In my memory are sky and earth and sea, ready at hand along with all the things that I have ever been able to perceive in them and have not forgotten. And in my memory too I meet myself – I recall myself, what I have done, when and where and in what state of mind I was when I did it. In my memory are all the things I remember to have experienced myself or to have been told by others. From the same store I can weave into the past endless new likenesses of things either experienced by me or believed on the strength of things experienced; and from these again I can picture actions and events and hopes for the future; and upon them all I can meditate as if they were present. – St. Augustine, Confessions
Some Other Memory
The mysteries of memory and time continue to tug at the edge of our limited understandings of this world, reminding us, as we totter on the cusp of genetically engineered new species and sentient machines, that we’ve yet to really begin mapping the landscape of human consciousness, a territory still mostly shrouded in darkness, like some undiscovered paleolithic cave whose walls are covered with the images of beasts rendered in umber and ochre, with the imprints of ancient human hands traced in charcoal and burnt bone, whose floor is littered with the ribs and teeth of animals left behind as charmed sacrificial offerings.
While today’s physicists are working to probe both deep space and the subatomic world, as engineers are writing code to extract new meaning (and wealth) from the expanding universe referred to fetchingly as Big Data, the work of surveying the human soul’s internal geography has been left for the artists and poets among us. We are the ones still dreaming in the twilight, conjuring hope from sticks found lying in the sand.
I am grateful that Joanna Chudy has chosen to unpack her tent, make camp, and claim territory at this frontier.
She is not alone and there are myriad markings and traces of others who have explored this territory before her. The St. Augustine quote above – from around 400 AD – attests to the ageless history of these questions, but I am particularly interested here in the ways that Chudy’s work connects with two recent and iconic 20th Century artists.
Imagination is memory – James Joyce
James Joyce, who Chudy pays homage to in the title of her series Silesian Ulysses, nurtured a singular reverence for memory as the most important lens for understanding the past, for realizing where and to whom we belonged, and for tutoring us in how we might treat one another. Time and memory were his connective tissue and organizing principle. As his books attest – I am thinking particularly of Ulysses, but also Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man – it was always his native vocabulary, his unfailing tool of choice for composition and narration.
I find an even deeper and more resonant connection with the French filmmaker Chris Marker, whose beautiful, spectral work often feels saturated with a diffuse sense of unrecoverable memory. Marker harbored a near messianic faith that memory was a subterranean reservoir of hidden intelligence and meaning; that with sufficient attention and devotion a deeper human truth might be revealed:
My working hunch was that any memory, once it’s fairly long, is more structured than it seems. That after a certain quantity, photos apparently taken by chance, postcards chosen according to a passing mood, begin to trace an itinerary, to map the imaginary country that stretches out before us. By going through it systematically I was sure to discover that the apparent disorder of my imagery concealed a chart, as in the tales of pirates. And the object of this would be to present the “guided tour” of a memory. – Chris Marker
Both Marker and Chudy create narratives that generate a complex mixture of emotions and responses. Take for instance Marker’s La Jetee (1962), which seems like a direct antecedent of Chudy’s work, particularly the wonderful sequence in which the main character – a time traveler – visits a natural history museum with his lover. These moments which are so embued with idyllic enchantment simultaneously convey unmitigated melancholy and loss, and construct a relationship to time and memory that is ambiguous and conflicted.
It is also notable that La Jetee is a film created almost entirely from still photographs (with the exception of one three-second cinematic shot), and that Chudy is actually a still photographer. But in both cases – Marker’s film and the video versions of Chudy’s work featured here – cinematic montage gives these narratives added potency. There is a curious urgency that the still images take on when presented through a time-based medium. They seem explicitly in conversation with one another, although through a kind of whispered dialog that is all suggestion and implication. The meaning conveyed feels incomplete and indirect, but at the same time intense, concrete, and visceral.
But even without pointing to relationships with seminal work like Joyce’s and Marker’s, Joanna Chudy is creating work that is sophisticated and significant in its own right. It is timeless and profound, deeply human and reverentially beautiful.
Her work immerses us in a kind of somnolent exile; homesickness for a present past that is comprised of fugitive moments and instants, impenetrable figments and fragments. It is nostalgic and funereal, sombre and reminiscent. We find ourselves wandering through an image landscape muttering to ourselves, “What does it mean to remember? Where is it that time goes? Who do I belong to, and where have my people gone?”.
Soon the voyage will be at an end. It’s only then that we will know if the juxtaposition of images makes any sense. We will understand that we have prayed with film, as one must on a pilgrimage. – anonymous
images + video: © copyright 2016 Joanna Chudy. No use without permission.
words: © copyright 2016 Joseph Squier. No use without permission.