In his book, Lines: A Brief History, Tim Ingold describes the traditional process of learning to write Chinese characters. Before putting pen on paper, children learn to follow the shape of each element of a character, using their hand to move through the shape, rather than learning it as an image. As they repeat these movements their bodies remember them as gestures and Ingold suggests that this is the reason it’s possible to learn so many individual characters – their body absorbs the knowledge of the action and, “the hand knows how to form each character even if the eye has forgotten its design.”
We have two qualities of memory- ‘Explicit’ and ‘Implicit’. Explicit memory is our conscious memory – it lets us make sense of what happens, puts things into a pattern or story. This kind of memory reaches maturity when we’re about three years old. Implicit memory is unconscious, and is stored or encoded in emotional, sensory and visceral recall. It’s what is sometimes called ‘body memory’ and is how we remember complex movements and gesture as well as emotionally traumatic or overwhelming events. A memory we have no conscious awareness of will be stored somatically in our muscle, sinew and viscera.
This somatic memory fascinates me, and I’m always curious to find evidence of it in both bodies and their surroundings. The collection of paintings and sculpture displayed throughout the Foundling Museum, primarily figure bodies and faces and one afternoon I took a walk through the museum, photographing the gestures and glances present in the artworks. Below are a selection.
All images are copyright Coram in the care of The Foundling Museum.