The Art of Memory


Arts & Culture

Bernadette Mayer’s Memory at the Canada Gallery


Last week, I went to Canada Gallery on the Lower East Side to see the current show, a rare exhibition of the 1971 work Memory by Bernadette Mayer. Mayer is known and respected primarily as a poet, but Memory is an installation of eleven hundred photographic prints and approximately six hours of audio that she created over the course of a month. Those are numbers I learned later, from the gallery’s press release, not ones I processed during my own rather disoriented encounter with the work. I did not count the photographs, which seemed simply numerous to my eye and were arranged in a long rectangular grid spanning the gallery’s back wall. Nor can I recall many details about the half hour of audio I heard, a recording of Mayer reading hypnotically from journal entries corresponding to the dates of the photos. (Later I would read an edited transcript, published as a book by Mayer a few years after the work was first exhibited.) Indeed, as I wandered back and forth in front of the piece, I had to make some effort to focus in on single photographs. The mind, I guess, wants some kind of narrative, and I resisted each image as an isolated moment.

Those details of Memory that I do recall vividly are more suited to an archival interest than a critical one: gaps in the wall where certain photos seemed to be missing; the beige mounting corners holding each photo in place, looking almost brown against the white border of the photos; the fact that large plexiglass panels protected most, but not all, sections of the work; a few photos which had slipped free of the mounting and drooped gently away from the wall. Up close, the work looked like it could be some long-untouched photo wall in anybody’s home, depicting friends and places of strictly personal interest. (In fact, after the work was first exhibited at Holly Solomon’s Greene Street space in 1972, Mayer showed the work by appointment in her own apartment.) There is a handmade, unpolished feel to the work that is accentuated by its slightly sunstruck, fading archival state, over forty years after most of the prints on view were made (a few were reprinted for this show). 

Only a closer and more persistent look, and a little inquisitiveness, turned up the distinct rules that governed the work’s creation. The photos in Memory are displayed chronologically, in rows, left to right. At the beginning of each roll of photos is a modest piece of paper bearing Mayer’s handwriting that denotes the day in July (“one,” “two,” et cetera) in which the subsequent roll of photos was taken. The images are mostly banal, occasionally whimsical or beautiful. A white sink with white clothing crumpled inside. Tomatoes arranged inexplicably on a car windshield. Flowerpots, houses, city skyline, landscape, various interiors, more laundry. Some portraits of friends. A street sign. The window of a bedroom as photographed from the bed. Here and there, prints are whited out from overexposure. In one portrait, due to double exposure, the male subject is semitransparent and looks at the camera benignly as he evaporates like a ghost against a background of trees.

As a physically installed work, Memory functions as an artifact. In the late sixties and early seventies, when conceptual art was assuming the formerly exclusive prerogative of the literary, artists like Mayer were compelled to make work whose primary content resided not in its physical substance but in a conceit set forth in advance by its author. A journalistic (or, as here, diaristic) premise prevailed over the typically ephemeral materials from which such conceptual art was “made.” What remains physically of conceptual art from this period often takes the form of note cards, telegrams, typewritten or handwritten sheets, and low-effort photographs that serve as documentation of a certain time-bound performance or activity.

In the case of Memory, the physical elements seem straightforward: a roll of film shot in its entirety on each day of July 1971 and Mayer’s recorded readings of her idiosyncratic and impressionistic journal entries from each of those days (to give you an idea: “July 1/& the main thing is we begin with a white sink a whole new language is a temptation. Men on the wall in postures please take your foot by your hand & think this is pictures, picture book & letters to everyone dash you tell what the story is … ”) While they may seem like very raw footage, these photos and recordings are, in fact, already at second and third removes from the moments they portray. The printed photos were originally shot on 35mm slide film, and Mayer projected the slides for herself in order to revise her journal entries through an ex post act of remembering. In other words, neither the prints we see nor the audio we hear are in their initial format. A couple of years later, Mayer would significantly condense and retitle the work as Remembering for the curator and critic Lucy Lippard’s exhibition “c. 7,500.” She then revised the text again for the book version of Memory, published by North Atlantic Books in 1975.

Knowing all this, today’s viewer of Memory can enjoy the work’s effective rebuke to the Instagram mode, that curated presentation in which the past is alleged by a grid of purposefully generated images. Forty years from now, one can imagine a bemused observer in a gallery casting their eye over examples of the professedly spontaneous self-publication of today—posts, tweets, video diaries, all of it—alongside an accompanying caption or press release that discloses the efforts and revision built into this “live” broadcasting of the self: account names selected, uploads made, tags and captions written, all the steps to click through before we allow others to see our unvarnished lives. The act of memory is always an artwork, no matter how raw it purports to be. Mayer’s process was a fairly strict exercise in documenting her experience over a set number of days, with constraints governing its photographic and audio output. What she called her “emotional science project” adhered faithfully to its rules: one roll of film and journal entry per day, a map of the artist’s consciousness. But the result is no more or less scientific than any other narrative of the month of July 1971. The artist has tampered with the data, and so has time itself.


Presca Ahn is a curator based in Paris. Her last exhibition was “Andy Warhol: Contact’”(2016-17) at M WOODS Museum in Beijing. She serves as the executive director of the Jeffrey Ahn, Jr. Fellowship, a foundation in New York City that funds projects by young artists.