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  • Writer's pictureBrandon Giessmann

Representations of grief: Is art enough?

While making art about grief, whether it is in the loss of bodily autonomy from sexual assault or the loss of life during an epidemic or war, I am always confronting the question, “Is art really enough?” It’s a difficult question to ask myself as I make art because that mourning and reflection is a part of that process, it is time dedicated to thinking about loss and that was one of the reasons why I enjoyed doing performance art. Performance art isolated sensations like nausea or freezing that I found helpful to reorient thinking about grief from something voyeuristic to something embodied. At the same time, I know any feeling or thought I simulate can never really compare to the reality of ignored agency or a loved one dying. The idea or fear of being raped is not the same thing as it actually happening, though that fear can traumatize someone in another way, and if that fear is bolstered by a lived experience it compounds exponentially. These feelings are so difficult to articulate in words alone and I’m often concerned about over-intellectualizing them and rendering them stale because that would sanitize a subject that is sensitive and deserves better.

One of the challenges I encounter when brainstorming projects about homophobic violence is whether or not a work should focus exclusively on one person. But then I ask myself, “Who would that person be and why them?” That puts me in a situation where I’m forced to confront which bodies I want to commemorate, whose identities I am prioritizing and valuing over others, and what factors are contributing to that bias. I’ve considered ideas that address those concerns openly, such as making work about people who look similar to me in that they’re blond, blue-eyed, white, cis, gay men who are able-bodied and slender. But what would that say about my empathy and focus? Work like that might feel like a celebration of those privileged positions rather than tapping into the ambivalence that my identity simultaneously mitigates and welcomes violence. It would become about me, rather than the deceased, and my sincerity would mutate into an exercise in narcissism and hypervigilance, a combination that feels odd and extremely complicated.

Someone I think about frequently is Matthew Shepard, a young gay man who was murdered in 1998. Since his passing, he has become a dominant symbol in discussions about homophobic violence and the anniversary of his death is recognized annually within queer circles. Matthew and I share a lot of characteristics and it makes me realize that if I experienced a similar fate, the reception and memorialization of my body may receive the same privileges. Privileges that are rarely extended to queer people of colour, especially trans women of colour who encounter violence at alarmingly high rates. This isn’t to say that Matthew doesn’t deserve to be remembered but it illustrates the hierarchies in place that prefer white victims who can seamlessly integrate into a whitewashed and colonially curated archive.

Then there’s the opposite end of this spectrum where I’d make work mourning particular people who don’t look like me and that raises other issues such as how am I defining difference, to what extent is someone considered Other, and what does it mean for a white gay man to take the memories of people of colour, women, or other queers as subjects for the benefit of his own practice. Gestures of solidarity by privileged artists can become muddled when the professional or social gain is involved as doing so promotes an image that appeals to a public institutional gaze, particularly institutions superficially prioritizing diversity and inclusion in their programming but who avoid implementing those changes in deeper ways. It also encourages the impression that these artists are critically engaged. Privileged artists who generate work about social issues as an ally become an ideal solution for addressing social issues in the gallery or museum as they uphold the problematic hierarchies already in place but present an image that attempts to contradict that fact, aiming to appease criticism through the least intensive and structurally-changing ways possible.

Art cannot replace someone. It is impossible to fill in the gaps and valleys that people leave behind when we lose them and I’ll admit I have yet to see an artist who claims their work is even capable of doing so. It also isn’t my place to dictate how others process grief through art or to neglect acknowledging the power art can have as a gesture of care or commemoration. When I look at art about death I have to remind myself that mourning and empathy are personal. This has been important for me to do because I can easily get frustrated and upset when deep feelings of insecurity and a nagging fear that I’m being apathetic overwhelms me. A strategy I’ve developed to work through these emotions is to propose questions seeking additional depth and nuance that normally revolve around three simplified and subjective categories: Is it personal, political, or historical? These frames overlap, it would be unwise and simply inaccurate to claim they don’t inform one another, which is why I use them in moderation and think of them as stepping stones. Instead of becoming a primary label, they function as a starting point for me to develop an understanding of the artist’s intentions and evaluate my relationship to the loss being discussed.

I think breaking down how I am defining these categories using examples would be helpful to illustrate the concerns I manage when making my own work and how the work of artists like those I’ll be mentioning inspire me to think critically and reflect on my own capacity for empathy.

A piece I frequently think about is The Notepad by Matt Kenyon that takes the form of pads of legal paper that’s lines consist of the microprinted names, dates, and locations of Iraqi civilians that died on record in the first three years of the Iraq War. In 2010 an edition of these notepads was secretly circulated into the hands of US political leaders so that they may become a part of America’s official archive. The project is beautiful in its subtlety as it inserts the names of individuals the United State’s imperialist mentality murders for profit and domination. The papers sit in the hands of US representatives and senators whose endorsements or complacency contribute to the United State’s ongoing legacy of violence, becoming a hidden document exposing the irresponsible and corrupt behaviour of the country’s political system and its members. Their writing thus becomes a signature approving war crimes as their pen strokes overlap and cloud the paper, mimicking the US Military’s lack of regard for human life and entitlement to global resources.

I admire the succinctness of The Notepad, it is politically precise and technically exquisite like the rest of Kenyon’s work and follows through with its aim to expand the archive of the United States of America by recognizing the people hurt by its decisions. People that are often considered necessary casualties which is an idea built on racist and xenophobic foundations that tie humanity to US citizenship, and even that definition degrades further upon entering its borders. The Notepad successfully achieves its goals by maintaining that specific political focus, one that can become muddled and complicated when I begin thinking about its function beyond the borders of the United States and take it home.

I have a sheet of paper from one of the pads passed around during Matt Kenyon’s artist talk at the State University of New York at Buffalo. I was doing my graduate studies in 2018 where he was joining the faculty and I was fortunate enough to work with him occasionally. I didn’t even want to put a pin through the paper to tack it on my studio wall because the idea of piercing it felt like a violation. The simple piece of paper became a relatively inaccessible and precious object as I couldn’t read the information inscribed on its page without the proper microscope and didn’t want to disturb the pristine quality of it by handling it too often, a gesture that is surprisingly difficult with a single loose sheet of paper.

It made me wonder what it means to put the names of people you don’t know on something and the implications of doing so in a way that renders them invisible to the naked eye. I struggled with the idea that it might reiterate the disposability imposed on people like the Iraqi civilians murdered, an effect that I think adds another intriguing layer to the project and one I circle back to as a source of contemplation. After all, it was that expendable quality that allowed the work to intercept the American archive in the first place. That leads to my other thought, one that bridges the gap between this example and the next category, which thinks about how we navigate creating art about lost strangers when they have loved ones who are experiencing that grief intimately and intensely. To what extent should we consider the impact our art will have on those mourning their loved ones and in what ways can art about those deaths disregard them entirely?

This question can be debilitating. It makes wading through empathy and awareness really difficult as private grief clashes with public discourse. Discourses that can overwhelm families by contributing to their loss. I recognize the importance and value art has in proposing conversations that encourage accountability and thinking about our complacency in harmful systems, yet, I’m cautious of the ways people can be rendered into symbols and points to convey those messages. One of the things I admire so much about the Black Lives Matter movement is its dedication to personalizing the people lost. Protestors and communities fight for George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and the countless other names in the long list of people harmed by racist police brutality in the United States of America, to be recognized as people; they have loved ones, they have faces, they have stories and lives that deserved to be fulfilled without the toxic intervention of a corrupt justice system.

I think that dehumanization is one of the risks of making art about grief that intersects with politics explicitly, especially when it is about people you didn’t know personally. It becomes a practice of weighing the potential legislative or social impacts with the feelings of those enduring that pain. These things are not mutually exclusive but I think projects can easily veer in sympathetic directions that invalidate the real emotions of loved ones in favour of promoting or contributing to larger discussions. I do not believe artists should avoid making this work, as it can be potent as seen in Kenyon’s The Notepad which I believe handles this challenge in a sensitive way in its meticulous presentation and particular form, but I do think it should warrant a deep and thorough series of questions prior about what the implications and goals are.

Artwork that is generated from personal instances of loss come with their own set of challenges, two being how specificity proposes complex connections for audiences to make and how grief continues to be taboo. What I mean by complex connections is the pivotal role empathy plays in interpreting the work as a viewer. Audiences begin with symbols and materials and have to work towards drawing links to their own emotions, relationships, and experiences. Art based on personal loss is loaded with nuanced language that can be distinct and difficult to unpack without crucial pieces of information and it can be confusing to navigate if the artist wants to retain a sense of privacy. I think that the space between mystery and clarity is full of possibility and the confusion or frustration audiences encounter can speak to the importance of solidarity rather than conscious understanding. Sometimes we can’t understand what is being experienced and need to emphasize our ability to support and listen instead. It is also valuable to remember that we are never entitled to disclosures, that no one should be forced to share more than they are comfortable with in order to receive unconditional compassion and validation.

Then there is the issue of grief being taboo. Contemporary Western culture has alienated mourning and isolated it in the private realm. Open displays of grief are met with discomfort and avoidance, reduced down to simple crosses at locations and quiet ceremonies. However, it should be recognized that movements like Black Lives Matter have disrupted that by literally pulling this pain out into the streets and sharing it amongst their peers. I remember a passage in Robert Pogue Harrison’s book Dominion of the Dead where he talked about how historically important public ceremonies were for grieving families and the crucial performances that took place that utilized loud and theatrical gestures to expel the intense feelings of loss. Communities came together to perform these acts because not doing so resulted in longing to be with the dead, a desire that promoted dangerous outcomes and contributed to a cycle that denied closure and boasted festering.

I think art in galleries and museums continue to struggle with the taboos of grief as moving through those spaces is often accompanied by silence, smaller groups or being alone, and an environment that caters to the preservation of art rather than the comfort of the living people inside. White cubes evoke a sense of isolation in their architecture which makes artwork about particular subjects like death and assault even more difficult to view as grappling with them doubles as a test of one's coping mechanisms. Perhaps this relationship is why artwork addressing these issues can feel so potent and resonate so deeply, it takes advantage of the loneliness and vulnerability people have viewing art in these spaces and mimics the looming sensations of anxiety, loss, and fear communities endure in the societies outside. But that same advantage can easily be overwhelming or potentially harmful, especially for those familiar with violence and accustomed to the trauma it carries.

Julia Rose Sutherland’s practice is concerned with the impact colonialism has had on her family and the Indigenous community. She uses the body as a primary vessel for understanding this violence, casting herself in sugar that resembles amber and breaks down as it melts and glistens in a beautiful and harrowing decomposition. Her work Gepmite’tq “Paying homage” has audiences interact with white sheets of paper embossed with the names of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls; the text is revealed by smearing sage ash across its surface. The piece shares its use of names with projects like The Notepad but does so in a precisely different way. Rather than rely on invisibility to enter the political domain, Sutherland’s work uses that camouflage to ask individuals to literally participate in the recognition of these names. For audiences of settler-descent, or who occupy positions of privilege as non-Indigenous people, we are asked to consider our complacency in the continued oppression of Indigenous communities. The ash residue sticks to our fingers, requiring water or cloth to be removed, and interacts with the ridges of our fingerprints thus denying any anonymity or excuses of innocence. But this realization requires engagement, it needs an audience who is willing to touch the art and who can distinguish the exercise as one of respect and solidarity. The neglect and ignorance Indigenous people meet in spaces that aim to be inclusive and empowering means a piece like Gepmite’tq “Paying homage” relies a lot on privileged people to set aside their pride.

I remember attending the 2019 Women’s March in Buffalo, New York and while I don’t necessarily remember the speeches very well, I do remember a moment that reminds me of the challenges artists like Sutherland will face. When Jocelyn Jones, a woman representing the Seneca nation, was given the mic she began her speech in her native tongue and my focus was pulled in two directions. I wanted to listen even though I didn’t understand what was being said but what continued to demand my attention was a pair of white women talking behind me. I remember feeling annoyed and nervous because I was somewhere invested in combating sexism but was seeing a pristine example of racism. Thinking back, I wish I would have said something. At the time, I was struggling to navigate how I could communicate my concern while maintaining mindfulness about my privilege and the fact I would be a man asking two women to stop talking at a Women’s March. In the end, I tried to ignore them and focus on Jocelyn Jones but I’m disappointed that I missed some of what she had shared with the audience and that there were people there claiming to represent and embody justice but who couldn’t be bothered to extend that respect to an Indigenous woman.

Gepmite’tq “Paying homage” acknowledges Indigenous women and girls who have been killed or abducted and asks audiences to take accountability for the role they have in that harm. To give these strangers a moment of their time and energy. That interaction works to bridge the impersonal gap that is present in discourses around murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls where names and faces are seen and forgotten. Something I’ve always struggled with when it comes to the use of names in work is they are a relatively abstract representation of a person. A name might tell you a bit about them, where they come from and their lineage, but it doesn’t reveal much about them personally. In that sense, when I think about how I commemorate people in my own work, I have a difficult time coming to terms with the reality that a name is a series of letters that most people will read momentarily and brush off. This is not a criticism of pieces like The Notepad and Gepmite’tq “Paying homage” as they are not my work and the intentions of the artists differ from my own. Instead, I think they offer key insights into the faults of my fears and the power of work that still uses names.

My sensitivity for grief, reckoning with my privilege as a white gay man, and curiosity about how audiences can sincerely engage with art about loss, means I tend to be very cautious. This caution results in a process and works that avoid specificity in order to focus on the murkiness of feeling and question the limitations of empathy. I’m interested in making work that is personal but references the cultural and historical precursors that generated the legacy of violence I’ve encountered myself. I look at how homophobia has manifested harm for those before me and try to parse out the similar threads being woven into behaviour and policy today. History and general cultural criticism complicate the personal references and experiences I incorporate into my work. They attempt to validate it in an art historical canon and preserve a sense of safety. I think this strategy is why personal artwork that openly addresses grief and mourning is something I admire but also am intimidated by.

Sutherland’s Gepmite’tg “Paying homage” is a piece I’d initially consider as oscillating between the personal and political realms, at least in reference to my subjective categories to interpret work about grief. It is personal because it stems from an identifying relationship to the bodies missing and being murdered. Sutherland is an Indigenous woman and has to deal with the reality that she is more likely to experience violence. But it is also political because it ties into the systemic violence and colonial structures in place contributing to that abuse while facilitating a gesture of accountability with audiences. Her work Where Do We Find Loss? activates a different dynamic, the piece consisting of a series of photos of a lightbox in different vacant locations and the vinyl text “I’m Sorry You Died Alone In A Calgary Detox Center” across its illuminated surface. This piece is deeply rooted in intimacy, it references a relationship involving guilt and absence, and speaks to the emotions we feel when someone we care about dies. We want to be there. We want to be supportive and ease the pain. But sometimes that proximity isn’t possible, sometimes geographic limitations or trauma hinders the rekindling of that connection, and we are left to navigate that grief without closure or a sense of comfort knowing we did our best as guilt takes precedence.

The personal nature of work like Where Do We Find Loss? creates distinct points for audiences to connect to, in this case, the relationship between a mother and daughter or a loved one who is struggling with addiction. The blunt and concise links between the photos and their description of Sutherland’s story encourages a vulnerability that allows viewers to momentarily rest assured they won’t be taken advantage of if they follow in the artist’s footsteps. People looking at the work are able to take time to process their own instances of guilt and grief as the artist has already initiated that reflection and by exhibiting it visually as photographs and as an artwork in a gallery, it creates an aura where the deeply personal and internal thoughts an audience member may be experiencing is shielded by an artwork that focuses on those thoughts overtly. Where Do We Find Loss? draws the attention of outsiders away from the people it has encouraged to ponder grief by literally lighting a path for the curious onlooker to follow. The lightbox acts as a lantern for guests to approach and a shield for those safely in shadow by its glow.

The use of text in Where Do We Find Loss? is one of the reasons it feels so potent but what about work that is more abstract? What if a piece lacks text entirely and relies on visual poetics and materials to propose a conversation about grief? One of the best examples of a sculpture that manages to integrate these nuances about loss and mortality is Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s (1957-1996) “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) (1991), a pile of candy that visitors are welcome to pull from to take home, eat, or keep as a memento. The sculpture is beautiful as cellophane bounces light off the richly colours sweets and the large pile rests neatly against a wall like the spoils of a childhood dream. It is the weight of the sculpture that carries its heartfelt gravity, referencing the weight of Gonzalez-Torres’s partner Ross Laycock who died of AIDS-related complications in 1991. Audiences pull the metaphor of Ross’s body apart as they take bits and pieces of the candy only for it to be replenished by the institution housing it so it retains its scale. Thus, Ross endures in a cycle of consumption and reverence as he is cherished and devoured, continuing to bring joy to visitors who crave something sweet and a grim reminder of the physical damage AIDS can wreak on a body and the lives it has taken.

“Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) is personal, it is a gesture of affection from one lover to another that also reconciles with the reality that they are gone. Yet, it raises questions about the challenges of commemorating people who are or were considered disposable. The history of HIV/AIDS in the United States of America is riddled with violence and its crisis continues today. Sculptures like “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) rely on institutions to convey the deeply personal and historical contexts from which they originate and that can become troublesome as their staff’s biases may be laced with homophobia and other prejudices that influence how the work is written about and historicized. Additionally, the abstract presentation of the sculpture itself, a decision reflective of the artist’s practice that also engaged with institutional homophobia at the time but wasn’t a sole contributor to its formal qualities, has interesting implications when we think about commemoration, capitalism, and institutional archives. Gonzalez-Torres’s work is popular among institutions because of its beauty and poetic genius, but it also enables a level of flexibility when curating the work, something that Sutherland’s Where Do We Find Loss? does not accommodate so easily. The material choice of candy, something so mundane and linked to childhood innocence, opens doors that uncomfortable and hyper-vulnerable work does not. The excess of the sculpture elicits excitement and curiosity, feelings that I worry can overshadow the complex emotions and context it stemmed from, and without precise care and institutional savvy, it runs the risk of being commodified.

These histories play a vital role in understanding art, whether it's the ongoing biography of Sutherland or looking back at the ‘80s and ‘90s of Gonzalez-Torres. But history is not necessarily concrete and it is6 saturated in bia5s. It is because of those limitations that artworks centering on a historical moment of grief are increasingly important as points to recognize harmful legacies, ones that we continue to grapple with today. Shelby Charlesworth’s Any Piece of Cloth Can Be a Rag (COVID-19) visualizes the deaths of people in the United States during the Covid-19 pandemic by embroidering red thread into discarded rags. French knots indicate individual lives lost to the virus each day, with days being represented by the varied rags. Some feature sparse dots of crimson while others feature too many to count. The series 6builds and builds, showcasing the escalating death toll and the ways in which poor government intervention considered the lives of the deceased as disposable. It is in the accumulation of red knots that the gravity of the situation is understood and we piece together just how many people have been impacted by the virus in the worst way possible.

The volume of the thread works differently than Gonzalez-Torres’s sculpture which relies on consumption and renewal, and instead, the fabric pieces are flat and static. Charlesworth’s metaphor sits there, unchanging and incapable of being rewound to revive someone who is no longer present. Who each knot represents becomes a source of contemplation, with each being similar and none receiving additional finesse or attention. The clusters of red blot the rags and we feel as though the virus we can’t really see is bleeding out and we’re helpless to stop it.

Charlesworth’s work and the real consequences of Covid-19 share a crucial understanding of the body and health. Embroidery is time-consuming and physically taxing, it involves muscle memory that can be broken up by even the smallest pricks of a needle. There is pain and fatigue involved, similar to the sensations being experienced on a global scale as people grieve in isolation and are deprived of being close to others. Her project makes me think about the similarities between textiles and healing, how wounds are stitched closed and how fabrics are used to absorb the messes our bodies produce as they regenerate. Any Piece of Cloth Can Be a Rag (COVID-19) then reveals the demoralizing situation healthcare providers are working against as they struggle to keep up with the illness. The heaviness of Covid-19 alongside the scepticism opposing the medical field and its professionals has made healing difficult. The wounds keep leaking, as we finally close one with vaccine rollouts we witness how capitalism exhausts those remedies, exposing the inequality and inaccessibility medical patents produce and the ways in which wealthy countries, particularly those in the West, have twisted the pandemic into an opportunity to increase profit margins.

Fabric and textiles are also intimately tied to gender and the domestic space. Stitching and patchwork extend the lives of articles of clothing and linens, collaborating with the wear and tear they harbour in loosened threads and worn out holes. These marks and disturbances honour that journey of use while sewing promotes longevity. Charlesworth referencing a wound with the red thread elaborates on that relationship between augmentation and salvaging, embroidery being functional but also capable of intricate aesthetic additions that mask or highlight the fact the garment needed aid to continue its purpose. This is a skill that has historically been delegated to women who are understood as caretakers responsible for the cohesion and maintenance of comfort and kin. Those links between gender and grief, such as the intimacy involved in comprehending loss and feeling inclined to extend that empathy beyond one’s own circles, is admirable and tragic when we think about its gravity and how gendered social conditioning encourages particular bodies to welcome that burden. There is beauty and devastation in the way Any Piece of Cloth Can Be a Rag (COVID-19) channels the immense loss the artist is witnessing right now and it highlights how Charlesworth uses her laborious practice to process this moment in time. It is felt in the muscles, strained vision, and the realization that the end is not yet on the horizon. There are more rags to come and more spools to empty. I believe that physical and emotional dread resonates with the understanding that there will be more people we do not know who will become sick and die, and prompts an uncomfortable conversation about the significance a small embroidered knot begins to carry.

There is power in the anonymity of the knots, they encourage a sense of unity and community that names might complicate with their specificity, but it is also in that unity that the lives become interchangeable and void of nuance. The dynamic between a universal symbol and intimate representation of someone is one of the reasons why I am wary of making work that uses numbers or statistics. I think there is value in artwork that does use this data, it weaves tactile and visceral sensations into what would otherwise be sterile information that denies any humanity at all, but its limitations as a vessel for recognizing the complexity of each person who has died is something I have a hard time justifying in my own work.

I have trouble reconciling with the fact that I don’t even know of the vast majority of people who have died of AIDS-related complications. The pool of over 700,000 dead Americans is so large that learning each name feels impossible and developing a project that would do each person justice and recognize the diverse lives they lived while respecting the people they loved is overwhelming. That also doesn’t take into account the guilt that looms over me as I reflect on the fact that the statistics are flawed and there will be people who are missed, people whose families intervened in the commemoration of their loved ones and wiped any mention of HIV from the deceased’s story due to homophobia or other prejudice or who were understandably too scared and traumatized to disclose their serostatus. I think about the gestures I would want to see if someone I loved was taken away from me, how much I would want to share about them, and attempting to do that for masses of strangers is too much. I can’t handle it.

This sensitivity to death and wanting to remember the dead as wholly as possible has been a journey of my own and not one I expect others to abide by. It is a position that can impede making art at all which would be the opposite of what loved ones and those who have passed deserve. Thankfully, looking at work like the ones mentioned here helps me come to terms with the possibilities and limitations of certain approaches and to see how each contributes to the recollection of lives, stories, and the tenderness exchanged between those the art resonates with.

My own adaptations for referencing the dead in art is riddled with similar turbulence resulting from the questions posed and pondered throughout this essay. Rather than focus on the accumulation of people, though I’ll talk about that in writing to contextualize the history of HIV/AIDS and its ongoing crisis, my strategy has been to abstract a single body, one that I can fixate on and project the various narratives I am familiar with onto. This practice does not aim to replace anyone, I have had to come to terms with it only providing a meagre opportunity for me to attempt to engage with instances where intimacy and loss meet. It relies heavily on my imagination, something that is capable of so much but still lacks the ability to truly comprehend and articulate much of what I want it to. There are contexts, compressions of intricate webs composed of personal, political, and cultural factors, that I will never be able to attest to.

That barricade, one of time and identity, motivates me to build futile bridges between those two places, between me and what I don’t know and cannot understand, to at least encourage some sort of contact. I hope that by reaching out to the intangible, that inviting it in, it might caress a part of me that disrupts the solace I find in apathy, a coping mechanism feigning self-preservation and fertilized by my privilege. Harrison’s statement about longing to join the dead if emotions of grief and despair are withheld, if they’re left to fester and boil, is true. When I take that into consideration, the last thing I want to do is allow an unhealthy relationship with loss and an inability to express those uncomfortable emotions emerge as a force that makes becoming a peer of the dead more tantalizing than someone dedicated to their memory and dignity.

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