I’ve always been attracted to the macabre in art and literature. I have a vivid memory of pronouncing Edgar Allen Poe my favorite author we had read that year in 7th grade; most of my classmates preferred Harper Lee or Mark Twain. While walking through the group exhibition A Wake: Still Lives and Moving Images at the Dumbo Arts Center, which combines video, cinema, and photography to explore the theme of death, I had a similar experience to when I first read Poe. I entered the gallery and was immersed in mystery and death side by side with beauty, lyrical poetry, and dark magic. As I explored the space, my journey went from jarring and theatrical to spiritual to mystical.
All of the work in the exhibition explores not just our own grappling with death and its cases and causes, but also its fascinating rituals, ceremonies, and complex symbolic language. The imagery traverses a spectrum, from a quiet EKG monitor in a hospital to a violent car crash, catastrophic genocides, and sadistic rituals. There’s more subtle and elusive imagery as well, leaving open the possibility for stories and thoughts to arise, a presentation of the possibility of infinite worlds between worlds. The work is not just captivating because of its inarguable certainty; it is also alchemical, transformative, and cathartic. Although sometimes hard to digest, ultimately the show both reveals and heals.
A Wake was first realized at Momentum Berlin. The curators of the show, Adam Nankervis, Leo Kuelbs, and Rachel Rits-Volloch, commented via email on the move from Berlin to New York:
… [T]his relocation has lent a differing brevity to this assemblage of funeral rites. The exhibition was postponed due to Hurricane Sandy that devastated much of the North East Coast, NYC and Dumbo Brooklyn, the very location of the planned exhibit. It has become a tenuous mirror of its surroundings, a possible emotional resonance different from Berlin, in that the symbols and their meaning may shift.
In Dumbo, the small side room in the gallery marks theatrical death. The three pieces projected are serious because of their violent content but also share a slightly comical tone. They push violence so far into sensation that they become farce. The most effective one is by Paul Rascheja. “Crash” is a car accident scene that continuously reveals one more frame as it repeats itself, beginning with a banal shot of a middle-aged woman speaking to the driver of a car that is eventually plowed by oncoming traffic. As each new cycle extends itself one frame longer, the intensity of the crash gets more horrific yet too difficult to pull your eyes away from.
In the main room of the gallery, the large wall features a piece by Fiona Pardington titled “We Dream of Gentle Morphius,” which is a projection of her photo series Still Lives. The images have the aesthetic of old Flemish still-life oil paintings, but by using projection instead of the photographs themselves, Pardington adds another level of illumination to the objects. They are slightly garish compositions, containing bird wings, skeletons, ornate glass goblets, and seashells in detailed and meticulous arrangements. If the car crash in the previous room was our death, these pieces are the stillness of our funeral. They address both memory and mourning, and they stop time in a space of strange incubation. As mentioned, many of the works in the exhibition called literary references and narratives to my mind. Pardington’s images invoked Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations; they made me feel like I was with Pip in the dilapidated Satis House of Miss Havisham, the wealthy spinster who wears her old wedding dress daily, a mixture of dusty beauty, sorrow, and stillness.
Along the back wall of the gallery there are eight video pieces installed on a small flat screen with headphones. The first one that stood out to me was by Jan Švankmajer. “Kostnice (The Ossuary, 1970)” is, according to the curators, “one of the masterpieces produced during Švankmajer’s early career.” It was shot in the Sedlec Monastery Ossuary in the Czech Republic, where some fifty to seventy thousand people have been buried since the Middle Ages. The history of the ossuary is steeped in death, ceremony, and catharsis, as the bones in the chapel are from the victims of the Black Plague and the Hussite Wars in the early 15th century. Thousands were buried in the abbey cemetery, and when the church was built in the center of the cemetery, the lower chapel became an ossuary for the mass graves unearthed during construction. The task of exhuming the skeletons and stacking their bones in the chapel was given to a half blind monk of the order. Finally, in 1870, Frantisek Rint, a woodcarver, was employed to put the bone heaps into “order.”
Švankmajer’s presentation of the ossuary, through his pacing as well as the medium itself, takes on a surreal tone reminiscent of the work of filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, with his interest in psychomagic. The editing combined with the symbolic compositions of the sculptural bones create a profusion of alchemical imagery reminiscent of Max Ernst’s drawings. Švankmajer’s piece goes well beyond documentary, pulling us into a space where, through this symbolic visual language, we are in some kind of ceremony communicating with thousands of dead in a dream. Though intense, “Kostnice” is not sad or dark; it’s actually slightly psychedelic. And when we finish the trip, our psyches are a little clearer and cleansed because we looked death in the eye through the veil of light. When I was watching, a poem came to mind, perhaps what I heard all of those dead communicating to me. It’s by American poet Russell Edison, titled “The Floor”:
The floor is something we must fight against.
Whilst seemingly mere platform for the human
stance, it is that place that men fall to.
I am not dizzy. I stand as a tower, a lighthouse;
the pale ray of my sentiency flowing from my face.
But should I go dizzy I crash down into the floor;
my face into the floor, my attention bleeding into
the cracks of the floor.
Dear horizontal place, I do not wish to be a rug.
Do not pull at the difficult head, this teetering
bulb of dread and dream …
Another standout piece is Osvaldo Budet’s “Creative Wakes,” an exploration of the theatrical in death rituals. In the fall of 2008, Angel Luis “Pedrito” Pantojas Medina was found murdered from eleven gunshot wounds near his home in Puerto Rico. Just twenty-four years old, he had been a member of San Juan’s growing urban youth subculture, in which guns are rampant and lives are often short. Pantojas had said that he always wanted people to see him on his feet, even at his own funeral, so despite the fact that he was shot eleven times, including twice in the face, and tossed over a bridge in his underwear, Pantojas’s family respected his dying wish and tethered his corpse to a wall at his wake. Streams of strangers came from throughout Puerto Rico to see the latest curiosity: el muerto parao — dead man standing.
This triggered the beginning of a movement of themed and theatrical wakes in the territory. The Los Angeles Times reported:
These exotic wakes caused such a sensation that authorities including the Department of Health and the state attorney started poring over the penal code. Puerto Rico’s House of Representatives convened special hearings. The funeral home owners association held an emergency board meeting. But even as the funeral directors decry exotic wakes as sacrilegious offenses to tradition, this much appears to be clear: The practice is legal. And when a third Puerto Rican man was embalmed on a motorcycle in Philadelphia last week, the trend, to experts’ dismay, had come to be seen as a fad in a subculture marked by violence and bravado.
Budet explores the possibilities of this new trend.
In ancient alchemy, when one attempts to “gain the philosophers stone,” one has to pass through a series of skeletal steps. The first phase is called the blackening phase, and as with all steps in alchemy, it is both physical and metaphorical. Through the process of either calcination or dissolution, a spiritual death occurs, and the groundwork is laid for growth. (One of the phase’s animal symbols is the raven.) The darkness of death descends and hovers there until the alchemist understands that darkness is the beginning. It is a black pregnant with possibility, the space before birth. The entire exhibition of A Wake reminded me of this blackening phase.
Budet’s piece, however, specifically brought to mind a different alchemical phase called the peacock. It is an elaborate, tricky phase wherein the alchemist attempts to destroy the ego while the ego itself rears forth in a last attempt to captivate and hypnotize the higher self. It’s incredibly alluring, and if the alchemist succumbs, he must start all over again.
The piece also called up a conversation I had with Pascal Arnold, a French filmmaker whose works are often dark narratives with overtly sexual natures and centered around crimes. He told me crime fascinates him because no matter how many pieces of the puzzle are revealed, a crime always has missing information. There is always some small bit of information that is unattainable, absent other than through guessing. Perhaps the missing information always disappears with that one or several persons who expire with the crime. And that blank, of course, is the mystery that draws us to crimes stories — a mystery that is frightening on the one hand, but enticing and even enchanting on the other.
Alain Resnais also contributes a documentary work to the exhibition, “Night and Fog” (Nuit et brouillard) from 1955. Made ten years after the end of World War II, it is a blend of archival footage and then-contemporary sequences. The footage is incredibly difficult to watch, the atrocity still slightly unfathomable after all this time. The text is powerful and the layers of insanity palpable. As the press release explains:
The juxtaposition of past and present ensures that the final question ‘Alors, qui est responsable?’ (Well, then, who is responsible?) is directed at the viewer, any viewer, the viewer of 1956 (when, Resnais admits, the growing war in Algeria was much on his mind) and the viewer today, living in an era of ethnic cleansing, genocide, and state violence differing perhaps in target but not in effect from those that came before.
The curators also told me that when the exhibition was up in Berlin, this piece was the most watched and had the most weight with the audience. It would be interesting to see if this happened in New York as well.
Another nearby work, “The Testimony of Hiroshima a Fotofilm” (1999) by Betty Leirner, focuses on the same war, featuring Matsushige Yoshito telling his story at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. In 1945, when the atomic bomb was dropped, Matsushige was a 32-year-old journalist living less than three kilometers from the center of the bomb; he died in 1995. When Leirner visited the Hiroshima museum, she felt the only appropriate thing to do was to film the film of his testimony. In addition to this gesture of homage, to me the piece also feels protective toward us, the viewers. Through these many veils of light, we can listen to but not see the disturbing scene.
After these pieces, there seemed to be a shift in tone in the gallery. We had experienced our individual death, then collective death, and finally the symbol of the death of the entire world, the atomic bomb. David Medalla’s video performance “The Ghost of Isaac Newton in Another Vacant Space” (2011) led into another room and began the discussion of nonexistence. As the curators describe, “His whimsical narrative is his acting out of the ghost of Einstein walking on the road of Biesentalerstrasse Berlin when he sees the ghost of Isaac Newton, eating an apple, addressing an empty room in another vacant space. A dialogue ensues.” The lightheartedness of the piece is welcome and necessary. The room is filled with the realization that without bodies, we are lighter.
Up next, Annika Eriksson’s piece “The Great Good Place” (2010) is a video that shows the life of a community of abandoned indoor cats living in a park in Istanbul. I always think of cats as animals that already live in a place we cannot always see, half in this world, half in another, regularly communicating with ghosts. “The Great Good Place” is an appropriate addition to the show because the cats bring a calm and quiet balance to the intensity of much of the work. After viewing car crashes and probably one of the most intense documentaries on the Holocaust imaginable, I did need to just watch cats on a carpet; I needed a quiet, constant place.
While in front of the piece, the force of my imagination, all the narratives of the exhibition, and the attributes of these bewitching animals allowed me to break into a more mystical experience. This was supplemented by my surroundings: suspended white fabric screens with work by AES+F. The piece, titled “Défilé,” features seven digital rotating images that juxtapose death with high fashion. The pairings push the fine line between ugly and beautiful and question where that line is, what we are drawn to versus repulsed by.
The next section of the exhibition includes Anna Bella Geiger’s “Passagens n.1,” a film from 1974 converted to digital media that is a ritual of ascension. As Geiger writes, “the point of the piece is to bring visually, through repetitive movements of my climbing stairs — a sense of unfinishable path.” Jarik Jongman’s “Sachsenhausen” (2009/2010) is also on view here, a digital projection of 14 photographs taken during a three-month residency at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. The hazes and fog of this section are the opposite of the earlier psychedelic clarity. These pieces feel like the moment when you first wake up in the morning: everything still has blurry edges, the colors all washed out, but the light is welcoming. It’s dawn, and now we’re awake.
My experience of this exhibition helped me understand why I was drawn to Poe in the first place. The territory and terrain of darkness require a bold spirit and a flashlight. To shun the dark means neglecting an entire half of our human psyche and history. In a book titled Icarus at the Edge of Time, Brian Greene, one of America’s leading physicists, constructs a futuristic reimagining of the Icarus fable for kids, with the aim of a deeper appreciation of the cosmos. By traveling not to the sun but to a black hole, he poignantly dramatizes one of Einstein’s greatest insights, one small part of the strange reality that has emerged from modern physics.
This is the space of exploration that Poe and many other artists and alchemists — including the ones in this show — are delving into. And the strange blend of concentration, knowledge, and intuition required makes navigating this underworld an adventure of the soul. Black sand derives from the shattering of molten lava as it hits the sea and is some of the newest land on earth. As such, it has powerful properties and is often used in rituals to stimulate a new beginning or a freshening change in life. Perhaps all of 2012 — a year of increased super storms, incessant wars, and apocalyptic predictions — is our ceremony, our death ritual. Perhaps it represents a spiritual death and a need to slough off what is weighing us down. The artists in A Wake use the gallery as a psychic space for reinvention and new light. Or, as Bob Dylan has said:
I’m a-goin’ back out ‘fore the rain starts a-fallin
I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest
Where the people are a many and their hands are all empty
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison
Where the executioner’s face is always well hidden
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten
Where black is the color, where none is the number
And I’ll tell and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’
But I’ll know my songs well before I start singin’
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.
The last piece in the show, “Loom” (2010) by Polynoid, is a stunning digital animation projected onto the floor of the gallery. It shows a moth being caught in a spider’s web. The execution and perspective are beautiful. And it left me with an important question: will we move on or will we repeat?
After seeing the exhibition, I had a similar experience as with my recent rereading of Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls. At times getting through the novel was difficult, as the entire book tells the story of only a few days. But when I finished it, I put it down and sat for a while taking in the story and the magnitude of its meaning. And then I burst into tears because of all the beauty and sadness encompassed within it — all the gritty truth of what life is, in beauty, loss, and an infinite amount of in-betweens and impermanence. Then, I got up from my bed and began a new day, and I felt better. I felt past something.
A Wake: Still Lives and Moving Images is on view at the Dumbo Arts Center (111 Front Street, Suite 212, Dumbo, Brooklyn) through November 25.