The Simplicity of Truth: Death Is Not the Enemy.
Published 22 October 2014, Simon Marsh.
Ours is a culture based on excess, on overproduction: the result is a steady loss of sharpness in our sensory experience….What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more. Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art, much less to squeeze more content out of the work of art than is already there. Our task is to cut back content so that we can see the thing at all. (1)
The human need to publicly convey expressions of denial, anger and outrage – all characteristics of the grieving process – contrary to historical practice, remains an articulation that in a Western configuration of the processes of grief, is hastily relegated toward that of a more private sphere of emotional outpouring. And yet it could be convincingly argued that the private made public is the civic responsibility of each individual throughout an individual’s surmounting of discordant emotions that have been equated with those of a post-traumatic stress disorder. (2) Put simply this action equates with a healthy society knowledgeable of the dynamics that operate around inclusion as opposed to the exclusion currently afforded grief and the grieving individual. Throughout the contemporary Western post-humanist framework of grief, death has become a subject of social taboo. With the illusion afforded to thoughts of a technological utopianism, death has in effect become strangely anachronistic. (3) The levels of unreality that seemingly blanket this very real inevitability feed into a belief of the prevailing of scientific and technological developments in overcoming the inescapable consequence of life. What has been made publicly allowable with the exception of a masculine appropriation – as a political and social resource – of a collective grieving and remembrance afforded to past wars and the death of celebrated statesmen, sportsmen and the occasional women, the battle between the demarcation of the public and private forms of expression, between what is considered acceptable and that which is deemed profoundly unsettling has been lucidly articulated by emerging artist Karike Ashworth throughout her most recent solo exhibition titled Lamentation.
All forms are spiritual, I see it as an awareness which stems from reality- a kind of being. (4)
The act of lamentation – the sound of trauma – is by all accounts an outward expression of grief, a passionate articulation of mourning, of loss, regret and sorrow. It is an act that has for millennia transgressed borders, religious belief, cultural affiliations and pertinent to this article, artistic disciplines. From the lyrical brush of artists such as Giotto, Mantegna and Botticelli et al – reflect here on the numerous interpretations of The Lamentation of Christ – the haunting arias of Claudio Monteverdi – an early example being Lasciatemi Morire – the Islamic Shia’s recital of Nauha Khawani loosely translated as songs of lament, through to the unforgettable poetry of Sylvia Plath – consider Daddy, Tulips and I Am Vertical – and the embodied portrait of a grieving woman as portrayed by the ‘modern primitivism’ of ballerina Martha Graham throughout her celebrated 1930’s solo performance titled Lamentation. In many ways this humanistic and artistic negotiation of the grieving process is an expression that has and continues to blur and question the demarcation between both the public and private spheres of human expression. And yet the contemporary Western zeitgeist is seemingly configured around a sense of embarrassment toward this historic meditation on pain and loss: In lieu of connecting society with an authentic intensity of existence – living with an acute awareness of death – what we tend to witness is an elongated expectation of economic comfort, the convenience of a beige expression of allowability and the inordinate amounts of control exerted on a society in effect to maintain a surface representation of tolerance, to maintain the illusion of progress and authenticity at the extreme cost of psychologically normalised, healthy communities. (5) Heidegger believed humanity had become obsessed with a negating of the fact that we are constantly surrounded by “the nothing” of death and as a result we tend to invalidate an authentic life by hiding from the confrontation of “being” through a doughy, diversionary construct of chatter that we as a society participate in creating and consuming. As a society we lend validation to inauthenticity and proceed to live our lives behind it. Death is not the enemy. (6)
Minimalism wanted it both ways Morris has lately argued: tough-minded empiricism and tender minded transcendence. (7)
Ashworth’s Lamentation marked the two-year anniversary of the passing of her mother in July 2012. The exhibition conveys the collective grief of twelve women including the artist who have all lost their mother to death. A celebration of life viewed through the lens of artistic contemplation? Perhaps, though one is drawn to a speculative rending of the mind and body in the face of a perceived culmination of events amounting to the sublime certainty of finality. It is a dialogue that as a society we tend to dismiss. And yet framed as artistic eloquence in a recognisable public space, a space in which dialogue is encouraged and permitted to take shape, enables the viewer to constructively consider the many complexities surrounding the human inability to explore the absolute certainty of our collective demise. To investigate ideas that oscillate between the felt pain of a certain vacancy and a remembered presence underscored by a seemingly insurmountable grief, Lamentation, invites the audience to share in this uniquely feminine witnessing to a mortal absence and promotes a rare opportunity to bear witness to the coherently focused intent of the artist at work. The exhibition allows a clinical meditation on the inevitability of iniquities that are and can continue to be perceived and felt as a result from the death of a loved one. And whilst art as therapy has its place, Lamentation professionally elevates through an almost ritualistic symbolism, a feminine value as the traditional gatekeepers of the grieving process. We cannot help but feel the authority afforded memoir as a form of authenticating life. It is an exceptional collection of a feminine history that coalesces toward a decidedly productive exegesis allowing the opening of a much-needed dialogue that we all in some way personally share. The transfiguration of a life lived disseminated throughout that of a contemporary artistic practice.
Throughout the three rooms of the Hold Art Space, Ashworth has co-opted stained and condemned hospital bed-sheets, pillows and gowns that in many respects lend a clinical finesse to the interrelating narratives that clearly exist throughout the exhibition. Ashworth adheres to an early Minimalist imperative in her investigation of a truth, sought through simple forms. (8) Between the minutiae of the twelve darned, taught, two-dimensional stretchers of Epoch, the suspended, three-dimensional, darned and diarised Pillows, to the overt catharsis, the emotional entanglement of the torn sheets that comprise 3 hours 20 minutes, the absolution intimated throughout the visceral video work that takes the title of the show and the lovingly constructed and once again suspended, three-dimensional Comforters that emit the recorded conversations of all twelve women. It is precisely Ashworth’s iteration of the Minimalist lexicon through simplicity of form, adherence to detail and the extreme rationalisation of structure throughout the exhibition that imbues the work with a distinctly feminine spatial intimacy culminating in an aesthetic strength that voices an “illuminated auratic artistic essential” suggesting a discrete inclination toward thoughts of the metaphysical. What Ashworth articulates is a “contemporary reformulation of the sublime” which by all accounts evokes an experience of high spiritual, moral, ethical and intellectual worth. (9)
This aesthetic strength and iteration of the Minimalist lexicon harnessed by Ashworth is clearly echoed throughout the entire exhibition. When we critically look at and ruminate over for example Epoch, there exists a residual trace of a discrete disruption between a perceived heterodoxical sense of space, artistic discipline and gender values. On one level what we are looking at are a series of twelve personalised, numbered and darned calendars tracing the mother’s life, from her birth through to her death. Darned in the colours of the Queensland Heath brand, each square is representative of a year. These calendar grids, interspersed with numbered blue squares – evocative of the years that held the memory of traumatic events throughout the mother’s life – are reinterpreted and re-signified artistic triggers that collapse a life lived into a hyper rationalised form. This indexical reproduction of a life is redolent of a mathematically accurate statistical portrait, or at the very least, an obsessively abstracted rationalisation of mortality.
In essence, Epoch can be seen to be in conversation with, for example, Carl Andre’s 144 Magnesium Squares though perhaps more accurately the overarching masculinity of Minimalism and perhaps more abstractly the entrenched masculinity evocative of the overall art’s industry. From the form and materiality of the object: the choice of mediums and obvious hand of the artist: from the destabilisation of the horizontality of the floor onto the verticality of the walls and into the same fabric that all of the women represented had at some stage engaged with, are all staunchly provocative artistic gestures by Ashworth. An immediate dialogue not only with notions of a shared grief and remembrance but as we begin to peal back the layers of this particular work the foundational elements of which intensify to a conversation between the feminine and the masculine. An intriguing and ongoing conversation between the traditional feminine provenance of the grieving process, the overt masculinity of the art-world – in particular the prescribed evaluations of Minimalism, the indexical significance of the grid and the mathematically magical symbolism of the square. Ashworth’s artistic process sets up a dynamic that contests a masculine dominance of public space. She utilises the gallery space the traditional domain of a mostly masculine fraternity and through a distinctly feminine artistic intervention that whilst remains in conversation with understandings of the histories of art and pays a meticulous attention to a detailed investigation of space, Ashworth consciously destabilises that space and displaces it with a Minimal, ritualistic iconography. The public and masculine are diverted toward a feminine unsettling of this tradition with the paradigm growing as the public gallery begins to signify the private space of a shared feminine grief, the sharing of an immense rationalisation of death.
Arguably it is the mother daughter bond – whist extremely complex and at times mercurial whilst at others provocative and loving – that remains of paramount importance throughout Lamentation. And it is this maternal bond that is holistically present across the entire exhibition. Strongly felt and clearly seen in Ashworth’s Pillows: once again we are looking at a grid of condemned hospital linen, however this grid of covered pillows is suspended by a series of infinitely thin lines. Liberated from the floor Pillows looks both inviting and yet vulnerable in its suspended fragility. The slips are darned with fluid snippets of text from the mother’s diary in the mother’s hand. The dream keepers: Pillows allow an authenticated intimacy into a fragmentation of past thoughts. And yet it is a suspended intimacy that oscillates between the dichotomies that exist within the humanist construct of certainty. All threatening to collapse under the weight of a seemingly tenuous hold on “being”, once again the auraratic presence is fore-grounded throughout the form of Pillows. A Minimalist shrine to the authenticity of both life and death, Ashworth captures the moment when life transitions toward an eventual state of death and beyond toward the suturing of the body post mortem. The perceived violence and aggression of suturing post mortem is clearly counterpointed by the loving tenderness exhibited throughout the processes of darning highly personalised fragments of memory past. (10) This emotive tension lends itself to the validation of a felt feminine aura. Pushing outward from the centre of the small room, the intimacy of Pillows also seems a recognisable felt presence. As we move around the three dimensionality of the soft sculptural object, a spatial reorganisation of that which has been displaced must in some way be rationally accounted for. In a sense it is the viewer who absorbs any spatial absence. The immediacy of its physicality is artistically laser focused. In many ways Pillows and for that matter Lamentation is a deeply personal display of grief and the stages of reconciliation an individual navigates in reaching some form of acceptance of the inevitability of death. The exhibition is a Minimalist, tactile, audio-visual accompaniment to the conceptual interest Ashworth vocalises in her questioning of certain canonical artistic standards, questions that unfortunately still need to be asked.
Lamentation engages with notions surrounding ‘first world’ arts and its offshoots as being solely responsible for the enacting or the reenacting of social tragedy. And if this is the case is it enough of a societal valve to assuage private expressions of grief? Whilst bearing witness to a shared feminine grief in a public setting leads toward an important reintegration toward the matrix of existence, Ashworth’s constant probing of the feminine and masculine roles inherent throughout the grieving process, divulges a difference through which gender roles begin to separate. Traditionally the provenance of the feminine, Lamentation exhibits a clinical finesse of form, media and medium in interlocking the cyclicality of the prevailing narrative. The hyper hygienic parallels that run between that of the contemporary art space and that of the hospital system have become unsettled via the introduction of condemned hospital linen into the sanitary surrounds of the gallery setting. The aesthetic intervention of which is subtly compounded through a variety of engagement strategies. The visual dialogue, the historical dialogue, the verbal musing, Ashworth’s rationalisation of space and form and a fearless pursuit of a truth that bleeds into social taboo, are some of the keys that can be seen to unlock this exhibition. In a sense we enter the displaced space of mortality that is constantly unsettled by an implied viewpoint. And yet it’s elements of bodily penetration, absolution, suspension and rending that are all evocatively visceral elements of extended hospitalisation that we as viewers move through. These extraordinarily powerful symbolic gestures navigate the borders of several discourses weaving threads from each into a highly personalised indexical expression of a feminine value: a Minimalist exploration of a feminine gesture that surely points toward the simplicity of truth.
All images courtesy the artist.
Sources and Further Reading:
(1) Sontag, Susan. Against Interpretation. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966.
(2) Burton, Laini. Karike Ashworth Lamentation Panel Discussion. Chaired by Louise Martin-Chew, featuring Dr Bill Platz, Dr Courtney Pederson and Dr Laini Burton. The Hold Artspace. You can view the discussion here.
(3) Ibid. Dr Bill Platz.
(4) Chave, Anna C. Revaluing Minimalism: Patronage, Aura, and Place. The Art Bulletin, September 2008.
(5) Leonard, Sarah. Death and Das Man: Authenticity in Heidegger’s Being and Time. University College London. April 2004.
(6) Botton, Alain de. Heidegger In the Kitchen. The School of Life. September 16 2014.
(7) Above n4.
(9) Above n4.
(10) In conversation with the artist.