New York

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

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

Bernadette Mayer

Canada

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

A self-described “emotional science project,” Bernadette Mayer’s Memory—1,100-odd photographs made by shooting a thirty-six-exposure roll of 35-mm color slide film on each of the thirty-one days of July 1971, accompanied by six-plus hours of diaristic narration that the artist later revised into a book—is one of those conceptual pieces from the 1960s and ’70s that have been better known as anecdote than as physical fact. The work was first shown in its entirety in February 1972 at Holly Solomon’s 98 Greene Street space and has been re-created in various partial arrangements over the years. But it had not been exhibited in its original form for four and a half decades prior to its recent reconstitution here, in all its languid, Kodachrome anti-glory. Accompanied by a low-volume recording of Mayer’s incantatory, Steinian stream-of-consciousness accounting of the days in question, the gridded photos—which covered one wall of the gallery—catalogue with varying degrees of fidelity and technical care the sort of underexamined sites, objects, and activities that Georges Perec referred to as the “common things” that “speak of what is, of what we are.” A scrupulous document of what might initially seem like nothing much at all, Memory is, in fact, a beautifully plainspoken consideration of the conditions of attention and of presentness—one whose meditation on the fugitive, finespun quality of recollection has only deepened as its particulars have faded over time.

Like Perec, Mayer is highly sensitive to the quiet signals emitted by the everyday. Associated with the Language poets and coeditor, with Vito Acconci, of the fondly remembered, short-lived experimental magazine 0 TO 9 (1967–69), Mayer was certainly attuned to then-current developments in conceptual artmaking. But her first and foremost medium has always been language. An inveterate experimenter, she frequently unsettles conventional structures and rhythms with her writing, aiming for spaces along the seams between poetry and prose where neither form seems sufficient to properly describe the effects produced. Mayer was twenty-six when she created Memory, her only significant work as a visual artist, and she has said she saw its typical audience member not so much as a viewer but as a reader, one who could be put “somewhere else” relative to the book and yet remain a “real reader.”

Mayer said in a recent interview that what most interested her about the work today “is the way that if the words are in the air, and if the photographs are surrounding you, that it all exists—but that it doesn’t exist like an object anywhere. It exists in space.” And the spectatorial experience of Memory was emphatically readerly, spatial, between. The pictures unfolded from left to right across some forty feet of wall-as-page: city and countryside, gritty urban streets and rural lanes, a half-empty bottle of Coke, fresh-dug produce, a gauzy scarf arranged on the hood of a blue convertible in a summertime still life; friends, lovers, passersby. In order to fully imbibe the work, the viewer had to wander back and forth, drawing near to the small, often dim photos—separated into sections with handwritten dividers noting the given day’s number—to try and make out the visual traces of the flesh-and-blood, taste-and-smell realities of those hot July days. So much there, and so little; so little and so much.

The narrative soundtrack is perhaps more plainly encountered on the page in the book version of the voice-over that Mayer published in 1975. An epic, granular prose poem, it details the daily routines of meals and drinks, chores and sex, supermarket prices and oven settings, cab rides and road trips. In the gallery, Mayer’s voice burbled just at the threshold of audibility. A scrap came through here and there when one bent an ear close to the speaker, a similar kind of attentive turning-toward demanded by the photo set. There was no place where one could quite take in both word and image together—each slipped away from the other, and from themselves, like memories. Together they tried, against the odds, to track “the process of remembering, of seeing what’s in sight, what’s data, what comes in for a while for a month,” Mayer writes. “What’s in sight, it was there, it’s over.”

Jeffrey Kastner