catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 5, Num 2 :: 2006.01.27 — 2006.02.09


The memory palaces of Joseph Cornell

Now, in all memories, a fictitious past occupies the place of any other. We know nothing about it with any certainty, not even that it is false.


Jorge Luis Borges

The cathedrals of today, wherever they are, are very unimposing, very unnoticeable. The boxes, the collages, the home movies of Joseph Cornell are the invisible cathedrals of our age. That is, they are almost invisible, as are all the best things that man can still find today: They are almost invisible, unless you look for them.

Jonas Mekas

There is a collection of antique and junk shops at the end of Queen Street West in Toronto. The windows are fascinating studies in collage, objects displayed in artful arrangements and tantalizing clutters—eclectic piles of stuff, plucked from the past and grossly overpriced, for what won't we pay to possess some tangible artifact from the dream-world of our memory? And people go searching and sifting through the rubble of culture collected in these shops, always looking for some glimmer of a life gone by, or perhaps never lived at all. Maybe they are searching for some relic of their neighbor's life, the life they always wanted and never had—instead they stood on the back porch in the evenings smoking, watching the life they wanted slip past before their eyes, just across the fence, just out of reach. Now that neighbor is dead, and the other goes out every weekend looking to steal a fragment or two from the piles of obsolescence, to possess some small piece, at least, of the whole that could never be theirs.


These shops are life-size Cornell boxes we can enter into and look around in for an afternoon. Some of them have basements, like the small drawers in some of his boxes that are always closed. Except here the drawer might contain an entire set of antique garden furniture set up in anticipation of genteel visitors who will never arrive. One shop has a tiny bedroom in the corner of its basement—antique iron bed-frame painted white, night stand, wooden chair, clothes rack. An eerie Miss Havisham atmosphere of suspended life hangs in the musty air, in anticipation, perhaps, of a child who has gone suddenly missing and will some day return unexpectedly, years or even decades after she disappeared. But the hope has grown old and brittle, forgotten in the pale and earnest brightness of this room locked in a basement.

Adam Gopnik suggests that the American collage artist Joseph Cornell (1903-1972) chose small boxes as the main form for giving shape to his dream-world because he was inspired, at least in part, by shop windows: "the dominant visual experience of any city dweller in the past two hundred years… the ordinary objects placed behind glass in juxtapositions meant to inspire desire," as he wrote in a New Yorker article on Cornell in the February 17-24 2003 edition. He goes on to write:

Cornell's great subject…announced and taboo…in all his boxes was nostalgia, and his desire was to vindicate it as an emotion… The nostalgia he felt, though, was not nostalgia for a particular place or person but a generalized nostalgia for what he called "time passing"… fixed in place, the new things become old even as we look at them: it is the fate of everything, each box proposes, to become part of a vivid and longed-for past… There is, he saw, a kind of nostalgia that posits a world that never existed… and a kind that finds a bottomless melancholy in the simple desolation of life by time. The false kind of nostalgia promotes the superiority of life past; the true kind captures the sadness of life passing.

Scattered amid the junkshops from this end of Queen Street, north up Roncesvalles Avenue to the Dundas Street junction are the people who live behind the windows and open doors of quirky shops and businesses that never, ever, seem to have any trade. They are not part of the upwardly mobile, trendy, Roncesvalles Village set and appear to have no interest in marketing whatsoever. They give the impression of having been there forever, and of being pre-ordained to remain until the end of time according to mysterious laws of commerce and urban existence that have nothing to do with ordinary concerns like making money and paying leases. There is the woman continually bagging and sorting coins in the coin and stamp shop. A ridiculous clutter of sun-faded catalogues and magazines in the window looks as though it hasn't been disturbed in at least ten years. She is overweight and with her plain grey hair pulled back in a pony-tail and her oversize glasses she gives a similar effect—aging and fading, yet somehow timeless through her sheer indifference to the passage of time. The guy in the nameless bookstore sells only paperback pulp—Harlequin romances, mysteries, and historical novels in poor condition. He's thin with curly grey hair and perches on a stool, not doing anything in particular. When I try to sell him some books he says he won't buy them because he's "going out of business." But he'll probably still be there ten years from now while I'll have blown on to wherever time and the wind take me, not yet having discovered the secret to entering time's eddies where these people seem to dwell. They hold clues towards a secret life, a secret world going on all around us that busy people don't see. All these people are part of a parallel universe most of us only glimpse, and that rarely.


In some ways Cornell's work resembles still life painting. Ordinary objects are placed in a formal arrangement meant to suggest something about the nature of time and the inevitability of death. The Art Gallery of Ontario has in its permanent collection a series of mementoes mori from the sixteenth century that serve a similar purpose. Some of them are about the size of a pocket-watch with panels that open to reveal sculpted scenes of the end of the world and the final judgment rendered in extraordinary detail. The German critic Walter Benjamin writes "the artisan must work as though time does not exist." I was struck by the paradox of spending one's life crafting these exquisite reminders of death, whose sole purpose is to remind the owner that time is passing. Cornell would give his boxes coat after coat of varnish, apply heat to them, and leave them outdoors in all kinds of weather in order to mimic the effect of entropy over time.

I had the opportunity in January of 2004 to view a collection of Cornell's short films at Cinematheque Ontario. Jeanne Liotta and Bradley Eros of Anthology Film archives in New York, which houses Cornell's entire film collection, curated the screening. They introduced the films in the program by writing:

In much the same way that Cornell scavenged and collected huge numbers of ephemera associated with his often obscure preoccupations and out of which he created his elaborate mythology of artworks, we can begin to see this collection of films as a psychic scrapbook of allusions and references, a poetically active springboard for assemblage practices in his collages, cinematic and otherwise.

A number of young filmmakers who went on to have remarkable careers (particularly Stan Brakhage) collaborated on these films, which are essentially home movies. Larry Jordan's Cornell, 1965 consists mainly of footage showing details of the boxes in Cornell's house, as well as shots of a white-haired Cornell in the backyard tearing up cardboard and working on a birdhouse. A repeated image is of sand overflowing a broken glass. Time, it seems to say, will not be contained by any of the tools we have at our disposal.


Certain images and motifs appear frequently in the films. A stone fountain in Aviary provides a home for sculptures of birds and butterflies. In Centuries of June the camera operator is distracted from shooting the house by the erratic flight of a butterfly. What Mozart Saw on Mulberry Street is a fascinating exploration of windows as framing devices, much of the footage being shot looking into or out of shop windows. Windows are also important in A Legend for Fountains, a study of a woman who seems to be waiting for something. The film is inspired by Lorca's poem Tu Infancia en Menton (Your childhood in Menton), and children playing are a regular presence in most of the films. Our watching of them feels voyeuristic, uneasy at times. The films manage to convey a genuine sense of wonder at the children's innocence, but it is an idealized innocence, and that acknowledgement leads to recognition of a darker impulse implicit in the watching. A longing for their careless attitude towards time, and the dark side of that obsession are captured in long shots of toys in What Mozart Saw…, particularly the recurring image of a large doll with its exaggerated, almost grotesque, features on display in a box behind the glass of a shop window.

Angel is a study of an angel statue in the Flushing Meadows Cemetery, shot in Kodachrome. The angel is mounted above a fountain and the film lingers over autumn leaves floating in the water, glorying in the colors of dying summer. Raindrops speckle the surface of the water and we see views of the angel from various perspectives with images of fading flowers and bits of blue sky mixed in.
A (Paul) Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

Flushing Meadows seems to be shot in the same cemetery as Angel, but eight years later, in 1965. The focus in this film is not loss in general, but a specific loss—that of Cornell's young friend (though she abused his friendship) Joyce Hunter, and it features the grave marker Cornell paid for. JC on film is a one-minute fragment of Cornell shot by Rudy Burckhardt as the artist emerges from a mortician's office, perhaps having just made the arrangements for Joyce Hunter's burial.

The last film in the screening, By Night with Torch and Spear, was fascinating in that it shows Cornell symbolically exploring the possibility of reversing the flow of time. By running the footage of steel forging processes backwards, Cornell seems to want to literally halt the action of entropy—the loss of heat and energy in the universe—and perhaps transform our attitude towards time into something more like that of the "cold" cultures of "primitive" societies, represented by the brief image of two men hunting fish by torchlight. It is interesting to note in this context that Susan Sontag's Against Interpretation was one of Cornell's favorite books, and he certainly would have been familiar with her essay on Claude Levi-Strauss, "The Anthropologist as Hero." I can't help but wonder what went through the mind of the man who lived most of his life on Utopia Parkway in Queens when he read, near the end of Sontag's essay:

The hot societies are the modern ones, driven by the demons of historical progress. The cold societies are the primitive ones, static, crystalline, harmonious. Utopia, for Levi-Strauss, would be a great lowering of the historical temperature…in which man would finally be freed from the obligation to progress, and from "the age-old curse which forced it to enslave men in order to make progress possible…. It is in this admittedly Utopian view that social anthropology would find its highest justification, since the forms of life and thought it studies would no longer be of mere historic and comparative interest. They would correspond to a permanent possibility of man, over which social anthropology would have a mission to stand watch, especially in man?s darkest hours."

Cornell's work is magical, in the sense that Levi-Strauss means when he speaks of "primitive" magic as comprising a complete system of meaning unto itself, a "treasury of ideas" salvaged and assembled from the junkshops of our collective experience.


Experience is fragmentary, life is fragmentary, memory is fragmentary, the stolen moments spent here on the page at the cost of chores, work, reading, pleasure, are fragmentary. Continuity is a game we play with ourselves even though we know we can't win, clutching the few fragments we've managed to collect in our fists as we come away from experience, slowly opening our fingers to display the few pieces of thread we've managed to tear from the fabric of time as it was unwinding before us. Maybe what was remarkable about Cornell was his honesty. He understood the futility too well, or he was too scared, or too healthy, to enter completely into Proust's cork-lined room. But he glimpsed the inside—stuck his head in the door, so to speak. His ever-expanding file folders full of his collection of ephemera bear witness to that. He dreamed, certainly, of weaving those threads back together again, of recreating the fabric in all of its rich texture of joy and sorrow, dreamed of being able to hold it, to stop the continual unwinding of the fabric and be able to linger eternally over a precious moment, to feel forever the warm roughness of a piece of wool on a January evening, or satin softness as it slides from the back of a beautiful woman, to savor the taste of a perfect piece of pie and the color of a sky the perfect shade of blue. But he knew that this is not possible, not for us, not now. So he built homes for his fragments, each one a mini-museum for the passing of a particular moment that would never be experienced again. He displayed his little bits of time's thread, so that we might have the tiniest glimpse of the shape and color and texture of life as he experienced it. Film was simply another way of framing these fragments—the "tokens and traces of chance" as he called them.

It ought to be clear that Cornell is a religious artist. Vision is his subject. He makes holy icons. He proves that one needs to believe in angels and demons even in a modern world in order to make sense of it. The disorder of the city is sacred. All things are inter-related. As above, so below. We are fragments of an unutterable whole.


Charles Simic

Waiting for a streetcar on Roncesvalles Avenue I saw a little green plastic train engine lying in the gutter among sunflower seed shells, cigarette butts, dead leaves and gum wrappers—the kind of accidental treasure to delight a five-year old. If Cornell had found it he would have carried it to his home on Utopia Parkway to make it the centerpiece of his next box: a tribute to a spring afternoon and the way the sunlight glittered on the silver gum wrappers and gleamed on the smooth surfaces of the toy.


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