Memento mori

Srijon Chodhury’s Memory Theater

Srijon Chowdhury

Interior view of “Memory Theater”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Upfor gallery in Portland, Oregon is closing out an exhibition that does something unique, it walks the razor’s edge between irony and the sublime. We are crushed daily under a wave of intertextuality and irony. Rather than bringing us closer to a deeper understanding of ourselves and our raison d’être, it moves us further away, reinforcing Heidegger’s pronouncement, “Being and time determine each other reciprocally, but in such a manner that neither can the former – Being – be addressed as something temporal nor can the latter – time – be addressed as a being.” Pop culture and art today endlessly mines the past rather than radicalizing toward a future. It is this ironic loop that makes Srijon’s Memory Theater a welcome insertion into what is otherwise tiresome cultural conversation.

In 1530, Giulio Camillo wrote an early draft of what would later be posthumously published as L’Idea del Theatro dell’eccellen, or what is now referred to as the Memory Theater. The theater is an impossible one, structured on the physical layout of a Vitruvian theater but having no real point of entry or exit. The intent is to invoke the spirit of memory within the seat of an imagined structure. Frances Yates in The Art of Memory describes it this way; “Yet this vision is very deliberately cast within the framework of the classical art of memory, using the traditional mnemonic terminology. The Theatre is a system of memory places, through a ‘high and incomparable’ placing; it performs the office of a classical memory system for orators by ‘conserving for us the things, words, and arts which we confide to it’.”

Drawing of L'Idea del Theatro dell'eccellen

Rendering of Giulio Camillo’s “L’Idea del Theatro dell’eccellen” 1548

Srijon takes the framework of Camillo’s “theater” and turns it into a literal viewing space with screens forming a semi-circle, creating a metaphorical barrier between the future and the past, the real and the imagined. Memory Theater borrows from a central idea of painting, that the surface acts as a boundary between the imagined and the real. In this case, the “painting” is an array of eight foot high frames with Persian arches operating as internal bracing. Over the frames is stretched a thin scrim of linen. In the concave of the piece sit three soft cushions and a central bench, bleached of color and resembling a new age spa. The screens are backlit with theater lights in mauve and blue-violet giving the piece a louche femininity. A variety of vessels, art objects and plants are silhouetted onto the screens, transforming their original intent and reinforcing the intended theatricality. Walk behind the screens and the full meaning of Srijon’s Memory Theater is revealed.

Artists who deal with memory and time outside of photography are ultimately working at the sublime. Since the coldness of the minimalist movement, many artists have moved in an opposite direction, caring less about craftsmanship and polish, and more about raw emotion, color, and texture. Srijon’s Memory Theater is compelling because it more closely resembles the work of artists like Spencer Finch, who avoid making a binary choice between postmodern messiness and modernist structure. It is possible to access the sublime while exposing the underlying framework of a work of art. As Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe states, “Too much of contemporary art defines itself by what it struggles to resist, particularly since a formulaic resistance is now what would need to be subverted were there to be life left in the idea of subversion.” The transformative power of the sublime relies on crossing the boundary between fear and the unknown. Take away the mystery and you take away the fear, thereby taking away the power of the work. By making the backside of Memory Theater it’s own exhibit of artwork, Srijon furthers the mystery while while grounding us in an ad hoc gallery of its own. The eclectic collection of fetishistic art objects made at the request of the artist of people he has a personal relationship with, adds gravitas by way of frivolity.

Memory Theater image

Convex view of Srijon Chowdhury’s “Memory Theater”. photo by Mario Galluci

It’s as if Srijon is saying, reality is behind the curtain, the scrim, the surface of a painting, not in front of it with the viewer, even though we believe otherwise. Interspersed amongst the vessels and sculptures that wrap around the back of the screens are a collection of tropical plants. The plants function as a bridge between the domestic and exotic, theatrically casting silhouette abstractions on the other side of the screens. I couldn’t help but think the plants brought oxygen to the artist’s own memories of growing up in the world’s most densely populated nation, Bangladesh.

Memory Theater is contemplative work which manages to keep the viewer comfortably moving between the present, past, and future. The notion of memory is absurd and they are fraught with inaccuracy, making them an abstraction of their own. Memories become a central focus of a culture at times of transition, and as we enter the Anthropocene era that is poignantly true. The fact that Srijon was able to tease at the sublime without falling victim to irony is a testament to the artist. Credit to Upfor as well for providing an analog experience in an otherwise largely digital space which trumps much of what our current technological landscape promises.

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