Bernadette Mayer

Bernadette Mayer remembers Memory (1971)

Bernadette Mayer, Memory (detail), 1971, approx. 1,100 wall-mounted C-prints, dimensions variable.

“I should have become a thief,” Bernadette Mayer tells me. “I would’ve made more money, maybe.” For Mayer, thievery and poetry are not so different, property itself being theft, which is also true of poetry, because who do words belong to? It’s this periphrastic logic that runs through Memory, the durational experiment Mayer performed in July 1971, shooting one roll of 35-mm slide film a day and keeping a rigorous diary. First presented as an installation of 1,116 photographs accompanied by handwritten notes and a six-hour audio recording of the entire text at Holly Solomon’s 98 Greene Street loft in February 1972, the project combined the taxonomic system of conceptual art with the emotive mystery of daily life: steel buildings catching the sun, a lover’s hands on a steering wheel, the incidental self-portraiture of a grocery list. Everything remains vivid until you “remember the past backwards and forget.” Memory has now been reproduced as a publication from Siglio Press. 

EVERYBODY IN MY FAMILY DIED by the time I was sixteen. My relatives were afraid that if they adopted me, they would die too. My father died of a hereditary condition at age forty-nine, so I thought I had to hurry up and do everything I wanted to do before age forty-nine. My older sister, Rosemary, got married after my mother died. I felt abandoned. I had to move in with my grandfather and my uncle, who were both doddering idiots. I immediately tried to go to college, but my uncle said I had to go to a Catholic college. I said, “Oh shit!”

It was good to get out of the house, but Catholic college was a really bad place to be. They told me they would throw me out for wearing sandals and reading Freud. I went to the New School and got the rest of my credits. I took a poetry course with Bill Berkson and that’s how I got to know Kenneth Koch, James Schuyler, John Ashbery, Barbara Guest, and Frank O’Hara.

I was twenty-six years old when I started Memory. I look like such a kid in the photos . . . I can see myself growing up through the course of the month. I got the idea from Godard, who said that image and sound make a film. Then again, he also said all you needed to make a film was a girl and a gun.

Bernadette Mayer reads an excerpt from Memory (1971).

July 1971 was a random point in time. I didn’t know what was going to happen, and that was the idea. I ended up being on the road a lot, going between city and country. Ed Bowes, my boyfriend at the time, had been hired by the Berkshire Theatre Festival to make films. I was taking a roll of film a day and developing it at night. I was also keeping a journal, recording my thoughts and feelings and transcribing actions as they were happening. It was exhausting. By the end, I had a total breakdown. Later on, I projected the slides I had taken and wrote a second text. I wanted to see what I had left out. The combination of these two texts—a text of sound and a text of image—is the audio component of Memory. I was presented with the choice of including everything or leaving a lot out. I chose to include everything, just to see what would happen.

Yellow is vital to the book. Of the different color films available at that time, I chose Kodachrome, which is why there’s so many bright yellows, blues, and reds. I wanted the three primary colors to be dominant. I literally, physically hated the other films.

All of the writing I had done prior was practice for Memory. If you practice writing constantly, you can start to speak in poetry form and so whenever you feel like writing something, all you have to do is immediately write what you’re thinking. John Ashbery says that poetry is like a stream that’s always running and whenever he wants to, he can dip into it and take a little ladleful and have a poem. If I hadn’t devoted my life to poetry, then I’d have to sit down and struggle with the page. That seems torturous to me.

I’ve always written using set intervals of time as a kind of constraint, because I never really knew how to end anything. When you have a time frame, you know when it’s over. A day, a month, a year.

I first met Holly Solomon at a party that winter. She invited me to have the first show at her new space at 98 Greene Street, which was in an old manufacturing building in Soho, before the neighborhood had any galleries. Gordon Matta-Clark, who was running FOOD at that time, who I remember making oxtail stew, helped install the exhibition. A.D. Coleman from the Village Voice reviewed the show, but beyond that it received little attention. It’s taken forty years for it to regain a new life.

Memory was an attempt to find out if people would get into that funny space where the words are floating around the room and so are the pictures. I still am hoping.