People must mourn, yet this human need has been challenged by the pandemic where thousands around the globe have not been able to accompany their sick relatives and friends during the last few days of their lives. Our rituals, funerals, vigils, ceremonies, and congregations have had to change in order to prevent further spread of the disease. The uncertainty of death has become as real and as palpable as the uncertainty of living, and those most vulnerable in our society have paid the heftiest price during this global tragedy. However, deprived of the ability to mourn has led to alternate modes of expression and human interaction. Many have adapted to new possibilities and perspectives, all of which include our process of mourning. The artists Paolo Almario, Laura Barrón, Claudia Chagoya, and Rafael Lozano-Hemmer offer new insights into this human quest and position the task as an all-encompassing and collective endeavor. Their work speaks to a generation of people who have had to overcome uncertainty and unpredictability, where memory serves as a powerful tool to re-conceptualize a different outcome.
Chicoutimi-based artist Paolo Almario’s interactive digital installation déformé (2013) consists of seven automated, ephemeral, self-destructive panels along with a campaign aimed at the release of his father who had been detained as a political prisoner following false accusations and imprisonment in Colombia. The artist’s father was a congressman who had been hunted down by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) with a brutal attack on his family’s home. The family survived yet the house in rubble left the family homeless and in fear. Under false accusations, the father was arrested spending nine years in a small jail cell. At the time, Paolo Almario had been studying in Canada, and began an intricate research process where he gathered both documentation and proof of his father’s innocence, enabling his final release from prison. déformé, composed of his documentation and research, reveal the images of the attacked home as well as his father’s cell. The dimension of the installation is an exact replica of the cell, and the pixilated portraits are those of corrupt magistrates of the Supreme Court of Colombia. With the help of a machine that physically and metaphorically destroys it’s violence, the installation uncovers a dark and corrupt system in a logical, clean, and precise manner. The final representation of this installation is a metal cell with the destroyed images. Small pieces of the destroyed panel spread throughout the gallery floor represent the artist who helped not only his father during his acquittal, but also aided his own process of mourning as he dealt with displacement and the uncertainties of exile.
Mexican-born Toronto-based artist Laura Barrón offers the photographic series Palimpsest (2012). Aerial views of landscapes juxtaposed with off-white powder that seem to be floating clouds on its surface convey the beauty, depth, and ritual particular to the act of grieving for a loved one. The artist father’s ashes cover her photographic work, sculpting new meaning to place and proposing different reflections and modes of engagement with time. By converging the living with the dead, the artist develops a ceremonial act that results in the possibility of life beyond death. The title Palimpsest alludes to the reused and altered nature of its subject. While effaced, the ashes still bear visible traces of its original form and metaphorically take us to a sublime place where we can meditate on its memory. Rather than spreading her father’s ashes on a cliff towards the sea, Laura Barrón commemorates and grieves her father’s passing by imbedding him directly onto her photographic practice and life’s work, connecting his organic matter to her ongoing artistic search.
Calgary-based artist Claudia Chagoya’s Novem (2019) and Unweaving Foundations (2018) feed off Barron’s attempts of commemoration but allude directly to feminicide and gender violence. The artist uses our senses of smell and sight to take us to a transcendental contemplative grieving site where the “rebozo” – a nourishing Mexican shawl used from birth to death – serves as the portrait of missing and murdered women. In Mexico – where the artist is originally from –the rebozo serves as comfort. It carries offspring, it nourishes the injured, it protects from the cold, and accompanies in the grave. The unweaved and altered rebozo represents how feminicide destroys and weakens the families that suffer such violence. The aftermath of where thousands of women have been murdered and disappeared is revealed by the various states that are highlighted in the remaining image of the map of Mexico on the shawl. In Unweaving Foundations, the artist alludes to the rebozo “luto de aroma” from Tenancingo, Mexico. This particular rebozo which is black in colour, keeps its embedded aroma for a lifetime. The combined formula of various spices permeated within its fibres is achieved by a nine-step intricate process. The luto de aroma accompanies the owners during their afterlife as they are buried wrapped around the shawl.
While Chagoya replicates the scent onto the sculptural unweaved rebozo in order to cleanse the gallery space, in Novem, the crystallized salted rebozos look like bones, the fibres of the shawl resemble women’s hair, and the installation clearly denounces the perpetual violence implicated over women’s bodies. Novem not only references the corporeality of the subjects but their decomposition. For the artist, the dichotomous contradictory component of salt, used to both decompose and preserve, to cleanse and to freeze is the perfect embodiment of pain. Salt, a purifying element used in Mexican altars during the Day of the Dead celebrations, prevents the souls of the deceased from corruption when they visit the realm of the living. Novem, meaning nine in Latin, implies a deep connection to Mexico’s Catholic religion and Aztec cosmology. Within the cosmovision of the Aztecs, there are nine levels in the land of the dead, Mictlán, and depending on how souls perish is where they end their journey. The number nine is also significant within the grieving process for Catholics, as they pray for nine consecutive days in a ritualistic repetitive pattern. As such, the artist, repeats this grieving movement by pouring salt onto the shawls in an attempt to occupy a space of tranquility while also denouncing its violence.
Finally, Montreal-based artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer shares the act of commemoration of the mass kidnapping of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa normalista school in Iguala, Guerrero, Mexico. Level of Confidence (2015) requires the presence of an audience to stand in front of the camera in order to be activated and to experience its effects. Rather than portray the images of those who implicated injustice as has Almario in his installation, Lozano-Hemmer uses the algorithms placed in the system in order to tirelessly search for the faces of the disappeared students. The algorithms find which student's facial features look most like the audience’s face in order to provide a "level of confidence" on how accurate the match can reach. Ironically, the same biometric surveillance algorithms used to identify this search are also applied by military and police forces, the same who are accused of being involved in the disappearance of the students. The work suggests the implicit culpability of government police forces and drug cartels, yet the project seeks to delve deeper and search for the resiliency and persistency of those who continue to seek answers for the whereabouts of their loved ones. As we witness this relentless search of overlapping facial recognitions, we are faced with our own complicity and cannot ignore those who have disappeared as we grieve on the site of injustice.
The artists in the exhibition Reimagining Mourning construct narratives that discuss the despair faced by loss while also offering humanity a place for closure. No one can ever prepare for death or loss, but these artists allow a space for its representation, they display the fragility of life and the humanity we all share. Almario, Barrón, Chagoya, and Lozano-Hemmer capture an experiential and transcendental place, and they suggest a new terrain for its absent subject, no longer confined to isolation and despair. Perhaps the ability of artists to provide spaces of revisiting, regenerating, and reimagining sites of remembrance and commemoration – one that we all long for and need – will lead us to acknowledge the horrors of our past and present and seek to live a more just and balanced future.
Text by Tamara Toledo
Images by Rafael Goldchain