The Memory of Decay Show

Cinema as a Mnemonic Device

"The Memory of Decay Show,” designed and printed by Ben Haehn and Nathaniel Murray

“The Memory of Decay Show,” designed and printed by Ben Haehn and Nathaniel Murray

What was it?  The decay of memory or the memory of decay?  Despite widespread anxieties surrounding the (media induced) condition of forgetfulness plaguing modern culture, a whole range of contemporary experimental filmmakers have taken to examining, cultivating, and reconfiguring the mnemic capacity of the filmic image.  The Memory of Decay Show seeks to address this tendency by drawing together diverse practices of cinematic remembrance that stem from an experience – or seek to enact a process – of decay.  Pairing short films that revolve around memories of loss, the loss of memory, and the deconstruction of nostalgic modes of remembrance with an experimental feature that summons forth the half-forgotten narratives inhering within the decomposing materials of our world, this show argues for a conception of cinema as a mnemonic device, a training ground for resisting the amnesiac tendencies of our times.


“Notes After Long Silence,” Saul Levine, 1989, super 8mm on video, color, sound, 15 minutes
Essentially comprised of a single, extended montage of disparate sounds and images culled from everyday life and ordered in accordance with principles of memory and association, Levine’s “Notes After Long Silence” was begun – according to Marjorie Keller – as a meditation on a failed relationship, but quickly spiraled into “a dynamic, Burroughsesque treatise on race, sex, and the media,” where “images of… love and violence, work and play, and presence and memory blend into a song of sorts of our time.”

“Self Portrait Post Mortem,” Louise Bourque, 2002, 35mm, color, sound, 2.5 min
A poetic filmmaker whose brief works seek to embody “the often contradictory and ambiguous emotions connected to life-shaping experiences,” Bourque’s “Self Portrait” was assembled from footage the artist recovered from a time capsule she left buried for five years in the backyard of her ancestral home (LB).  Amidst the footage, she discovered semi-legible images of herself recorded during the shooting of her first film, and set about making this “‘exquisite corpse’ with nature as collaborator… a metaphysical pas-de-deux in which decay undermines the image and in the process engenders a transmutation.” – Canyon Cinema

“50/96: Snapshots (for Bruce),” Kurt Kren, 1996, 35mm, color, 5 min
Compiled of snapshots of visitors being photographed in front of a statue of Johann Strauss II (Vienna’s beloved “Waltz King”), Kren’s film emphasizes the role of public art in the maintenance of cultural memory, while also gesturing to the increasing usurpation of personal memory by the photographic (and cinematic) image.  “Johann is gilded and so presents a beautiful symbol of the business Vienna/wine/music.  It reminds one, perhaps, of Peter Weibel’s aphorism… that ‘the golden Viennese heart is made of crap.’  In any case, the kitschy, warbling products of the melancholy popstar of the bourgeoisie were an important ingredient in the willfully staged happy apocalypse (Broch) of the multi-racial state at the turn of the century.” – Thomas Korschil

“The Decay of Fiction,” Pat O’Neill, 2002, 35mm, color, sound, 74 min
Shot in the abandoned Ambassador Hotel in Hollywood – the once-luxurious tinseltown haunt that was home to the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Howard Hughes, and Gloria Swanson, as well as the setting of numerous Academy Awards ceremonies during the ‘30s and ‘40s, and the site of Sirhan Sirhan’s assassination of Bobby Kennedy in 1968 – this experimental feature is like an ethereal tour through the collective memory of an already imaginary, bygone era.  Combining documentary footage of this now-demolished landmark with fragmentary glimpses into a dreamy, noir-like narrative, O’Neill’s film seeks – in the artist’s words – to thrive “at the intersection of fact and hallucination.”  “I scribbled the words The Decay of Fiction on the back of a notebook almost forty years ago, tore it off and framed it fifteen years later, and have wanted ever since to make a film to fit its ready-made description. To me it refers to the common condition of stories partly remembered, films partly seen, texts at the margins of memory, disappearing like a book left outside on the ground to decompose back into the earth. The film takes place in a building about to be destroyed, those walls contain (by dint of association) a huge burden of memory: cultural and personal, conscious and unconscious. To make the film was to trap a few of its characters and some of their dialog, casting them together within the confines of the site. The structure and its stories are decaying together, and each seems to be a metaphor for the other.” – P.O.

 “Going Back Home,” Louise Bourque, 2000, 35mm, color, sound, 1 min
Bourque’s “Going Back Home” was made in an attempt to challenge idyllic conceptions of home by evoking the dysfunction and unresolved memories existing “behind the walls” of every household.  Made, as Bourque puts it, from “found footage of collapsing shelters or dwellings that are undergoing some kind of attack or catastrophe, conveying a sense of loss,” this half-minute film is printed twice on the same reel (in case you blink the first time through).