An essay for Fleisher/Ollman Gallery’s exhibition of memory jugs.


I’m going back home to Georgia in a jug
By Brendan Greaves
Philadelphia, December 27th, 2007

Some additional text by William Pym
Words and images copyright the authors and Fleisher/Ollman Gallery

I’m coming back home to Georgia in a jug.
– Johnny Paycheck

Side One. “Or thinke this ragged bony name to bee/ My ruinous Anatomie”: worried words from John Donne, 17th-century metaphysical poet and graffiti artist. Here he has etched his “scratch’d name” on a “through-shine” window, in valediction to a lover. With inscription, names last a little longer, and so may we. (Or so we may fool ourselves.) But the closer we look, the more our written words melt away into reedy––or for Donne, skeletal––obscurity. Stare on, and those strange shapes might start to swim. What do the snarled skeins on this page––or on Donne’s glass––really signify, if anything? The lined-out letters may seem familiar, ordered in some abstruse, threadbare sense, but how and why do they hold sway over the things, people, and places named? Might we figure our memories––of ourselves, of others, of those pristine, transmogrified moments that memory marks as different, discrete, our own––without clumsy words or deceptive photographs? Frustrated writers and photographers are not alone, I think, in seeking other modes of remembering, modes beyond the pale reach of literacy’s tyranny and photography’s overripe ambiguities.

Flip the record to Side Two. “Georgia in a Jug,” as performed by Mr. Johnny Paycheck. Give us a song, Johnny, and a strong drink too. Vault that honeyed voice higher and spin us a witty elegy from a shitty memory––for what else is a good country song?––and then plug that memory up in an old whiskey jug. Stopper yourself up in there too while you’re at it, genie-like, since that one lousy memory feels like all you’ve got, and head on home alone. A cork can keep it contained. But without memory, Johnny, what are we? And what is the opposite of memory, anyway? Oblivion? Lies? History, in its subjective, selective collectivity? Forgettery? (My friend Pablo prefers the simple “forget,” an aptly awkward immobilization of the verb into a noun.) We lack the proper word for that lack (at least in English), and also the proper means to stave it off or seal it up, whatever it’s called. So we make do with other things.

Memory jugs raise more questions than they answer. Their enigmatic presence in our homes, in the gallery or museum, or (possibly) in our cemeteries complicates without offering any tidy conclusions. Maybe meditation is more fruitful than undue speculation. First, the facts. The term “Memory jugs” is a convenient shorthand for a range of mosaic-collaged objects––not just jugs, but containers of all sorts: bottles, boxes (cigar and otherwise), vases, pots, teapots, kettles, urns, pitchers, plates, glasses, jars, lamps, salt shakers, picture frames, mirrors, dollhouses, and even clocks (containers for time.) Makers, almost all of whom remain anonymous, cover a vessel in putty or a similar substance, pushing objects of remembrance, possessions and symbols alike, into the putty. Perhaps these objects––a favorite pipe, a clutch of seashells, marbles, ceramic figurines, keys––commemorate their dearly departed owner, as oral tradition maintains. Perhaps they commemorate the artist herself, her own vision of beauty or self-identity. Most likely, both scenarios ring true.

What we’ve got here is a domestic tradition, long-lived, persistent, and mysterious. It’s a tradition largely unknown and unmapped despite, or perhaps because of, its deep embeddedness within the vernacular imagination and the everyday remembering of things and people past. Memory jugs provide evidence of the ordinary practice of mnemonic rehearsal and assemblage, as yanked into tangible, and tangled, three-dimensionality. They are, in fact, mnemonic devices, humble and homegrown answers to Duchamp’s notion of “delay” (which he trapped in glass rather than in a ceramic jug.) So many personal(ized) memory objects assembled together in the context of this exhibition constitute a kind of choir, a polyphony of contained memories in conversation and contestation. The tradition itself appears to be a polyphonic one as well, a syncretic form embraced by Americans of diverse backgrounds and communities for as long as two centuries.

Many scholars, collectors, and curious pickers have pointed toward a potential relationship with West and Central African funerary practice, suggesting that memory jugs represent a possible transmutation in African American diasporic tradition. Kongo mortuary customs in particular (as described by Robert Ferris Thompson, John Vlach, and others) provide an interesting antecedent to some African American grave decoration. Broken pottery and other objects symbolizing the watery river-realm of death––mirrors, conch shells, gourds, et al.––adorned the graves of the Kongo dead. During funerary rites in Haiti, Vodou faithful pass the po-tèt, the “head” pot or jug containing a deceased person’s soul (and often their hair and fingernail clippings), through fire to warm and cleanse it in preparation for its journey beyond the waters. The ritual is known as boule-zen. During the early 20th century, in the rural American South especially––where of course, African American populations were largest during much of this country’s vexed history––white folks sometimes mistook African American grave sites for middens, so scattered and layered were they with busted crockery and other household goods (including, significantly, seashells.) Might portable memory jugs represent a similar practice on a smaller, less diffuse and site-specific scale? In a word, maybe. But grave decoration or burial with items of sentimental or economic value is hardly unique to African or African diasporic tradition, even in the Americas. Certain ancient Southwestern Native American tribes commonly placed pots with knocked-out bottoms––so-called “kill holes”––over corpses’ faces. White communities with strong pottery traditions, such as those in North Carolina, also have used ceramic vessels as grave markers. For some professional potters, perhaps clay was a more affordable and metaphorically apposite material than stone. Honoring the dead with tokens of their livelihood or material symbols of respect for their tracks in this world is a grieving expression belonging to no one group—it’s a  pan-cultural gesture of mourning. You can’t take it with you, all your clay. The link to African American funerary traditions fascinates, but without any proof––for instance, reliable documentation of memory jugs placed on graves––any robust articulation to African diasporic funerary ritual smacks of an overdetermined attribution.

The reality probably lies in hybridity, as is so often the case with widespread artifacts of material culture. Traces of 19th century European American cultural activity can tell us just as much about memory jugs as invoking spectral African ancestors. The production of memory jugs is not limited to African Americans, and there are indications that the tradition was remarkably prevalent. Folklorist Glenn Hinson recalls making a memory jug as a child as an elementary school assignment, and indeed, the practice is largely associated with women and children. Memory jugs are, after all, just three-dimensional collages, a useful pedagogical tool. It’s not unlikely that many works presumed to be commemorative funerary objects are in fact the work of children or hobbyist housewives, not shamans, priests, or even the bereaved. The polite roots of Euro-American modernist collage––beyond Picasso and Braque’s papiers collés (“stuck papers”)––may be found in Victorian parlors. Ladies of leisure collected ephemera and souvenirs like calling cards, advertisements, and pictures, arranging them in scrapbook “albums,” diaristic compilations that both marked the passage of days and concretized identity through amassing memories (literally, “mementos.”) We can locate male equivalents too, like the cigar band collage fad of the late 19th and early 20th century. These vernacular and domestic artistic traditions of appropriation informed revolutionary modernist reconfigurations; sometimes extrapolated vernacular traditions even paralleled or penetrated modernist aesthetic realms in a recognizable form. Over the past centuries, multiple waves of modernities have swelled across the American landscape, catalyzing vernacular modernisms that rival and reflect the capital-M textbook variety, and vice versa. Collage, the master practice within which we can locate memory jugs, is a major mode of American vernacular modernism.

Demanding steadfast, lucid origins for our multivalent expressive culture is an understandable urge, but that innocent curiosity can lead to vanity or essentialism. We needn’t always seek ultimate causal primacy and purity or explain our everyday artifacts as vestigial, fossilized remains of fuller expressions locked away by miles and millennia. We can call––or curse––the tradition of making memory jugs “folk” or “vernacular” or “bricolage” or whatever, but that’s evading and segregating the accumulative act itself, the actual process of pressing into putty, the footprints of remembering. Maybe the salient question is not what memory jugs mean, but how they mean. The impulse to memorialize and commemorate is close with us, ingrown. We carry words into the grave. We engrave stones in memoriam, solidifying the gauzy screen of memory on silent slabs in hushed fields and gardens. We hold bones in ossuaries, ashes in urns on mantles. Forget, for a moment, the Kongo graveyard and the Victorian parlor––you need only to drive into North Philly to see poignant assemblages of stuffed animals and toys commemorating the site of a child’s death, often by violence. When tragedy strikes, on a private or public scale, the lonesome and left-behind manage to gather the jetsam surrounding their loved ones in life to construct improvisatory memorials; who can forget the impromptu collaged memorials in the wake of September 11th, 2001 and Hurricane Katrina? In Manhattan, near St. Vincent’s Hospital, there’s still a vast tile collage to the World Trade Center on a chain-link fence; it’s ceramic, and now crumbling. The mute eloquence of trinkets, bric-a-brac, and things that sparkle are audible above the ugly din of jingoist fury. This collective collecting urge may echo a function of modernity, but it probably long predates anything we can discuss in those lumbering terms.

So too is it with memory jugs, metonymic accumulations of things chosen to represent identity and time, much like Victorian albums and African American gravesite ornamentation. The objects are presumably selected according to both aesthetics and affect. Memory jugs are loosely defined, but densely constructed; they accrue meaning, they mean, through affective accumulation around an empty core. In a perverse cloaking of the ceramic aim itself, the hard-won smoothness of form and consistency of glaze, the artist culls small remembered objects from the garage, the bureau, the coffee table, to cover an open vessel. Memories veil that emptiness like lava, literally damming the void of forget if stoppered or sealed, as they often are. The vessel designed for transporting and delivering liquid is thereby rendered functionless through aestheticization––that’s one (Western, modern) definition of art––like those Native American and African pots, smashed or defaced, usually through the base, to prevent theft and to break the chain of death. The accreted surface becomes caked and encrusted with sedimented memories, coming to resemble barnacles or coral. Sometimes the artist will gild the entire vessel in a patina of paint, obscuring the discrete memory-elements combined to create the whole. (On the topic of coral, gold, and eternity, Carolina Beach salvage diver Skippy Winner claims that there are only two substances that sea life will never grown on or cling to: gold and porcelain. Practically, this means that treasure and latrines are easy to spot in a wreck.) The completed memory jug, at once scarred and adorned with lumpen strata of memories, is transformed into a mini-history, a micro-geology. It offers an inverse archeology, a meta-excavation readymade for a lazy dig, a superficial probing into the past––someone else’s past––no pail or spade necessary. The visitor, or the new owner, can anatomize the very work of remembering.

The tides and fashions of the glossy capitalistic art world are gravitating towards these aesthetics of archaeology. Recent artists have openly incorporated relics of the past in their completed works, from Jim Lambie’s disco cockney tongue, to Cerith Wyn Evans’ plush, library-like scholarship of history, to Dieter Roth’s messy living archives, Cady Noland’s Americana milled from the material of American innovation, and of course Richard Prince, the Grand Puba of this line of thinking. Stylized, ersatz historiography is a hot topic in art criticism, art production, and art collecting. The inherited and refurbished value of much of today’s cutting-edge sculpture, conglomerate objects of appropriated antique history, seems directly descended from the kind of potential energy that memory jugs bear. Gilles Deleuze spoke of a charged field of relationships, with the compositional elements arranged in a position bursting with possibility, and called this dynamism ‘intensity.’ This potential energy remains of the highest interest to contemporary artists.

Today memory jugs survive for sale on the American art and antiques market and on the Internet as well; deliberately aged “fakes” coexist with antiques and instructions on how to make your own jug. You can purchase someone else’s heritage, their memories, for a decent price, or you can manufacture your own. But the strange beauty in homely banality still bewitches, especially in those pieces never intended as commodities. The now traditional, historicized association with death, even if clouded in myth and exaggeration, persists and enchants. Young artists, my friends included, reach into the cluttered rabbit hole of our American pasts for contemporary relevance. A jug can hold many things other than drink, as Mr. Paycheck well knew. It can be a vessel for travel back home, or for memory itself, or commemoration. Many of us are, evidently, looking for a way back home, a way to gather together the broken branches of our “ruinous Anatomie.”


~ by Baldhead Growler on October 3, 2008.

One Response to “JUGGZ.”

  1. A fine, smart, and thoughtful read. Thank you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: