During Miami's Art Week and Art Basel, I had the pleasure of visiting numerous art installations and exhibitions, but few left as lasting an impression as Sallisa Rosa's Topography of Memory. Commissioned by Audemars Piguet Contemporary, the installation was a stunning example of how art can be used to explore complex themes and ideas.
The installation, which was present at the Collins Park Rotunda in Miami Beach, was an immersive experience that invited visitors to engage with their relationship to memory. As I entered the space, I was struck by the sheer scale of the installation. Over 100 hand-made ceramic forms were arranged in a pattern of totems on the ground, while ceramic bubbles hung from the ceiling, creating a cave-like environment that evoked primal feelings, and a sense of solitude and meditation. All of these sentiments echo one of the basic building blocks of our human experience: memory.
Collins Park Rotunda, courtesy of the artist and Audemars Piguet
Rosa's use of collected clay, sourced by hand from Rio de Janeiro's surrounding area, added an essential layer of meaning to the installation. Each sculpture was fired in a special kiln housed in an underground pit, offering a precise materiality that connected directly to the earth. This connection to the earth and the environment was a recurring theme in Rosa's work, and it was one that was particularly resonant in Topography of Memory.
Rosa's aim in creating this installation was to explore our collective ways of remembering, drawing a connection between the erosion of the earth and the erosion of memory. She is said to have created Topography of Memory based on a dream. Her use of collected clay in recognition of traditional practices was essential as she believed ceramics had a symbolic capacity to store memory, which could help us remember. This idea was particularly poignant given the fragile nature of memory and the ongoing reinvention of it.
Sallisa Rosa working near Itaboraí, Brazil. Courtesy of the artist and Audemars Piguet Contemporary
Clay is a material that can be easily molded, like our memories, into different shapes, and impressions can be left in it over time, telling its own story. One such example of this is fossils. Rosa removed the clay from its original environment and gave it a new life, implanting her memories and emotions into it. The installation, open to the public for free, was an invitation for guests to imprint their personal stories into her work. This was evidenced by how visitors could touch and interact with the exhibition rather than experiencing it from afar.
Sallisa Rosa in her studio. Courtesy of the artist and Audemars Piguet Contemporary
As I walked through the installation, I found myself drawn to the individual sculptures, each of which had been "hand-molded and fired using a wood-burning kiln at approximately 800 degrees," according to Rosa. The materiality of the sculptures was striking, and I found myself contemplating the fragility of memory and the importance of preserving it.
The fading memory of Rosa's grandmother, a core figure in bringing together the threads that made up her fragmented family history, was one of the main inspirations for the work. This personal connection to the theme of memory was evident throughout the installation, giving it such emotional depth.
"Topography of Memory is an immersive installation in which the earth takes center stage. The earth is the place of memory. While shaping the clay, I encoded memories into each piece, turning them into extracorporeal memories. People can move through the work, and my intention is that this movement activates collective memory. What does the earth remind us of?" - Sallisa Rosa
Photos from Topography of Memory, courtesy of Adar, LO'AMMI
The inspiration for this impressive exhibit was Rosa's grandmother, América, who was the main link to their family's history. Interestingly, she was born on Columbus Day, symbolizing the impact of indigenous culture and the emergence of a new one. Unfortunately, América suffered from Alzheimer's disease, which gradually eroded her memory. As a result, there was a sense of disconnection from their family's history, which this exhibition aims to highlight exists in all of us.
What struck me most about the installation, however, was its ability to evoke a sense of wonder and curiosity. The imaginary landscape that Rosa had created was both familiar and otherworldly, and it invited visitors to explore and engage with their own memories in a new and meaningful way. The artist trusted that the memory she had personally encoded in the clay, in manually crafting each ceramic by hand, would be transmitted to active viewers of the work. This trust in the viewer was what made Topography of Memory such a powerful and moving installation.
Sallisa Rosa at the Topography of Memory installation. Courtesy of the artist and Audemars Piguet Contemporary
As I left the Rotunda, I found myself thinking back on the experience, the emotions it had evoked, the different reactions from the viewers, and the idea of a continuously reshaped and renewed phenomenon that we call "memory." Topography of Memory was a remarkable display of how art can delve into intricate concepts and themes. I was deeply moved by it and will carry its impact with me for quite a while.