This essay originally appeared in a catalog produced by Kitty Maryatt’s Fall 2014 Core III class (all sophomores) at Scripps College for the exhibition titled CBAA Members’ Exhibition, in the Clark Humanities Museum, shown January 7 to February 17, 2015.
Many people base their identities on the kind of thinking they use, which leads them to the kind of subjects they’re interested in. For example, someone who thinks very logically and who likes to problem-solve might see herself becoming an engineer or a scientist, and one who is more interested in picking out the beauty in words and the world in general might become a poet. Of course, there is beauty in science and logic to poetry, but not many people realize the extent to which all the disciplines really inform and support one another. Macy Chadwick addresses this disconnect in her artist book Cell Memory, which presents an ethereal, artistic version of a cell with translucent pages of poetry and pages reminiscent of actual cell parts. The book is meant not only to call to mind a cell itself, but also that of which cells are capable.
The book is only about three by four inches when closed, plus it is comprised of thin, translucent paper, so it requires delicate handling. It comes in a round, thin case made of the same kind of paper, in which it is possible to see some stringy fabric and another piece of paper with the book’s basic information on it. This establishes the book as something to be protected, or even revered. There are multiple patterns printed on the pages, all with abstract images and organic colors. The pages’ translucency allows for the images to slightly show through to surrounding pages, which lends itself to a sense of connectedness throughout the book. Usually artists get to make each page its own entity, but each page in this book necessarily affects the next. The pages are also different sizes and have differently shaped edges, which combines with the patterns to make each seem like a different part of the cell body. This literal connectedness ﬁnds a parallel in and is explained by the text itself, a poem with a few lines per page.
The poetry addresses the idea that cells can hold memories. This is not in speciﬁc, informational ways but likely in a manner similar to muscle memory, in which bodies automatically move in a certain way because of how habits have been ingrained in them. Cell memory, as Chadwick presents it, seems to include the relatively short history that might have occurred within one cell as it existed in the larger form of which it was a part, but also the possible ways the cell could exist as well. Chadwick writes of the cell’s possibilities in a few lines:
in the core/ of ourselves/ the cells remember/ Past and potential.
Since cells have the potential to participate in so many organic functions and entities, each cell and cell part resonates with a sense of etherealness, the ability to transcend the present and become a part of something signiﬁcant. Of course, a side effect of this is the cell’s transformation into something signiﬁcant all on its own, simply because of its potential. Chadwick certainly makes it clear that the cell is something to be appreciated, even revered. The book even comes in a thin translucent case that adds to its importance.
It is important to note that Chadwick focuses on memory instead of just potential, even though imagining that cells have memories is a much more abstract concept. She even includes the line in the core of ourselves the cells remember twice, emphasizing both the cells’ ephemeral nature and their timelessness by calling to mind their smallness and their relevance as units which form the foundations for human beings. The lines
Centrioles like tiny magnets/ tugging at all/ that cannot be recalled
further reinforce this dichotomous existence; they acknowledge that cells are not able to hold declarative information but that every part in a cell is so connected with each other and with the cell as a whole that it automatically has a sense of its history. In other words, cells’ mobility and relative transience contrasts with their role in life since life ﬁrst began, so each cell might seem insigniﬁcant on its own but really reﬂects billions of years of history.
Johanna Drucker writes about books similar to Chadwick’s in her chapter on rare and auratic books in The Century of Artists’ Books. She brings up Barbara Fahrner’s books, which
“[extend] philosophical and poetic investigations of the book as a metaphor for the world.”
This description also adequately addresses Cell Memory, especially when she adds that Fahrner’s purpose is
“to give [the book] meaning and to give it a permanence which counteracts the transient inconsequentiality of the passage of time.”
Chadwick’s creation very surely achieves this as well, as one can see through the combination of all the elements of the book. It establishes itself as an auratic book through its translucent, small, colorful, and differently shaped pages and the inside poem’s reference to something much bigger than (but also exactly the size of) itself. It is the potential and memory that the book calls to mind, however, which really comprise the feel of the book when one views it.
Chadwick effectively brings together poetry and science in a way that artist books do so well, exploring the potential of a unit of life page by page and line by line. Again, there is a sense of connectedness created by the see-through pages and repeated imagery in the poem itself, and all elements work excellently together to achieve a general representation of both delicate transience and eternal strength.