The heart of a society is most open when dealing with death. Its spoken and unspoken fears and hopes, both for life and the afterlife, are embedded in rituals of remembrance and memorial. In China, this has taken the form of detailed objects made of Joss paper that are burned for the deceased. Since it’s believed that worldly possessions are relinquished when passing to the next realm, family members that have been left behind send objects for the next life in smoke, to sustain their loved ones until reincarnation. While this practice started with the burning of Joss paper money, it has transformed in contemporary times as a reflection of the growth of consumerism in China and the quest for modern material objects, even if the ritual itself remains largely unchanged. Kurt Tong has documented these Joss paper offerings in photographs, currently exhibited in his solo show In Case it Rains in Heaven at Jen Bekman Gallery.
Officially, the burning of Joss paper is banned in China, but due to the establishment of the practice in memorial traditions, it is still tolerated. Traditionally decorated with seals, stamps and metallic paint, the paper money is burned at cemeteries and home ceremonies for the newly deceased, with some believing that it will allow the dead to live lavishly in high afterlife style, and others believing it can be used as a bribe to get reincarnated early. A stiff material made from bamboo, Joss paper has evolved into a medium for incredibly detailed objects of offering, from clothing and credit cards to cars and iPods. Tong has selected a group of these objects currently on sale and captured them on a black background, their colors and creases popping sharply against the darkness.
The objects are all in cartoonish colors and a little absurd. While it is totally understandable why you’d want to equip your relatives with a mansion with a doorman, a Ferrari with a chauffeur and a machine gun in the netherworld, many of the objects are mundane. There’s a window air conditioning unit for your afterlife apartment (how depressing to think that even in death you will have to live without central air conditioning), and an umbrella in case it rains in heaven, per the exhibition title. Dentures and wheelchairs are practical offerings in case your ills and worldly pains are carried over to your next state.
In Tong’s statement, he says that in 2006 “it was reported that paper prostitutes, viagra, condoms, ecstasy and gambling equipment were found outside of cemeteries” to be bought and burned. Although this resulted in a crack down on these more scandalous objects, you can still get a couple of servants to put in the fire. Other objects are purely status symbols, including a Louis Vuitton purse, maybe to carry all your Joss paper money. From this view, life after death seems like it will be a lot like life now, except with more potential for social mobility. Likely, these luxury objects are being offered to those for whom they were untouchable on Earth.
All of the photographed objects were burned by Tong as an offering to his ancestors, and a video of the ritual is playing behind the front desk in Jen Bekman Gallery. (You can also watch it online.) Called “With love, from Earth to Heaven,” it is mesmerizing to watch the vibrant objects whither and flame away to ash. (I recommend turning down the distracting piano music and watching it in silence for the full effect.) There is a touching hope in the burning of the objects, hope that death can be something more wonderful than tragic. We all hope that people we have lost are in a better place, in a paradise where they can have what they want, even if it was something as simple as a plate of sushi.
When Kurt Tong exhibited the In Case it Rains in Heaven photographs at Compton Verney in the UK in 2010, audience members were invited to cut images from magazines of what they would like sent to their deceased relatives, and also what they wanted for themselves in the next world. The responses included canine companions and golf clubs, along with stereos and expensive jewelry, the same mix of the domestic and extravagant found with the Joss paper objects. All these mass produced, consumer objects take on a deeply personal significance when used as memorials to the lives of the deceased, whether they are things they cherished or things they desired. What makes Tong’s photographs poignant, even in their simplicity, is that all these objects are haunted by the lives of people, and our earthly unease about what happens after this life, and what the weather will be like.
Kurt Tong: In Case it Rains in Heaven continues at Jen Bekman Gallery (6 Spring Street, Manhattan) through March 4.