Review: Momento: On Standing in Front of Art by Jeffery Donaldson

March, 2024
Allison Zhao, Blog Correspondent
Allison Zhao lives and studies in Toronto. She loves reviewing books, always appreciates cafe recommendations, and probably has a pen you can borrow.

“A momento is a portion of time, a bucket of still water drawn from the stream. You pull up what moves so that you can hold it… For just a momento, the question ‘Aren’t you supposed to be somewhere?’ falls away. You stand where the moving on is already included.” With this, Jeffery Donaldson explains the curious title of his lyric essay collection, Momento: On Standing in Front of Art. In it, he provides vignettes and musings, never more than a few pages long, about the experience of standing inside art galleries and museums. Though the book is divided into different sections, named for the potential steps to experiencing a gallery (“You Enter,” “You Move About, “You Attend,” “Something Happens,” “It’s All in Your Head,” and “You Leave”), the pieces – not unlike paintings on display – can be read out of order. Certainly, there is a reason that things are arranged the way they are, but nothing is stopping you from moving through it at random, and while the experience changes, it does not collapse. 

Momento offers a unique, meandering trip through a literary space that represents all the museums and galleries a reader might have ever encountered, citing artwork and exhibits from the Royal Ontario Museum, the Art Gallery of Ontario, and the National Gallery, among others in North America and Europe. The examination of a statue of Eros from the ROM and its juxtaposition with the underwear section of a department store is a highlight of the book – uniquely unexpected and taking itself just seriously enough to work through some genuine questions about what separates the two. 

Donaldson returns to and builds upon particular fragments, and they become touchpoints in short pieces that can sprawl across huge shifts in topic. The Lascaux cave – located in France and known for the prehistoric art on the walls and ceilings – is one such point. In the same paragraph, Donaldson can wander from quantum physics to God to the internet and back to Lascaux, and when placed in a setting like a gallery, it seems to make sense. Elsewhere, a specific, personal memory, such as “I was at the Pompidou Centre in Paris with my daughter Cory, who was a feisty ten at the time,” slides smoothly into a discussion of John Huizinga’s work Homo Ludens that might be at home in one of Donaldson’s classes. He mentions teaching an introductory university course in a passage where he expertly deconstructs the idea that art and poetry can mean whatever a viewer wants it to mean. The role of educator is one of multiple that Donaldson takes on as the reader’s companion, and his ability to guide a reader or a student through the hypothetical comes through strongly in this section.

However, when he moves away from the didactic, Donaldson’s musings can at times feel more like projections that stray too far into an overly singular, jarringly unrealistic imagining of the gallery space. For example, he describes gallery attendants as “shy, introverted, [and] otherworldly” and comparable to guardian angels. Certainly, this is one way of mentally integrating them into the thought space that Momento constructs, but it seems to disregard the reality of museums and galleries’ potential for liveliness and human interaction. Meanwhile, in ending the book with the idea that the world we live in perhaps is not the “real” world, Donaldson reaches for a much more trite sentiment than the rest of the book seems to be aiming for. He recounts a conversation between a friend and a potential corporate donor, where the friend criticizes the artificiality of lives full of reality television, discount superstores, and “imported plastic junk.” Such a broad representation of daily life seems to be at odds with the strange niches and meditative air that the book contains up until this point, and ends what has been a fascinating mess of thought and lyricism rather blandly. 

Like with a trip to a museum, it is unlikely that a reader can digest all of Momento’s content in one go, nor is it necessarily ideal to try. However, Donaldson’s work does inspire return visits; on my read-through, my copy ended up full of bookmarks as I moved through the various sections and marked off passages to come back to again. Not all of the exhibits or art pieces on display will be of interest to every visitor, and Momento’s collection of lyric essays is no exception, but it is worth a reader’s time to find the parts that are striking to them. 

Acta Victoriana would like to extend thanks to the publisher, Gordon Hill Press, for the review copy.

Join our mailing list to receive the latest posts and updates from our Acta.

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Share This