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.

Frontier Ghosts


“We had seen God in His splendors, heard the text that Nature renders. We had reached the naked soul of man.”
― Ernest Shackleton

A scene from The RevenantThere is a surprising amount of water in Alejandro Iñárritu’s The Revenant. The film begins with water and ends with water. Water is the central metaphor for what it is to be human. Humanity and nature can be both fluid and an unstoppable force, soft and hard. The power of The Revenant lies not in its unrelenting fury, but in its subtle grasp of an uncaring universe.

No one and no thing is spared from an unwashed treatment in this film. Nature is as unforgiving as humanity. Native Americans are as brutal as the Europeans and Americans. There is betrayal and compassion in nearly equal measure. The Revenant lays bare, in sweeping cinematic meditations and succinct episodes of violence the experience of the earliest settlement of the American west. It may be hard for us to grasp the unknown rawness that was the Dakota territory in 1823, or for that matter America. In 1820 Maine, yes Maine, became the 23rd state in the Union. After the Missouri Compromise of that same year, declaring state’s rights over Federal dictate, fur trappers and settlers poured into the Missouri river region.

Although filmed in Canada, Montana and South America, The Revenant is based on a story of the fur trapper Hugh Glass whose party, the Henry & Ashley Company (Rocky Mountain Fur Trade Company in the film) was attacked by Arikara (Ree) indians while trapping in the upper Missouri river in South Dakota. Soon after Glass splits off with the remaining party of trappers to travel overland in order to deliver their haul and escape the rath of the Arikara indians. Shortly into the journey, Glass stumbles upon a Grizzly mother who ferociously defends her cubs with Glass ending up the recipient of near-death wounds. The remainder of the film is the harrowing tale of Glass’ determination in the face of punishing odds to find his way back to Fort Henry and the rest of the fur traders. 

Iñárritu’s film differs substantially from what is known of the real Hugh Glass but that is unimportant to the film or the viewer. What lies at the heart of the original story and The Revenant film is a European ideology that persisted a never ending conquering of all things they deemed savage in the pursuit of wealth and territory. This is the soft underbelly of North American history. The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 opened up a great swath of the American plains to settlement and began a relentless exploration that ended with the subjugation and genocide of millions of indians. Iñárritu’s story embellishment of Glass’ lust for revenge (in real life Glass forgave Fitzgerald and Bridger), provides an underpinning of darkness that matches the true story of European destruction of native tribes. Despite Glass’ heroic survival against indians, nature, a bear, the French, and even his own trappers; the lesson Iñárritu wants us to understand is this fundamental lack of European compassion. Glass is the revenant or ghost of European continental oppression. There is nothing redemptive in the history of North America and you will a similar lacking in The Revenant. In the end Iñárritu’s Glass is left trapped between dreams and reality, built on the random consequences of an unpredictable life. 

As cinema, there is little to find fault with in The Revenant. It is everything and more, that The Hateful Eight is not. Iñárritu paints violence with a delicate brush in sharp contrast to Tarrantino’s dull hatchet. Where Tarrantino embraces without question the mindless consumerist cartoon characters of our popular culture, Iñárritu  reaches back into our dark past to show us the true vision of what led us to this point in time, leaving us along in a wilderness of the mind to contemplate our shared history. Leonardo DiCaprio, is uniquely suited for the role of  Hugh Glass. DiCaprio brings a vulnerability in terms of scale that allows a wider audience to identify with him. Indeed all of the acting is at its professional best including an understated standout performance by First Nations actor Duane Howard as the Arikara leader Elk Dog.

The film pays homage to the work of Terrence Malick sans the heavy-handed spirituality, and borrows from Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, Sydney Pollack’s Jeremiah Johnson, and Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke. Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography focuses on earth, water, and sky creating unspoken relationships between humanity and the ultimate arbiter, nature. There are extraordinary moments when crystalline snow clouds rush across tree tops as they crackle with the icy cold, or the hot breath of human or animal cloud the camera lens. The film exquisitely captures the fierce, desolate majesty of the early 19th century Louisiana Territory while avoiding an emphasis on grandeur over reality, or style over substance. Despite some sweeping vistas and breathtaking scenery, one always feels firmly planted in place, in a specific location that is witness to the smallness of humanity.

I worry American audiences inured to fake violence and accustomed to ten second cuts will find the film burdensome and as Anthony Lane of the New Yorker inaccurately stated that “the beauty has a willful air”. Despite its more than two and a half hour length, I never found it overwrought or willful. Although there is a Shackleton-like endurance to the film, it underpins the Revenant’s message of our human desire for incessant domination of nature even at our own expense. Like all great art, The Revenant is more interested in ambiguity than answers. I can’t wait to see it again, and again.