Memento Mori, Say Ricky Jay's Dice

The late magician and actor Ricky Jay (1946-2018) is responsible for the most somber exhibit at the Museum of Jurassic Technology. In "Rotten Luck: The Decaying Dice of Ricky Jay," the performer presents the chemical disintegration of celluloid dice as a memento mori. Jay explained,

"In the attempt to acquire empirical knowledge, I have accumulated thousands of dice over a period of decades. They are of myriad size, shape, and color and daunting variety: birdseye, bullseye, doughnut, barbudi, poker, baseball, golf, crown and anchor, bell and hammer, drugstore, razor, brushed, feathered, weight, hits, missouts, tops, shapes, polyhedrons, teetotums, and rough-cut unnumbered cubes. They come from diverse sources: generous friends, dealers in collectibles, distraught gamblers ready to embrace a new calling..…

"These cellulose nitrate dice, the industry standard until the middle of the twentieth century (when they were replaced with less flammable cellulose acetate), typically remain stable for decades. Then, in a flash, they can dramatically decompose. The crystallization begins on the corners and then spreads to the edges. Nitric acid is released in a process called outgassing. The dice cleave, crumble, and then implode. Unpaired electrons or free radicals can abet the deterioration. The light and smog of Los Angeles, where my dice have resided for many years, are likely accomplices."

Traditional memento mori paintings incorporate emblems of death (skulls), time (watches), wealth (gold coins), and chance (cards or dice). Jay realized that expired dice roll all these elements into one. His collection inspired Rosamond Purcell, whose still-lifes/portraits of Jay's dice (above) are among the most original contemporary explorations of the vanitas theme.