Ian Curtis: Memento Mori
One Edition of 130 Numbered Copies
“The tenacity inscribed in the intention of mourning is born of its fidelity to the world of things.” —Walter Benjamin
IAN CURTIS: MEMENTO MORI is an exquisite art object that revels in the beauty of materiality while inviting its holder into a space of collective mourning. It’s a careful assemblage of photographs depicting objects at Curtis’s gravesite in the twenty-first century. Given that he took some of the most iconic images of Curtis during his brief lifetime, this is a project that feels like it could only have been conceived by Kevin Cummins. The book is at once dazzling and unnerving as it reveals the strange atemporality of Ian Curtis and the music of Joy Division.
The title makes reference to the centuries-long history of the memento mori that stretches into the present, and of which Cummins’ book becomes a part. The Latin phrase translates approximately to “remember that you will die,” an imperative to the viewer. The Tate London describes the memento mori as “an artwork designed to remind the viewer of their mortality and of the shortness and fragility of human life.” Cummins’ book plays on the historical usage of the term while reconceiving the phrase anew. Will you join me on a very brief detour into the world of the memento mori in art and literature?
Beginning largely in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, artists depicted memento mori through paintings, engravings, and sculpture—objects designed to remind the viewer of the palpableness of time, and the frailty of human existence. Albrecht Dürer’s Skull (1521) might come to mind, for example, or Vincent van Gogh’s Skull with Burning Cigarette (1885). In contemporary contexts, you might think of Damien Hirst’s now-famous diamond skull. One of the earliest examples of the memento mori in print culture is a 1672 bookplate designed for brothers Johann Jakob and Johann Rudolf Schmid, now housed in the British Museum. The bookplate is described simply as “memento mori, a heraldic device supported on either side by a standing skeleton.” And it’s not just skulls that exemplify the idea of memento mori. In the twentieth century, for instance, W.G. Sebald’s literature reveals the ways in which these objects can be seemingly banal, even in their ability to overwhelm our senses: “[A] host of long-case clocks, wall-mounted regulators, kitchen and living room clocks, alarm clocks, pocket and wristwatches were all ticking at once, just as if one clock on its own could not destroy enough time.”
Cummins’ Ian Curtis: Memento Mori is in dialogue with these works, but it also offers something more. Certainly, the images of items left on Curtis’ grave serve as reminders of our shared mortality. Yet the book as a physical object—itself a collection of elegiac objects—invites the viewer into a “kinship of mourning,” as Walter Benjamin might call it. The viewer of Cummins’ photographs is summoned to Curtis’ grave along with others who have been to that very site for the same ritualistic purpose. Graveyard images even guide us into the book, placing us in the very space where the famous gravestone sits. At the same time, that kinship of mourning compresses the temporal and geographic distances between and among those who grieve the loss of Ian Curtis, Joy Division, and the music that could have been. In the collective lamentation that Cummins’ Ian Curtis: Memento Mori offers, it is as if time has passed and yet has not passed at all.
Cummins created the book to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Ian Curtis’ passing. In the essay that opens the collection, Gail Crowther speaks to the peculiar experience of mourning the dead while, in so doing, recognizing the precariousness of our own existence. She writes of the uncanny dichotomy illumined in Cummins’ photographs of “absent presence,” “remembering and forgetting,” and the various ways in which “the dead never really die, but are perpetually conjured back into being.” We can be at once soothed yet unnerved as the past infiltrates the present.
Cummins’ book itself is a memento mori, the shape of an unassuming gravestone with the name and the embossed inscription for Ian Curtis. In its physicality, the object illumines the fragility of the very world of things and the book as material object. As the pace of digital technology rushes forward, the “thinginess” of the book grows increasingly tenuous.
Reader, this is a beautifully designed book that has been made with incredible care. It’s a Bible-style handbound photobook with leatherette covered boards. Only 130 copies exist. The front cover and the spine have been embossed in gold, by hand, on a 1960s Marshall Embosser (thank goodness for analog technology!). The front and rear endpapers are a vibrant red Fabriano Tiziano paper, and the rest is made up of acid-free Mohawk paper. Each book has been numbered by hand and signed by Cummins, housed in a custom handmade box embossed in gold. The book block edges have also been gilded in gold by hand.
Those gilded edges underscore that the book is indeed a memento mori art object akin to a Dürer etching or a Van Gogh painting. At the same time, the gilding allows the book to stand in defiance against the passage of time. Gilded edges add to the aesthetic beauty of the object, naturally. Yet they also hearken back to a time when gilding was used as a method of preservation. The book is truly an artefact to be collected. If only more small presses still existed, crafting such glorious material objects. Tangerine Press, long may you run.
Black-and-white plates of Ian Curtis—photos taken by Cummins in the past, during Curtis’s lifetime—serve as bookends. Inside, sixty-five colour plates reveal various objects left at Curtis’s grave in Macclesfield over time. Those bookending portraits of Curtis function as a kind of death portraiture while, as Crowther suggests, continually conjuring the musician back into existence. In Cummins’ photographs of Ian Curtis, he is present. And even as the mementos left at his grave stress the finality of death, they still seek connection. Cummins’ colour plates depict a range of objects, from letters attempting epistolary dialogue with the dead to souvenirs brought as gifts from travels far and wide. All of those everyday objects, as Susan Stewart might say, are “mediating experience in time and space.”
Ultimately, even the colour photographs Cummins has captured of keychains, decaying flowers, plectrums, postcards—notably in the time after Ian Curtis—those too become memento mori. The keychains are tarnished, the flowers have all died, the plectrums won’t be strumming any more strings, and the postcards have faded. Like Susan Sontag once famously wrote: “All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability.” Over time, too, the book itself will show signs of age as all books and material objects do.
Cummins’ work mesmerizes, and this new collection of photographs invites profound reflection among those who mourn and those who seek kinship.
Audrey J. Golden is a literature and film professor who lives in New York. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram, and you can check out her personal website to learn more about her writing and her archive of books, records, and ephemera.