ^ Robyn McKenzie, The String Figure of Yirrkala, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 2013.
  4. ^ Glenn Barkley, ‘Hours of Doing’, String Theory, catalogue, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 2013.
  5. ^ Emma Fletcher and Annette Gohl, Community Arts Network, WA Ltd, 2011, p. 4
  6. ^ Harvey

Card image (detail): Frances Djulibing, Yukuwa (Feather string yam vine) 2013, Banyan tree bark, cockatoo feathers, beeswax. Collection: Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney