On Algis Norvila's Photo Series “Memento”

After the death of his father in 2010, Norvila was left primarily responsible for the Cypress Hills house in which he grew up, and where his mother now lived alone. The containers in Norvila’s photo series “Memento” – primarily wooden drawers, but on occasion simply white space – accommodate what he calls “the things needed to keep a house going.” That the maintenance of a house (and creation of a home) is something of a Sisyphean task – a painstaking race against inevitable decay – is attested to in these photos. And yet the contents of the drawers, tins, buckets and white space in the photographs interpose a sense of stillness, a hermetic containment of time, an embalming. “Memento” grapples with this tension between static and dynamic modes of remembering and re-articulation.

The photographs feature nuts and bolts, hair curlers and clips, wires, plastic gloves, paint brushes and swatches of fabric, among a variety of other mundane household items. The bolts, wires and pipe scraps were left by his father in the drawers of a workbench that came with the house when his parents bought it in the 1950s. The hair curlers and clips are relics of the hairdressing operation his mother ran out of the basement of their house. When the series was taken, the drawers’ contents were neatly in place, despite the fact that she hadn’t had any clients for several years. Everything is impeccably organized, often by colour, always by use. Wire curlers are split carefully into tins: one a Giorgio Morandi pastel palette of peach, mustard and dark gray, the other a harsher medley of sharp, hard green and blush pink. The images feature relics of an archaic division of labor, a dichotomy written along gender lines. His, bits of brass pipe and plugs and metal knobs, tools for household repairs, are hard copper and bronze. Hers, plastic and colorful, are tools for a different kind of maintenance, an (often thankless, rarely compensated) aesthetic labor arguably crucial to the creation and preservation of a domestic space: a “home”. In Norvila’s series these two forms of labor are distilled to their mechanical parts, merged together and thus stripped of gendered hierarchy.

Norvila’s series is part of a lineage of artists whose works pivot on a particular kind of inheritance, a reappropriation of fragments of a certain generation’s livelihood and familial relics. Notably, Norvila’s work is conceptually reminiscent of Chinese artist Song Dong’s 2005 installation Waste Not. Song’s installation featured “the full complement of worldly goods belonging to the artist’s mother” including the frame of her house, displaced and re-contextualized in a gallery setting (MoMA). Song’s installation title references a philosophy shared by the generation who underwent massive social, cultural and economic deprivation during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. His mother’s several thousand possessions speak not to wealth or abundance but rather to the experience of having nothing, of displacement and precarity. Norvila’s photographs allude to something similar. In the 1940s, Norvila’s parents fled political turmoil in Lithuania, migrating to Brooklyn, New York. The hundreds of impeccably organized objects in Norvila’s images, like Song’s mother’s possessions, speak to an endemic frugality rather than excess. The near-obsessive attention to detail, the aestheticization of even that which is hidden, is evidence of the work of laying down roots in the face of displacement and turmoil. This diligent organization is also a way of attaining, at even a micro, material-level, a sense of order and control over a turbulent life.

By removing the drawers and their contents from his parents’ home and photographing them in a studio, Norvila resituates everyday ephemera into a high art context. The objects are photographed as to appear suspended in white space. This decontextualizes the objects – a kind of postmodern unmooring, an apparent disconnection from historicity, an uprooting. This repeated use of white space to frame the objects also alludes to the visual language of the traditional gallery space, the “white cube”. Norvila’s series bridges two distinct art history ancestries. The images’ prosaic subjects are a nod to Duchamp’s Readymades, among other Found Object traditions, and the painterly quality of the photographs is consonant with the luminous light in works by the Dutch Masters. Thus instead of banal paraphernalia, the objects in Norvila’s series become Still Lifes – re-articulated in the vocabulary of high art.

This re-staging and elevation of the everyday is a thematic conceit in much of Norvila’s recent works. His is a preoccupation with the aesthetic minutiae of private histories, the artistry in working class archaeologies. The depiction of drawers and their contents in “Memento” is significant in that it is a kind of photographic confessional, a revelation of the hidden, the private – that which is shut away. This reinforces Norvila’s concern with the intersection of private and public memory. Memory, like photography, can embalm its subjects, suspending them in time like insects fixed in amber. Norvila’s series articulates this fixity – this desire for stasis in the face of migration, aging, death – while acknowledging that memory is more active than just preservation. Memory can also distort, historicize, romanticize, and make mementos out of ordinary ephemera. By re-staging the drawers and their contents in a studio setting, articulating the prosaic within a high art vocabulary, and accentuating the ceremony – the elaborate dramaturgy – that extends into the private sphere, Norvila’s images iterate an electric reconstruction of lived experience, a dynamic mode of remembering.