Bringing Back Familiarity Through Art

Through a New York-based residency with Residency Unlimited at Abrons Art Center, Finnish artist Heta Kuchka has been working closely with patients with dementia at the Shore Hill Housing/Lutheran Medical Center in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. In her video installation “Present,” Kuchka captures each participant reacting to piano renditions of songs that have once had special meaning for them. Rather than evoking the horrors of dementia – the loss of brain function, memory, personality, and bodily functions – Kuchka’s “Present” does the opposite and instead reveals an element of hope and humanity; these “victims” of dementia can still feel and be moved by certain sensations. The illness fades into the background, as the songs soothe and energize the elderly patients. Entering into the exhibition, I was excited to partake in the transformation-process, as though alongside the patients themselves.

Please Don’t Take My Sunshine Away

As a long-time student of memory studies, I found myself increasingly intrigued and decided to attend the opening to see Kuchka’s video installation for myself. Walking up the stairs of the Abrons Art Center, I couldn’t help but smile as distant sounds of people laughing and singing along to Ricky’s Nelson’s sorrowfully cheerful “You Are My Sunshine” greeted me before I even entered the exhibition space. In the center of the room, a pianist and the artist were standing with the visitors, clapping to the song and appearing to have a good time despite the somber topic of memory loss. A smaller adjacent room holds Kuchka’s video installation: a life-sized vertical projection of elderly figures listening and reacting to their favorite songs. I found myself standing still, overcome with nostalgia and remembering the steady trembling of my grandmother’s hands and the song she used to sing to me when I was young.

Heta Kuchka’s interest in the connection between sound and memory is rooted in a painful story – hearing the news of her father’s sudden passing while attending a concert in 2000. In a 2008 video-installation “Daddy’s Girl (Trying not to Cry Listening to that Song)” Kuchka explores the traumatic imprint of musical memory, playing the song on repeat while trying not to cry. With “Present,” she explores the opposite—the excavation of joyful memories.

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