Flux in Memories

Flux in Memories

When someone dies, the most mundane objects can, suddenly, become filled with meaning. A glass left on the coffee table. A used toothbrush by the sink. Family snapshots, folded up and fading, shoved to the back of a shoebox. As time goes by, and life goes back to “normal”, we might choose to carry a crumpled portrait in our wallet, or in a frame on our desk at work. Printed photographs, unlike other media, offer us something tangible – a near-identical replica of a person, time or place. Moreover, there’s a scientific reason why images might be our first choice when looking for an instant connection. The Picture Superiority Effect, attributed to psychologist Allan Paivio (1925-2016), shows that the human brain remembers images better than text. “Recall tests consistently yielded much higher recall for pictures than for words under all conditions,” he wrote in 1976.

The relationship between photography and remembrance is as old as the camera itself. In Victorian England, when the technology was still in its infancy, families would commission daguerreotype portraits of loved ones who had recently passed. The results are, to modern sensibilities, deeply unsettling. But, for people living in the 1800s, when paintings were costly and cameras were rare, “it was often the first time families thought of having a photograph taken – the last chance to have a permanent likeness,” Bethan Bell writes for the BBC. Now, thanks to smartphones, most of us carry an archive everywhere we go. A quick swipe – or rifle through a cupboard – is a portal to memories of the people we love.

Grief is a key part of what makes us human, and artists have long engaged with the complexities of life and death. In the 17th century, memento mori paintings were symbols of human mortality. Antonio De Pereda’s The Knight’s Dream (c. 1650) is adorned with skulls, wilting flowers and snuffed out candles. Fast forward to 1991, and Damien Hirst’s infamous formaldehyde shark, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, offers a different take.

The Information Age has introduced new ways of engaging with memory. Documents can be harnessed like never before. The National Archive, for example, offers online access to UK records dating back hundreds of years: wills, military information, censuses. It’s become easier to build a family tree.

Cristóbal Ascencio (b. 1988) is a Mexican photographer who lives and works in Madrid. He’s part of Foam Talent 2024-2025, a prestigious annual initiative run by Foam Fotografiemuseum Amsterdam. It selects and celebrates creatives at the cutting edge of lens-based practice, and previous iterations have spotlighted the likes of Erik Madigan Heck, Juno Calypso, Namsa Leuba and Vasantha Yogananthan. Ascencio’s research focuses on the role images play in how we remember those we have lost. It’s about the way pictures make us feel, and how this can change with time, distance, knowledge and insight. He uses new forms of image-making, like virtual reality, data manipulation and photogrammetry, to expand the definition of a photograph. His body of work offers “an invitation to think about all the relationships that we once formed and that continue to develop after death.”

Las flores mueren dos veces (Flowers die twice, 2022) is rooted in a deeply personal, and multi-layered, experience of loss. “My father died when I was 15, but I was not told it was a suicide until I turned 30. It was then that I started to revisit the images, places and memories that were left behind.” His father, Margarito, was a gardener by profession. He wrote a farewell letter, which talked about plants, and said: “Forgive me and communicate with me.” This was a catalyst for Ascencio; he became driven to try to make sense of what had happened. “After receiving this new information, I started to revisit my family archive and the last garden in which my father worked.” In albums, he found analogue shots capturing beach days, weddings, horse riding and childhood football games. Ascencio also returned to Mexico to look for plants his father had grown, which are still alive today.

“Each garden reminded me of how much my father and his death had affected the lives of those who knew him. I began to think about the relationship between nature and memory, and how it can serve as an emotional link between the past and the present. These plants are somehow part of my father’s living memory and a tangible manifestation of the mark he left behind.” Amongst the plants was Cattleya, a genus of orchids from Costa Rica and Argentina; and Monstera, a popular houseplant native to the Americas.

Rather than simply photographing the specimens, however, Ascencio decided to create a three-dimensional representation of the garden using photogrammetry, a procedure that makes multiple images and stitches them together to create high-fidelity digital models of the physical world. It’s often used in technical fields like architecture, engineering, geology and meteorology, where precise measurements are needed. In this case, however, its application is more conceptual, serving as a “bridge” between planes and a way to connect viewers with Margarito’s legacy. The resulting pictures are ethereal, showing pixelated leaves and petals floating against stark black backdrops. There’s a sense of them being caught somewhere in space – reaching out from the darkness. They would not look out of place amidst the five-dimensional “Tesseract” scene in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014), where strings of time are infinitely repeated, stretched and made malleable.

Ascencio took a similar approach to his family snapshots, introducing visual slippages to the surface of each one. Facial features are skewed and smudged, like layers of paint smeared across canvas. They are reminiscent of Gerhard Richter’s (b. 1932) photo-paintings of the 1960s, fuzzy compositions, which depicted relatives he would never see again and childhood places he could not revisit after WWII. “The blur serves as a perfect general metaphor for memory, its degradation,” Tom McCarthy explains in a Guardian review. Likewise, Ascencio’s figures are caught in transition – moving from one world, bleeding into the next.

Physical intervention in photography is an effective way to communicate presence and absence. Mishka Henner’s Dutch Landscapes (2011) shows redacted areas of Google Maps – political, economic and military locations censored and overlaid by bold, colourful polygons. Likewise, Diane Meyer’s Berlin (2012-2019) uses embroidery to mark the trajectory of the former Berlin Wall through suburbs and forests. She calls this “a translucent trace in the landscape of something that no longer exists but is a weight on history and memory.” Here, anonymisation is a way to draw attention to, and detract from, difficult truths. Ascencio achieved this effect “by manipulating the structural data of the photographs. I deconstructed them, and the narratives with which they were associated, using a glitch or error as a tool. This experimentation created new images that serve as a metaphor for corrupted memories.” Finally, he transformed them into VR. Users can navigate “fragmented thoughts, and the different possible versions of reality that can arise from a change in the course of personal history.”

Ascencio is part of the generation of image-makers who grew up during the internet’s early years and are now playing with its creative potential. Another example from Foam Talent’s 2024-2025 cohort is Andrea Orejarena & Caleb Stein, whose series American Glitch is all about the notion of “living in a simulation.” The idea was popularised by films like The Truman Show (1998) and The Matrix (1999) and has since prompted discussion online. Much discourse is lighthearted, noticing doppelgangers or strange coincidences, whilst other conversations edge towards something darker and conspiratorial. In response, the duo photographs sites around the USA that remind them – and others – of this phenomenon. It sits nicely in Foam’s selection with Sheung Yiu’s (Inter)Faces Of Predictions (2023), which critiques the automation bias of facial recognition. It was once the stuff of science fiction, but is now a technology used every day.

Perhaps most aligned with Ascencio’s body of work is Sander Coers’ POST (2023). The photographer, in a departure from his previous sun-drenched visual essays, trained an AI bot on his grandparents’ photo albums. “As a child, I spent hours fascinated by the details in each picture. I longed to connect with the people captured in those images and to have a glimpse into my grandfather’s past … These generated versions evoke landscapes, clothing and colours from that time. However, everything is completely false.” It’s another project that is rooted in family history, but uses generative tools as a means of bridging a gap – between past and present, intimacy and distance, life and death. Coers also asks questions about truth in the Information Age, encouraging us to be mindful of where our “real” memories end and digital ones begin. After all, the average smartphone user has around 2,000 images saved; we spend six and a half hours in front of screens each day. That’s a large portion of life taken up by zeroes and ones.

Whilst reviewing submissions to this year’s open call, Foam noticed an uptick in the use of algorithms as a creative tool. “The presence of new technologies was very noticeable, with artificial intelligence being the number one newcomer of the year.” For some readers, this news might come with a feeling of apprehension, even fear. What will it mean for the future of individual creativity? Yet the projects included in Foam’s latest selection are extremely human.

On first seeing a photograph in around 1840, the French painter Paul Delaroche (1797-1856) exclaimed: “From today, painting is dead!” His quote is indicative of major anxieties surrounding the camera when it first emerged in the mid-19th century. Is a similar scenario unfolding? Or are the issues wrapped up with AI and other forms of digital art, including copyright and bias, just too great? Beyond the creative industries, as the world-at-large becomes increasingly automated, these questions will affect us all. One thing is certain: Foam Talent has not lost touch with humanity just yet. This year’s cohort shows how digital technologies can be used, in the right hands, to create something meaningful: artwork that cuts to the core of what it means to be part of the ebb and flow of life – and death – on Earth.

Foam Talent 2024-2025 | Amsterdam | 23 February – 22 May


Words: Eleanor Sutherland

Image credits:

1.&4. Cristóbal Ascencio, Garden IX, from Las Flores Mueren Dos Veces, (2023).

2. Cristóbal Ascencio, Cattleya, from Las Flores Mueren Dos Veces, (2023).

3. Cristóbal Ascencio, Monstera Deliciosalas, from Las Flores Mueren Dos Veces, (2023).

5. Cristóbal Ascencio, Garden I, from Las Flores Mueren Dos Veces, (2023).

6. Cristóbal Ascencio, Unknown Orchid, from Las Flores Mueren Dos Veces, (2023).