Meme Inspired from Mundane, but Home to Edgy Work

The problem with performance art is that it rarely leaves a physically lasting imprint. A phenomenon that graces street corners, park centers, and stages, this art form is inherently transient—miss out on one show, and you’ll never see anything exactly like it again. Meme Gallery, a new institution in Central Square, has devoted itself to extending the fleeting life of ephemeral works, and to providing them, often for the first time, with a legitimate home.

Meme is housed in a one-story building once home to a travel agency. The gallery is an anomaly in a block of residences—a small, detached structure with an unremarkable exterior. One of the owners, Vela Phelan, describes it as “a little cabinet in the city.” Phelan and four other performance artists partnered with Bradley Benedetti to create Meme, which opened its first show in June; Benedetti was an owner of the space in its previous incarnation as Gallery 55.

The five artists­—Phelan, Dirk Adams, Alice Vogler, Sandrine Schaefer, and Phil Fryer—who all have a background in the Boston performance art scene, felt unsatisfied with the space and conditions they had to exhibit their work. However, these Boston-based groups were limited by their marginal status and brief performances, often displayed in illegal locations. “We all three [of Mobius] felt at the same time that we were searching for something else,” Vogler says.

The concept behind Meme is one which pervades our daily life. On the Red Line, under the seats on the ventilation grates, is a repeating pattern: three vertical lines, followed by three horizontal lines. To most, this is the kind of detail which has little meaning, but to Adams, it was the word “meme” written over and over. The pattern—and the word it encodes—stuck, and became the logo of the Gallery.

The word ‘meme’ stems from the Greek word, mimema, defined as “something imitated.” It is a cultural unit as basic to our thoughts and ideas as a gene is to our biological makeup. Like performance art, it survives by being transferred from person to person, but evolving as it does. It is a word that easily applies to a gallery that traffics ideas more so than saleable products. Yet the owners insist that the cultural connotations of the Gallery’s name were an afterthought. It is exactly this kind of accidental hipness that characterizes the laid-back gallery. “What we’re doing feels new and exciting and a little off the grid,” Phelan says.

The Gallery has focused on giving space to performance art in an effort to make it more “permanent.” With Meme, Schaefer says, “We wanted to create something that gives artists the opportunity to have shows for more than one or two nights.” Having a traditional space also gives a larger audience a chance to see the performance art. “The relics of performance art are amazing and often a show in itself,” Vogler says.

Meme’s current exhibition, which will run through September 19, is entitled “What (of Me) Can Only Be Seen by Others.” Its creator, Jacob R. Ireland, used a portrait of the occultist Sylvan Muldoon as a guide for three large faces drawn faintly in graphite on the white walls. In the center of the space, Ireland placed a text which melds the words of Muldoon, Marcel Proust, and Roland Barthes. It has attracted diverse crowds—artists with cuffed pants having conversations on lucid dreaming, wandering children, a man who looked at the seemingly blank walls and inquired when the gallery was going to install the exhibit. “We’re starting to tell the artists that if you leave the door open, you’re probably going to get people coming by… so there are all these levels of people being familiar with the work and the space,” Adams says.

Though the curators were not really looking for a gallery, they have found a space in Cambridge for art that was often pushed underground in Boston. “We were going around galleries and we couldn’t really envision our art there,” Schaefer says. Now that they have Meme, the curators are letting it take its own course. “Whatever it is, it’s happening on its own through us,” Phelan says. —Staff writer Rebecca J. Levitan can be reached at rlevitan@fas.harvard.edu.

Recommended Articles