With a lifelong curiosity in familiar objects ordinarily overlooked and a prevailing tendency to carefully collect and attentively treasure random objects. This genuine interest has been more considerably developed after being drawn to the published book Evocative Objects by Sherry Turkle. With no outward apparent significance or specific meaning, these random commonplace objects undoubtedly possess a deep connection with our ordinary lives. When we invariably observe our potential associations with those familiar objects or thoughtfully consider what they have merely witnessed throughout the entire span of their material existence. We can subsequently identify these deeper connections we vicariously experience with commonplace objects.

Key observations were sufficiently established from the independent review of the autobiographical remembrances in the  published book Evocative Objects (Turkle, 2011). Consistently attempting to reliably provide considered evidence of the Proustian theory of involuntary memory. The extensive collection of personal accounts of particular familiar objects and the profound significance in the personal lives for the story-tellers.

Each of these first-hand accounts has been properly supported by the meaningful connections each of these familiar objects undoubtedly possesses to intellectual practice. Each individual author attentively examines the established associations with their chosen objects and the conscious thoughts, expressed and unexpressed feelings and their complex emotions that these treasured objects invoke.

Turkle speaks enthusiastically of the direct associations we typically place on familiar objects with our close friends and beloved relatives who are no longer in our local community. Each respective author candidly discusses the specific circumstances around their treasured object’s visible presence in their routine lives. Familiar objects have a hold on us. We intimately connect them to specific situations, particular people and certain historical, social or cultural events that have been a part of our social community. Commonplace objects can powerfully influence us positively or negatively with overwhelming feelings of involuntary attraction with fond memories or distinct repulsion with unpleasant memories.

Our continued association with recognisable objects is undeniably on a deep and personal level, integrating our conscious thoughts with our heart-felt feelings. Indeed, with some treasured objects it may be hard to sufficiently separate the life force of the specific object from one’s own life force. We sometimes believing these sacred objects to be lucky or totems, comfortably providing us with an at-oneness with the chosen object.

As a mohair-covered, stuffed, jointed toy, with movable arms, legs and head, a teddy bear can be cradled and hugged like a baby. But the wild bear referenced by the toy is an animal that can be threatening to human beings. Having a ferocious guardian at one’s side makes the teddy into a symbol of protective aggression, which is why, for the past hundred years, it has provided solace to frightened children and later to adults, who carry that comfort with them as a cherished memory.(Alphen, 2014)

When performing documentary analysis of historical text, it became apparent that the specific term Involuntary Memory was first discussed by Marcel Proust, the French Novelist in his novel ‘À la Recherche du Temps Perdu’ (In Search of Lost Time or Remembrance of Things Past). This seminal novel, considered to be undoubtedly his most prominent work was consistently written in earnest between the consecutive years 1913 and 1927 in seven published volumes. The published volume that properly discusses the most famous reference Proust’s memorable Madeline moment, Swann’s Way, the first published volume in 1913.

When eagerly eating a tea-soaked Madeline cake, Proust involuntarily remembered a childhood incident with his dear aunt and his childhood home. The Madeleine acts as a personal memento involuntarily accentuating his previously obscured correlations between his heightened senses, emotional perceptions and his own subconscious mind. Fondly recalling these childhood events naturally led him to reasonably consider these experiences as involuntary memories. Proust advocates that our forgotten memories are buried somewhere deep beyond our conscious minds. He suggests these concealed associations with the unremembered past can spontaneously resurface through our unique interactions with material objects.

Involuntary memory or Proustian memory typically occurs when spontaneous observances in our typical lives invoke a distinct recollection of a previous event, specific person or a certain memory without any conscious effort whatsoever. Different to voluntary memory where conscious recall invariably brings about the specific memory, these recollections instinctively appear as a direct response to an extrasensory stimulus.

Spontaneous stimulation of our intuitive senses can invoke distinct memories from our forgotten past. Indeed, our subconscious associations we typically establish with familiar objects around us can invoke these involuntary memories when we interact directly or indirectly with the commonplace objects.

As our personal memories typically begin to diminish gradually over considerable time, we naturally need continued reflection with the collective community to properly maintain the ongoing remembrance of such established associations. These ambiguous associations, we attach to are dependent on extrasensory perceptions and our social connections with our local community. Without the social interaction with our local community in conscious recollection and continued remembrance, these precious memories can become more blurred throughout the advancing years.

Through the analysis of historical text, it was established that the importance of placing our personal memories within a social context was first established by the French Philosopher and Sociologist, Maurice Halbwachs. He fundamentally believed our individual memories not only contribute to our personal identity but our proper place in civilized society, within a social collective context.

He is primarily recognised for progressively developing the philosophical concept of Collective Memory. His most significant theory of Collective Memory was first expressed in his book La Mémoire collective, 1950 (“The Collective Memory”). In this published book he succinctly describes the fundamental notion that a social group unquestionably retains a collective memory. This significant notion is clearly defined by the social framework of the local group within our civilised society. Our personal memories are naturally influenced by the overall memory of the social group, and our unique understanding of the historic past is intrinsically linked to the group recollection, plausibly suggesting that the conscious mind will seemingly reconstruct our forgotten memories within the confines of acceptable societal interaction.

We invariably associate with those who typically maintain similar recollection, yet our personal recall of historical events can generally be dissimilar from the collective remembrance.

We may exist concurrently within many social groups. All of the social groups we invariably have ideologic affinity with will naturally exert some evident influence over our own personal memories and daily interactions. We undoubtedly possess an intimate interaction with the familiar objects in our routine lives and ordinarily possess personal memories typically associated with these commonplace objects. Our conscious perception of these familiar objects will be naturally influenced by the collective memories of the social groups we invariably share mutual accord.

Prominent artists will frequently use found objects within a creative piece to actively stimulate the discerning viewer’s potential interaction. This direct interaction can subsequently appear in many distinct forms and often the intuitive senses are intentionally stimulated to invariably produce a memorable response in the observing viewer.

On direct examination of the publicly displayed artworks available to adequately support the philosophical theories of Proust and Halbwachs. Two specific artworks were instantly identified; ‘Present Tense’ (1996) by Mona Hatoum and ‘Personnes’ (2010) by Christian Boltanski. These selected artworks convincingly demonstrate the perceptual ability to invoke involuntary memory recall in the attentive viewer. They also maintain the historical narrative found through the cultural practice of generational story-telling.

Mona Hatoum consistently produces completed artworks that abruptly stimulates our intuitive senses and intentionally establishes familiar objects into unfamiliar surroundings invoking personal involuntary memories and historical recollections. In 1996 she was graciously commissioned by the Anadiel Gallery in Jerusalem. This resulted in the subsequent on-site production of her symbolic piece ‘‘Present Tense’’ (1996), more recently acquired by the Tate Gallery in 2013.

The completed work, a precise arrangement of over 2000 unique pieces of traditional Palestinian soap that historically retains considerable symbolic meaning to the Palestinian community and accurately reflects an ongoing political situation in Palestine. Faithfully reflecting the historical endurance and indefatigable perseverance of the Palestinian people, invoking recollections and cultural remembrance. These personal and collective recollections naturally occur through the intuitive senses of sight and smell and the practical use of a simple traditionally produced product Nablus soap.

Typically manufactured in Nablus from virgin olive oil, local water and sodium compound the soap gains its proper name from where it typically originates. This strategic city, located north of Jerusalem remains economically the most significant cultural and cultural centre in Palestine.  Historically, continuous production of this handmade soap has been in existence since the 10th Century and export to other economic regions undoubtedly continues. Many of the local factories have been demolished through inevitable disaster or continuous occupation by armed-forces. Only a limited number of local factories are currently producing handmade Nablus soap.

Establishing strong cultural and historical associations with the Palestinian identity by imprinting the laid-out soap with a political map based on the Oslo Agreement. Hatoum intentionally created a symbolic representation of the Palestinian resistance to the official borders rigorously defined by this government agreement. The distinct smell of the mild scented soap permeated the immediate atmosphere adjacent to the significant sculpture. Invariably becoming a potent trigger for poignant recollections of individual, historical and collective memory by the visiting people viewing the commissioned artwork.

Throughout her extensive career, Hatoum has carefully considered the multi-sensory experience of the potential viewer during her creative process. She convincingly demonstrates the meaningful connection with the intuitive senses when viewing her artwork as essential to the overall experience.

Thus, invoking a psychological and emotional response in what she unambiguously identifies as the visible embodiment of personal memory, our ‘bodies, home, place, and displacement, we are confronted with a visceral reminder of how the body remembers: the food we eat, the objects we take in with our eyes, the smells we sniff, the traumas we experience.’ (Brophy and Hladki, 2014).

The handmade soap itself may seem an inconsequential commonplace object. Yet to the local people of Palestine it traditionally holds significant historical context. Possessing considerable potential to naturally evoke distinct recollection of long-held memories and profound emotions of a remembered time and a familiar place that no longer exists.

For viewers of ‘Present Tense’ in 1996, the spread of the smell of the soap throughout the gallery in occupied East Jerusalem – for Palestinians an emotionally charged place – may not only have activated memories, but may also have intensified longing for the homeland that was taken from them. This longing may have been accompanied by a feeling of sadness because the homeland, as they knew it, no longer existed. The integration of the map of Oslo accords must have only enhanced that feeling, as it shows fragmented Palestinian Territories. Hatoum activated the senses of Palestinian viewers with the scent of this work, which, along with the map of the Oslo Accords, may have caused a reliving of personal and cultural memories of Palestinian history and the loss of homeland. (Goudeau, Verhoeven and Weijers, 2014)

Throughout Swann’s Way, Volume 1 of his novel ‘In Search of Lost Time’, the French Novelist, Marcel Proust wistfully recalls his own involuntary olfactory response to certain intoxicating smells. He speaks eloquently of the characteristic quality of genuine sorrow and intense sadness he undoubtedly feels on a typical evening invoked by the olfactory guise in the pervasiveness of the unmistakable smell of the familiar staircase. Powerless against the rapid onset of daily anguish as he anxiously anticipates the insidious smell of varnish permeating the stairwell.

It was the converse of this relief which I felt when my anguish at having to go up to my room invaded my consciousness in a manner infinitely more rapid, instantaneous almost, a manner at once insidious and brutal, through the inhalation—far more poisonous than moral penetration—of the smell of varnish peculiar to that staircase. (Proust, 1913)

Typically described as the Proustian Phenomenon, involuntary autobiographical memories are triggered suddenly by a sensory perception. Olfactory perceptions are relatively considered to instantly convey a deeper sense of evident emotion and more pertinent detail in memory recall than any other sense.

The particular smell of the handmade Nablus soap traditionally retains a particular significance to both local and displaced Palestinians. With recognisable remembrance of the familiar smell of this olive-oil soap is intimately intertwined with their own direct memories. Invariably comes an accurate recollection of historical events. These may not have been experienced directly, but through historical commemoration and cultural celebrations of historical events gone by.

For others, with no direct connections to Palestine, this distinct smell will invoke contrasting memories and complex emotions naturally relating to their own life experiences and social history. When properly understanding the cultural significance behind the handmade Nablus soap, a different set of visible emotions may typically arise, from a compassionate place of cognitive empathy.

Irrespective of the cultural background of the discerning viewer, the compelling smell of the olive-oil soap will invoke a sensory interaction with the final artwork. The subconscious will consistently attempt comprehensive understanding of the social experience by reasonably relating their personal memories and independent recollections with that of the collective. Linking with the historical remembrance of their social community positively establishes their personal experiences and personal memories within a social framework.

Individual, personal memories are intrinsically linked to fundamental beliefs, social concepts or prevailing ideas universally adopted by countless others. We constantly evaluate and objectively compare our personal memories with the collective so that we may validate our independent recollections. Apfelbaum succinctly describes this social interaction in the specific context of the social psychological theories of Maurice Halbwachs, the French Philosopher and Sociologist.

This collective memory provides the frame within which (or against which) individuals try to make sense of their own personal experiences. Individual and collective memory are thus dialectically related; our experiences and private recollections are continuously evaluated and shaped by confrontations with collective memory, which confer legitimacy on our memory: ‘‘I have shown that memory is a collective function….. If recollections reappear, this is because at each moment society possesses the necessary means to reproduce them. (Apfelbaum, 2010)

Although it can be plausibly suggested, that collective memory and historical memory are the same; Halbwachs clearly differentiates between them by the measurable depth of understanding and distinct quality of accurate recollection with which one can conscientiously recreate the specific remembrances. He refers unambiguously to social history as an abstract knowledge of notable events from the historical past which have been merely learned, perhaps from reading about cultural history.

He also suggests that with collective memory, historical or cultural events are not necessarily recalled from direct experience but through in-direct ways; reading about one’s cultural history; listening to local, familiar stories passed down through countless generations; commemorative events or festive occasions where the social community traditionally gathers to fondly remember the remarkable achievements of local community members long since passed.

Collective memory is intimately tied to a particular group, since it is the product of the group’s own past experiences. Halbwachs’ focus on past lived experience and his description of collective memory as part of a group’s identity are interrelated, because personal identity is closely tied to this particular kind of memory. (Russell, 2006)

The social generation currently identifies with a collective thought and historical remembrance. These historical recollections are firmly established in the cultural past by our social communities that re-enact events that would otherwise gradually disappear and become forgotten by all. Hutton also epitomises collective memory an ‘elaborate network of social mores, values and ideals that marks out the dimensions of our imaginations according to the attitudes of the social groups to which we relate.’ (Hutton, 1993)

For those with a personal and direct connection with Palestine, the commissioned artwork ‘Present Tense’ may invoke collective memories of cultural remembrance traditionally passed through innumerable generations. Yet those who do not have that direct connection with Palestine may still experience a distinct personal remembrance, albeit abstract and historical, rather than a collective memory.

The ongoing continuation of the critical analysis of the selected artworks invariably progresses to a qualitative comparison with the artist Christian Boltanski. He routinely adopts familiar objects in his completed artworks to invoke involuntary memories that intimately relate to specific community groups and historical remembrances. He deliberately reveals seemingly irrelevant objects as historical and significant where unconscious associations are established through individual relationships with these contrived artefacts and the implied circumstances. He plausibly suggests that ordinary materials and commonplace objects are inherent to our conventional lives and profoundly integral to our unconscious minds.

A symbolic mountain hauntingly comprises many used tonnes of discarded clothes in the selected artwork ‘Personnes’ otherwise known as Clothes as Bodies. Each particular piece of clothing representing and individual person. The massive size of the formidable pile of well-worn clothes emphasising the countless people long since gone. Each forsaken piece of dishevelled clothing reverently placed at the highest point of the overwhelming pile to symbolise a supported return to a higher place for their dear souls. An evocative piece that invokes both personal memories in the critical context of the collective and historical remembrance.

It is commonplace for artists to use found objects in their artwork and often these objects will suggest a connection with the theme or be included to invoke a response in the viewer. In an interview with Artspace, Christian Boltanski describes the commodification of objects in the Western culture where the importance of the object becomes paramount, not because of the object itself but because of the context it has been placed in and the story behind the completed artwork. He asserts ‘it’s not important to keep the object, but what is of value is knowing the idea or story behind it.’(Artspace, 2017)

Boltanski often uses objects in the artworks he produces and in an interview with Apollo Magazine, he also describes how he uses objects that have become redundant to their previous owners describing the break away from its previous owner as ‘sometimes have a second life (in a charity shop or an art installation); or it can float in the world, ghostlike and redundant.’(Bickerton, 2018)

His exhibited artwork ‘Personnes’ (2010) was first displayed in Paris at the Grand Palais. In direct reference to the Nazi death camps, sixty-nine camps were laid out in memorable lines and a towering pile all comprising only well-worn discarded clothes. A dehumanising piece, this powerful artwork jolts the intuitive senses bringing to the surface both emotional and psychological responses for the discerning viewer.

The chosen name of this unique piece ‘Personnes’ when translated into standard English is either People or Nobody if pronounced ‘Personne’. This powerfully suggests the innocent people who rightfully owned the dilapidated clothes previously. They no longer exist, and only their well-worn clothes undoubtedly remain, familiar essential objects to commemorate them.

One can instantly see the cultural metaphor for all of the missing people that the forsaken clothes ostensibly represent. On closer inspection it is clearly evident that these carefully laid out castoff clothes belong to both young and old alike. The appear as they have been arranged as they would in an organised mass grave or for proper identification.

Each individual piece of worn-out clothing sadly representing one particular person and their extensive lifetime of conscious memories, yet the collective prominently representing the social group as a coherent whole. The overwhelming impression of the sheer enormity of the dear lives seemingly gone and their unique stories yet to be eloquently shared. For the exhibition viewer who rightfully belongs to the social group closely affected by such unspeakable atrocities, the involuntary recollection of personal memories will be overwhelming and powerful. Yet for those not connected to this social group, a historical recollection of these cultural events shared by the modern media that are still connected to the greater collective memory of the social group through the compelling stories that have been candidly told.

Oddly, no discernible odour permeated the worn clothes prominently displayed in ‘Personnes’. More surprisingly, not even that reminiscent smell of the charity shops that the used clothes will have been consistently acquired from. In a structured interview with Museo Magazine Boltanski eloquently expressed his genuine disappointment at the distinct lack of a familiar but unpleasant odour. Succinctly describing the primary importance of being immersed in the completed artwork. He emphasises its complex relationship to the discernible effects on the physical body and the profound effect on the olfactory sense. These extrasensory effects were therefore desired by Boltanski to efficiently produce a more compelling exhibit.

I refused the heat, and it was terribly cold. I hope that the smell can be here, but I’m not sure that the clothes are going to smell. It’s important for me to work with cold, or to work with smell. When you are cold, you are inside the work. If it smells, you are inside the work. If it’s very noisy, you are inside the work. And it’s this idea of being inside the work that is important to me. (Rosenbaum-Kranson, 2010)

The published book ‘The Proust Effect: The Senses as Doorways to Lost Memories’ by Cretien van Campen comprehensively describes an extensive series of controlled experiments efficiently performed to adequately support the philosophical theory of Proustian Memory. He plausibly suggests the cognitive stimulation of the olfactory sense is undoubtedly the most powerful. Emphasising that it is more powerful than the direct stimulation of any of the other senses in direct relation to the involuntary recall of Proust’s autobiographical memory.

Campen convincingly suggests that indicators of the recognised Proust effect can be specifically located in the physiological composition of the Hippocampus. The sensory centres in the active brain are properly governed by the hippocampus which records memory pathways for sensory events. These complex pathways traverse various areas of the brain responsible for diverse types of sensory information. He also asserts that with sensory stimulation the hippocampus consequently activates entire memory pathways; subsequently triggering an involuntary remembrance uniquely associated with that particular stimulus. In close proximity to the hippocampus lies the amygdala is furthermore said to play a role in emotional memory; assessing emotional significance of remembered events.

We can now also answer the question of why smells evoke more emotional childhood memories than other sensory stimuli. The brain scans of the participants in the experiments by Herz et al. described earlier showed that smell stimuli stimulate the amygdalae and the hippocampus more powerfully than images. The answer to this question is there that the amygdalae are situated closer to the areas of the brain responsible for smell and taste than to the areas responsible for vision, hearing and touch. (Campen and Ross, 2014)

Boltanksi fully intended to appropriately include extrasensory stimulation as a key aspect of the completed exhibit ‘Personnes’. He cleverly used his powerful imagery along with sound recordings and the distinct smell of unwashed clothes. It was important to him that the acquired clothes preferentially used in ‘Personnes’ naturally had a musty odour. This was absolutely intended to powerfully stimulate the attentive viewer of the exhibition further and invoke involuntary memory recall. The sound recordings playing gently in the exhibition background were remarkably of heartbeats of different people throughout the modern world. A separate artwork in considerable progress ‘Les Archives du Cœur’ otherwise known as ‘The Heart Archive’ poingnantly bringing a deeper sense of emotion to the overall exhibit.

Speak about Halbwach

Write Conclusion


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