~ars memoriae~

May 25th, 2008

“…the truth I am seeking lies not in the cup, but in myself.”
~ Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way

guest artist: Selena Kimball.

I am of the opinion that the path to ecstasy is generally paved with something less than ecstatic, much of which is memory-based. In my world view, memory is a key to essential truths and transcendent knowledge.

The Greeks devised the Art of Memory, or mnemotechnics as a strategy of recall, where information would be visually mapped onto a real or imagined space. Long-winded pontifications could be committed and performed precisely in this way. (if this blog were to be memorized using my studio as site, it would go something like: sparrows eating bird seed on my balcony=Camillo’s theater, steaming coffee cup=Lily’s photo albums, dying lilacs=Roland Barthes etc.)


Renaissance practitioners of this art included Giulio Camillo Delminio, who built a Memory Theatre (L’idea del Theatro), where a person could stand (on stage, in a reverse of the usual spectator experience) and witness all the memory of the world inscribed in nooks and boxes. In a kind of Hermetic cacophony, there were images from Greek mythology, Homer, the Old testament, the Kabbala, with manuscripts stuffed in the seats. The highest tier of the theater was the seventh, assigned to the Arts, “both noble and vile.”

I imagine it was something like a Theatrum Anatomicum, but rather than a celebration of anatomy, it celebrated collective unconscious. It seems less about memory than knowledge–a kind of proto-Wunderkammern.

Here the goal was not simply to recall in abundance, but to call upon celestial powers for wisdom and harness the power of the cosmos by way of the microcosm. Scholar Frances Yates saw the icons as the letters of an alphabet–by combining them together in all possible ways one could form and express any concept.

Our exalted task then is to find order in these seven measures, a pattern that is distinct and will keep always the sense alert and the memory clear… This exalted and incomparable configuration not only performs the function of preserving entrusted things, words, and arts… but in addition it gives us true knowledge… ~ Giulio Camillo Delminio, L’idea del Theatro, Fiorenze, Torrentino, 1550

In Camera Lucida, dear Roland Barthes suggests just the opposite of photographs, that become a token of absence, “not only is the photograph never, in essence, a memory… but it actually blocks memory, quickly becomes a counter memory.”

She: Ah! Self? Her: Um…welll…

My daredevil’s birth coincided with the birth of the snapshot. By the time she reached the height of her fame, she was well versed in the creation of meaning via visual form. Her husband–a professional photographer, of whom she writes “the man who made me (and broke me) a star,”–imaged her in picture after picture. She carried an albatross trunk full, over continents and lifetimes, until it landed on my shores.

When Lily’s son was born, she began a more elaborate form of narrative–photo albums–where in careful cursive she inscribed not so much his, but her own life, as Mother. My favorite page includes a place holder marking an image that would never be made. Her white-inked inscription reads missed his second birthday and cake at 2 years of age moving from Hayward to Oakland.

It’s a lot like what I do here–this self-invention–what’s brought to light, what’s left out of the story. It’s a lot like what I did in self-portraits for years before. I mark these experiences and thoughts because otherwise they would slip into the ether, which would not be such a bad thing, but I like having my little hoard too somehow. As she travels along life’s sunny path, a lady is wise to remember from whence she came: a solid, consistent foundation is useful when the rest comes crashing down. Experience has shown, What the devil is going on ?! is a far preferable inquiry to Who the devil am I ?!

Though notoriously weak-memoried (hence the trail of crumbs), lately I seem to regaining my past in some kind of strange reversal. Not sure what to make of it–it’s not a tidal wave of Self, but more like welcome bits of flotsam you’d trip over if you weren’t looking… {that’s for those close to my heart who email to say “more self-revelation!” but endearingly won’t say it in comments posted for all the world to see!}


In the years before her death Lily returned repeatedly to the photo booth and filmed herself in the most uncomfortable scenarios, unable to stop telling her own story even when it became unbearable. For Lily, the Past was created in the Present. Witness was everything. Evidence was everything.

Her voice circled and looped like a Kinetescope, a tornado, an Indian motorcycle on the Wall of Death.

What are we but the sum of our (distorted, authored) memories?
And what of the things that can’t be photographed?

{not rhetorical questions, I’m pondering out loud here and I’d love to hear your thoughts…}

2 Responses to “~ars memoriae~”

  1. michelle plochere says:

    It is interesting that we are drawn, inevitably, to Western notions of consciousness and memory — perhaps dipping into some Hindu mythology (among other traditions) would be of use to you in that it aligns with what you are discussing — consciousness as a mirror we polish, etc. I get a lot of this stuff all day and weave it into my own myopically Western education of ideas, while interpreting the cultural and technological embodiment of same.

  2. kim says:

    funny you should mention it–the book is set in Burma, and Ganesha, for example, makes an appearance in this (first) draft.
    the idea of polishing the mirror would seem to point to my (implied) question: what is so useful about having that (metaphoric) trunk of photos/dust? (and to my discomfort at my own level of navel-gazing. oh horror, ive become a blogger?!) but then it’s all reflection anyway, no-self…Lily’s reflection enlightens me, this i know. the rest im happy to wonder about…

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