ArtWeekend

Life Time: Bernadette Mayer’s Memory

Poet Bernadette Mayer explores the intimate connections between photographic still lifes, color, emotions, and time.

Installation view of Bernadette Mayer’s “Memory” (1971-1972) (all images courtesy CANADA, New York)

Canada’s installation of Bernadette Mayer’s 1971 performance piece, Memory, for which she shot a roll of 35 mm film and composed a journal entry every day for a month, addresses issues of time, narrative, nostalgia, narcissism, and documentation, along with the possibilities of art and poetry in relation to perception and remembrance.

At the time Mayer created Memory, she says she was thinking of Cy Twombly’s work and 15th-century Dutch still lifes. These references ground Memory in art as well as poetry. At a panel discussion on Memory, she recounted how a gallerist told her after its initial exhibition at the Holly Solomon Gallery in 1972, that she wasn’t “slick enough” to be an artist. And so she transitioned to poetry, writing time-and consciousness-based poems such as “Moving,” “Studying Hunger,” “Midwinter Day,” and “The Desires of Mothers to Please Others in Letters.”

Indeed the piece is not “slick.” Much as a fossil arrests time in its disruption of the surrounding rock, Memory is instead a snag, a trap where memory is caught and held. Its small, slowly discoloring photos installed as a wall-to-wall horizontal spread, accompanied by a recording of the artist reading her journal, evoke what is unwritten. As Mayer says, “memory is air.”

Bernadette Mayer, “Memory” (1971-1972) (detail)

Memory is not timeless, and as such questions whether any work, even a 15th-century Dutch still life, can be so. Small shifts in time are documented by small shifts in space; as Mayer shoots the film, she repositions the camera just enough to create a series of occurrences: taking road trips, eating breakfast, washing clothes; friends and lovers smoking, talking, moving, changing. Rather than time being stopped, or stilled, she represents life as a continuous progression. She explains,

It’s impossible to put things exactly as they happened or in their real order one by one but something happened that day in the middle of seeing some people & talking about some, something happened that day (look it up in stories) & what happened was what began this: and this came later, the day after that […].

Yet there is still a relation between the way that both Memory and still lifes establish a space between the infinite and the finite. Like a still life, Memory is inescapably of its time. The cars and buses are the first to betray this, along with the clothing and hairdos, the architecture and street signs. The landscapes of upstate New York and New England have also changed, due to invasive plants and trees, less pollinators, more deer, habitat loss. A few poets at the gallery even discussed whether light itself has changed since Mayer first wrote the piece — is there more pollution hazing the sun or less? The Hudson River is cleaner, but the Earth is hotter. Has sunlight, captured by the camera, changed? But the eternal is different from the infinite. Mayer has talked about her writing being “endless,” and her temporal constraints — a month, a midwinter day, nine months — can seem like frames around an otherwise infinite effort, in a play between what is endless and what ends.

I misheard Peter Baker, a panelist and scholar of Mayer’s work, quoting Clark Coolidge’s first impression of Memory at the Holly Solomon Gallery as a “green continuum.” Yet, as mishearings often are, this was an apt description of the piece; in her work color sometimes seems to shape and lead perception into creation. She chose Kodachrome over Fujichrome and Ektachrome because of its stronger red and blue tones, and some passages in Memory relate to shifts of color perception, foreshadowing later works such as “Dream Tape Transcribed— Hypnagogic Images.”

…the light of the room on ed yellows his face golden & his hands together on his lap a brown shirt behind the sky & trees everyone else is stirring around having a discussion…

Bernadette Mayer, “Memory” (1971-1972) (detail)

Color embodies the essentially abstract and aesthetic nature of Memory. One audience member pointed out that Memory contained no emotional statements, or interpretations of emotions, or conventional literary emotional expression. But it certainly contains flights of language, untethered by self-examination or analysis, leaving the writer free to follow the way that consciousness finds itself in language, as art, as poetry.

=I crossed the road & crouched down behind some tiger lilies. I crouched lower down & opened up more. I didnt know where I was. I bent over some yellow flowers. I went further down the road. I sat down in a field & faced the road. I looked across. I tried to make everything look yellow & still catch purple. I tried to make yellow keep its yellow against the sky. Things were blowing.

Memory continues at Canada (333 Broome Street, Bowery, Manhattan) through October 8.

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