Throughout July 1971, the poet and artist Bernadette Mayer kept a journal and shot a roll of 35mm film of her daily life. The consequential photographs, over 1,100 of them, were exhibited in 1972 at 98 Greene Street Gallery in New York, in a show called Memory. The images were installed in a systematic grid (side-by-side, row-by-row, divided by handwritten notes indicating each day of the month) and were accompanied by a taped audio recording of Mayer reading aloud from her winding stream of consciousness. She defined the work as “anextensive emotional science project, an enormous accumulation of data”. When North Atlantic Books published an abridgedversion in 1976, it was prefaced by her Freudian analyst, who wrote that “this work is a new kind of autobiography”.
Mayer’s attempt to tangibly render both her psychic and physical experience, to inscribe the inexpressible, emphasises how difficult it is to record and visually communicate our subjective memories. Looking at the images, the specific becomes generic: natural and urban landscapes, a saucepan on the hob, a cold bottle of Pepsi, highways, cloud formations, supermarket aisles, the bathtub, a pile of laundry soaking in the sink. Despite their suggested individualism and intimacy, her snapshots are familiar in their representation of the quotidian. As fragments, they begin to trigger our own memories, slowly dissolving her experience into something more universal, timeless.
As the weeks turn into months, I have been counting the amount of time I’ve been ‘in lockdown’ by using the number of days. I’m writing this on day 48. It will be published on day 53. Time has become elastic, stretching and rebounding in a way which feels both profound and utterly meaningless. Thinking backwards, I’m unable to hold onto any linearity, or distinguish one day from another. Unlike Mayer, I do not keep a journal, so I use my phone camera roll as a visual diary in an attempt to retrace my experience of ‘this time’. I also analyse my step count, bursts of action followed by periods of inertia, my own accumulation of data. I understand that time is passing because the natural environment is changing around me. I revisit my daily walks: the parks, the reservoir, the repetitive loops of residential streets. The blooms of spring: blossom, magnolia trees, hyacinths, rose bushes, wisteria. The natural wonders: the pink supermoon, a double rainbow after a storm.
This isn’t the space to start unpicking the pathology behind my compulsion to take and share images, but I’m intrigued by my collection of unexceptional, amateur photographs, and the urgent consistency in which they have been captured. Beyond that, there is no great discovery of the self to be found. They are indistinguishable from images I have taken in the past, or might take again in the future. They are passive, depoliticised, unable to express the internal moments of searing anxiety or cloudy malaise, the empty vastness of the global horror. That is an invisible narrative that runs through them, one which only I can barely see.
Mayer cited the Dutch still life tradition as an influence on Memory, evoking the iconographic tradition of memento mori and vanitas images, where rotting fruit, extinguished candles, or drooping vases of flowers represented the fleeting transience of life. Those artists believed that the beauty of their canvases would allow the viewer to reconcile with their own mortality. My images do not offer such reconciliation, nor are they a glib seasonal metaphor for the possibility of renewal or regeneration. If you read into it, the paradox is there, the poignant co-mingling of life and death, but my digital grid of so-called memories exist as if in an alternative reality, an abstract disassociation.