Disintegration and Decay‍

September 4, 2023

Our memories are decaying synaptic snapshots — unreliable narrators of our past. They’re fragile things, susceptible to influence from others, misshapen from our biases, and prey to time’s tendency to distort and refract them.

Memory can only an impression of the past, colored by our subjective experience of those fleeting moments.

With the advent of photography, it became seemingly convenient to document the past as it was. A mechanical device has no subjective experience of an event. It burns an impression of light onto the film, crystallizing the moment forever in celluloid. Though are these chemical exposures an accurate representation of that moment? Can this image ripped from the canvas of the past reflect unvarnished reality? Describing this “treachery of memory,” Sally Mann, In her book “Hold Still” observed:

Photography would seem to preserve our past and make it invulnerable to the distortions of repeated memorial superimpositions, but I think that is a fallacy: photographs supplant and corrupt the past, all the while creating their own memories. As I held my childhood pictures in my hands, in the tenderness of my “remembering,” I also knew that with each photograph, I was forgetting.

As the living, breathing, fallible forms that we are, we can never have an objective experience of the past. These photographs that “assume the amber quality of nostalgia; an instantaneous memento mori,” as she puts it, can never provide an absolute truth. In subject matter and medium, I often find myself returning to this idea of withering memory in my work.

The medium can itself become symbolic of entropy. For example, wet plate collodion photography seems almost to mimic the phantasmagorical quality of memory — edges of forms soften into darkness, tonal ranges melt into an ephemeral fog, and whole areas of the image fall out in over-exposure.

courtesy: wikimedia commons

My craft often explores ways to recreate the textures of this processing technique. It gives the work textural interest and leaves room for improvisation and imperfection in my otherwise highly rendered drawings.

We often find ourselves stirred by these artistic meditations on transience in whatever form they take. Both an incidental elegy for September 11th and a beautiful observation on the nature of entropy, William Basinski’s “Disintegration Loops” encapsulates the melancholy beauty of decay aurally. A serendipitous recording of slowly deteriorating tape loops became a hypnotic edifice to beauty, decay, memory, and the passage of time.

These elegiac works may seem grim, but are more often about celebrating life. There is no true beauty without the undercurrent of decay. There is no living without the dying, and no beauty without the tide of entropy.

That sadness — the concluding nature of everything — imbues it with beauty and emotion. Expressing it through art can help us navigate the overwhelming nature of it. It provides a collective experience when felt between the maker and the viewer.



I like to leave my readers with what I’m listening to in the studio. This week, I recommend the first “song” off of William Basinki’s Disintegration Loops.

Watch the accompanying visual on YouTube (Basinski’s tragically beautiful recording of the smoldering skyline on 9/11)

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