Mnemosyne

Last year the Telegraph ran a piece about a person who can remember every detail of her life as if it was on some kind of continual playback in her mind. Rather than emboldened by her retention of time, she expressed distress at the constant torrent of memory. Intriguingly, the few individuals identified with the same condition just happen to be compulsive collectors.
mnemosyne1
If we could record every waking moment, would we cherish what would normally fade away or would it eventually prove a burden? Migdala Valdes, a photographer who has vowed to take a picture a day and to continue doing so for the rest of her life, appears fascinated by the possibility of documenting her experience in a fashion that may seem excessive or at least daunting to the rest of us. A showing of her work at Intersection for the Arts titled Every Day in Black and White is a study in contrasts. The photographs are revealing in their choice of subject matter and treatment: snapshots of a life that look more like stills from a movie that is somehow both verité and David Lynch. In addition, somewhere along the line Valdes also decided to hang onto physical bits and pieces from her day which she collected and saved in albums.

The photographs in black and white are arranged on a shelf around the perimeter of the room. An image of a woman, hair wrapped in a towel and turned toward a mirror, somehow seems both classically beautiful and mundane all at once. There is one of globular chandeliers that appear like floating microscopic life right out of SFMOMA’s scientific photography exhibit from last year, Brought to Life. Below the “feature” works are smaller photographs bound in albums which are much more slice of life, giving the feeling of having been taken on impulse. There are shots of redwoods, an empty basketball court, a mural of Gandhi and a park statue of the 3 Muses. Many display a particular moth-like attraction to light: sun leaking through the steel girders of a bridge, a string of Christmas lights, the Ferry Building at night, a pair of neon scissors above a store front, a Ferris Wheel glowing with hot bulbs.

In the center of the room is a raised black platform. There are furnishings arranged on top, along with random objects like a tricycle, a stroller, a ladder and a construction horse, all thickly coated with applications of white paint. It looks like the sparse but eclectic arrangements that adorn a small theater production. You expect at any moment for a procession of actors to appear one by one from the back room and take up their places. But perched on the surfaces, balanced or resting on the lectern, sink and chair are fat photo albums, their contents leaking out the sides like gooey grilled cheese sandwiches. The performance is there, but it’s quietly waiting for you to turn the pages to bring it to life.

The contents are a far more omnivorous assortment than the carefully composed photographs. Folded delicately inside you might find an entire news article, clipped and annotated with the date and source (“Precious Coin Market May Lose Luster;” Wall St. Journal, May 3-4, 2008). But you’re just as likely to find pack ratted scraps that Valdes has preserved for posterity: a bus transfer, a ShopWise circular, the wrapper of a McDonald’s sandwich, an “XL” sticker from a pair of pants (the kind with the letters stacked in a vertical line, repeating like morse code just to make you feel bad). There are also personal items like a handwritten note that her father called. With a little imagination and the spirit of a detective, you can try to trace her steps for the day and reconstruct the sights and stops, but you’re largely on your own: this is a self-guided tour. A snapshot from the interior of a bus or BART seems to reflect the ethos of the experiment: “Information gladly given, but safety requires avoiding unnecessary conversation.”

On the way out I sign the guest book. I see my neighbor Todd has been here so I write in a plug for his show (if you’re pushing someone else’s work it can hardly be called shameless). I leave wondering if the words “hideous sunday” will find their way into the pages of a scrapbook filled with wrappers, news clippings and polaroids someday.

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