[This article was originally published by Entropy on 18 April 2018]
Suchitra Mattai’s “Memory, History, Forgetting (After Paul Ricœur)” serves as a conceptual centerpiece for her exhibit “Sweet Asylum,” which is now on display at K Contemporary in Denver, Colorado. The assemblage consists of an Encyclopedia Britannica set from the artist’s birth year affixed to a wall. Mattai clustered the volumes into groups of four or five, such that large gaps appear along a linear plane. Extending across the collection’s horizontal axis, a mixed-media wrap created from paper, textiles, and paint encases the bound volumes.
What’s evident from viewing the piece is Mattai’s interest in and engagement with systems of knowledge. The mounted encyclopedias not only represent, but physically embody, a “comprehensive” aggregate of information that has been validated and normalized across the Western, English-speaking world. Britannica champions its encyclopedic division as “synonymous with reliable and trustworthy information for generations.” And company president Jorge Cauz stated in a 2012 article for The New York Times that the information found within their encyclopedia “will always be factually correct.”
Of course, if the postmodern era has taught us anything, it is that “master narratives,” whose function is to legitimate specific historical and cultural perspectives, are not truthful or factual in any sort of unimpeachable manner. Rather, these narratives operate as conduits for ideologies that masquerade as agents of truth through a process of depoliticization which attempts to naturalize them within our consciousness. This is not to say that the information in the Encyclopedia Britannica is false, per se; but it does mean that the form of Britannica’s content, as well as the content itself, promotes particular political, economic, and ethical ideals. And, obviously, such ideals will benefit certain communities and individuals more than others.
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