Visual Art You Only Give Me Books with the Word Death in the Title
posted by April 10 at 14:26 PMon
I’ve already written about Seattle artist Dawn Cerny’s installation We’re All Going to Die (Except for You) at the Henry Art Gallery—about its 150-year-old photographs of dead infants, its drawings of invented heavy-metal logos, its paper soldiers with string blood, its photograph of Ana Mendieta’s silhouette in the ground in Iowa, and its 19th-century landscape paintings.
The show closes April 27. Yesterday I visited it again, for the third time, and again found myself lingering in the waiting room. It’s a gallery turned into a waiting room. It looks like the waiting room of a funeral home. It has tissues, dark-wood coffee tables, and, in a totally unexpected detail, the most supportive, bouncy couch this side of paradise.
In a roped-off area of the waiting room, landscape paintings (and one photograph) taken from the Henry’s collection hang on the walls and Cerny’s own dead paper soldiers come streaming down from a corner of the ceiling onto the floor, where they constitute a big, gory old-fashioned battlefield scene.
Cerny’s own brother is in training for the military, but the people who sit in this waiting room—the dead-in-waiting, sitting in the grief-stricken survivor environment as if they were exempt—don’t know about Cerny’s brother. They do get the dark jokes—the cover story on a National Geographic Traveler magazine titled “Sudden Journeys: Adventures in Last-Minute Travel,” and the awful Costco brochures for coffins. I know that they get the jokes because that’s what some of them wrote about in the guest book sitting on the coffee table.
But several also wrote about real deaths, about dead relatives, some who died during the show. Their survivors came to this place because, after they passed through the funeral home and the church, they still needed another place to go. Reading the guest book, I was taken aback at how effective this place seems to have been as an actual grieving room.
Over on one wall of the room there’s a short bookshelf. I walked over to it and started picking up books randomly. The first thing I landed on was Joan Didion’s attempt to recount the clinical description of the bleeding in her daughter’s brain. Next I opened to John Berger telling the story of drawing his father after he died. I got James Ensor’s portrait of his dead mother in the catalog of a 1951 exhibition of his paintings at the Museum of Modern Art. In “The American Way of Death” (a 1963 paperback that sells for $4.95 unless you are a member of the clergy, in which case it is $1.95), I read what Jessica Mitford wrote: “A much newer concept, that embalming and restoring the deceased are necessary for the mental well-being of the survivors, is just now being developed by industry leaders.”
I’m not sure why this place has worked so well, but it has.