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33  |   M N E M E
Nine cases, 2001
Painted wood and glass, with objects (painted wood, glass, Plexiglass, alphabet noodles, chances, gaming dice)
Each case 25.5 x 52.5 x 3.5 cm
Sammlung der Berlinischen Galerie, Landesmuseum für Kunst, Fotografie und Architektur, Berlin [ Collection of the Berlinische Galerie, State Museum for Modern Art, Photography and Architecture, Berlin ]
Gift of Claus Schmäh, Zürich.


As long as MNEME hung on the wall of my studio, I felt a need to justify myself on its behalf: to explain to visitors who saw it for the first time just what had possessed me to pursue such a radical departure from my habitual use of sober geometric form and abstract narrative. For I’d created what I considered an unwontedly whimsical, figurative, even comic-oriented piece and was abashed at having to admit that MNEME’s appearance never ceased to puzzle, even embarrass, me. I usually concluded such explanations without having supplied one.

From the very beginning, I had settled on the title MNEMEthe organic, but also the psychological, ability or capacity to remark and recall things and experiences—yet, it hadn’t been until the piece’s final assembly that its entire meaning became clear to me. I had, of course, known that MNEME was about Memory—biological, somatic memory ; conscious human memory (personal and historical); written memory (that is, writing); the memory of light; the work of art as memory—as well as about the rôle that Fate and Fortune play in notation and impression; however, as I mustered the piece’s nine collections of small objects behind the glass of their wooden cases—cases and collections that should be seen both as art objects and as natural history exhibits or medical preparations—I had to realize that, whereas, in general, each is concerned with the theme of Memory, Chance, and Fate, as an ensemble, they chronicle the factors that contribute to how and why one comes to do what one comes to do, and more specifically—almost too privately—how I have come to do what I do: the work, that is, of an artist.

MNEME I [  “I”—and “eye”  ]. The narrative begins in this first box, with my silhouette, as a small girl, facing a reproduction of the small, red wooden horse that formed part of a pencil-holder my father gave me when I was almost six.

One summer afternoon, in 1957, as a special,  if somewhat daunting, treat, my mother had put me on the train in Riverside, Connecticut, to take the one-hour trip (my father’s everyday commute) to New York’s Grand Central Station, where he was going to meet me. He did, of course, meet me, and the two of us had had an early supper—probably at Hamburg Heaven on Madison Avenue, if I had my way (which I usually did)—and then gone window-shopping along Broadway, looking for a special souvenir of this exercise in juvenile independence, a rite of passage my older sister had been through a year or two earlier.

I hadn’t said a thing when my eyes first lit upon that bright-red pony’s flat, jigsawed body—onto which one could have a name hand-painted—only revealing my choice as to what I wanted as a memento of our outing as we were already hurrying to board the home-bound train from Grand Central's always thrillingly Stygian platforms. In the meantime, I’d become obsessed with the idea and image of that little horse, so that my sweet father had spent his next day’s lunch-hour retracing our steps to find it and, having located it at last, ordering the three letters of my first name to be painted onto it in light-blue enamel.


In MNEME, that red pony stands not only for the memento, or souvenir (which, after all, is French for “to remember,” from the Latin subvenire, “to come to mind”), but also for the total absorption of the covetous childish gaze—the love of an object, of a form, of Object and Form in and of themselves—as well as for acquisitive desire and determination, the taking-possession-of, the signature, one’s mark.

MNEME II [  I–I = a pair of letters, like a–t and c–g, with which the human genome 's parsed]. The question here is to what extent tendencies such as those described above are present from birth, or even from conception: predetermined by one’s genetic material, of which a short extract from its over three billion DNA base pairs (written in [uncooked] alphabet-soup noodles) is displayed in MNEME II.

MNEME III [  I, I, I = three “I”s, three eyes  ]. In this box, two pairs of wooden hemispheres, painted to resemble eyeballs, are presented: eyes as the gateways of perception, as organs initiating desire and action ( ACT–[ German, TAT ] )—as well as comprehension—with irises colored blue and brown as the genome’s textbook expression in theories of biological heredity.

It was surely not for expedience’s sake that these irises were modelled on those of my husband’s eyes and mine. After all, who has been more important for my work, my working, and my wanting, than he ? …  unless it be my father, who not only gave me his blue eyes (and that little red horse) but his engineer’s love of number, measurement, and problem-solving, too.

He had been a student of his future father-in-law’s; had worked in high-voltage labs in upstate New York ; had served as an officer in the armed forces ; and had received his certification from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ Board of Professional Engineers and of Land Surveyors in 1948, when my parents—who were not my parents yet—settled there after World War II. Although he had then soon gone into corporate management, all his long life, he remained fascinated by how and why things work (or don’t, or won't), whereas my mother was ever moved, and motivated, by how things look—another matter (and person) dear to my heart.

MNEME IV [ “I–V” = ivy ; IV = intravenous( ly ) ]. Here, the ivy leaf dominates: in the middle, a naturalistically painted wooden leaf; to its left, a drawing of the spiral—closely related to the Golden Section—that is determined by the Fibonacci Series and expressed, for example, in the growth pattern and distribution of leaves, seeds, and other parts of plants ; and to the right, a stylized ivy leaf, the hedera, which—most ancient of European punctuation marks—once meted and measured our written languages and thoughts.

MNEME V [ “V,” turned upside down ]. Suffice it to say that here white daylight recalls its spectral—yes, in both meanings of the word—colors, through and by means of the prism’s unfathomable clarity.

MNEME VI. Twenty lots or chances, all of which look very much alike . Wherein lies the difference between the winning and the losing lot? Would the, in worldly terms, privileged, bourgeois life I turned my back upon as a young woman have been more desirable than the more precarious life which I have chosen to lead in its place—a life based on the only true privilege: that of having what one will do coincide with that which one must? Here, the arrangement of ten winning and ten losing lots would seem to beg the question.

MNEME VII [ V times II : 5 x 2 = 10 ]. Through the hands’ work, Idea becomes Form. MNEME VII is formed and informed by ten small wooden disks on which ten dactylograms, or fingerprints, have been painted, emblematic of individuality and telling of identity. Not even identical twins carry the same whorls, loops, and arches at their fingertips. [Although it seems that the development of these patterns does have a significant genetic component, the epidermal ridges, on hands and feet alike, mature for the most part randomly. Permanently configured before the twentieth week of gestation, they are influenced by parental and early prenatal [a nice pair of anagrams, if there ever was one!] environments, as well as by the fetus’s own intrauterine activity and rate of growth]

MNEME VIII. The oh-so-many unseeing eyes of eleven dice—like ducks in a row : well-ordered and assisted Chance, arranged about a midpoint.

MNEME IX [“I am here; X marks the spot.”]. Within this ninth, and final, frame, we arrive at results: at Artistic Form per se. Abstracted from the Golden Rule of dactylic hexameter (that rhythmic pattern and order-giving mnemonic device whose half dozen metrical feet are determined by the dactyl’s ternary articulation [6 + 3 = 9]), a template of gilded wood hovers before the ornamental tendrils of stylized plant forms: the shapes and convolutions that figured the Jacobean wallpaper that covered the  walls of my parents’ hallway. In MNEME IX, these motifs stand for my mother’s motives, aesthetic sensibilities, and aspirations, so many of which, for good or ill, have since become my own.

After completing MNEME, I came across another example of gilt relief, in an old snapshot of my younger sister. In it, she stands in that selfsame hallway before the heavy, gold-framed mirror that hung by the front door, above our family vide-poche—a shallow, blue-and-white ironstone dish into which we dropped our house and car keys, as we came through the door. Beautiful and bronzed from the two years she’d spent on Hawaii’s Waikiki Beach (a quintessentially deceptive “paradise”), she gazes languorously, a trifle mockingly, into the lens of our father’s camera. Barely twenty-three years old, she would be dead in less than twenty years.