Visual ArtCurrently Hanging: Days of the Dead, Lessons from the Ancestors
by Jen Graves
on Fri, Nov 1, 2013 at 11:30 AM
You enter a dark room with benches in the center and speakers along the walls, like this one, topped with an embroidered lace tablecloth and candles. From the speakers come sounds from the mountains of Portugal.
Trick-or-treating last night, I came across a surprising number of front lawns elaborately transformed into costume cemeteries. Some were meant to be spooky; live ghouls lay in wait at entrances to drag you in. One was dotted with tombstones marking prominent Seattle deaths—the monorail, the Sonics, and a marker set in the future, predicting the end of McGinn's mayoralty.
One of my new favorite real cemeteries in Seattle is the little neighborhood graveyard at Crown Hill, "truly... a country cemetery in the city." (Don't bury Mudede there.) From the road (I haven't gone in yet), the stones look crooked. It's been running since 1903, and from its web site, it sounds like people are still being buried there, though its overall creaky appearance gives another impression entirely. It's the kind of place where you imagine you'd be buried next to infants who died in the flu epidemic of 1918.
During this season of the dead, there's an art installation I recommend near the University of Washington. It's a dark room with nothing in it but benches, sound coming from eight speakers disguised as tables by embroidered lace cloths, and candles. The only light comes from the candles. Here, there is room for the dead to rise up. The gallery is also not on any given art path, so you probably will find yourself, as I did, in there alone.
Steve Peters, a Seattle treasure, is the artist who made the piece at Jack Straw New Media Gallery. He based it on the little chapels in the remote villages of the Portuguese mountains. Next to each might be a graveyard with only a dozen graves. The ancestors buried there continue to feed the earth. They can be heard in the passed-down common names for the local plants and animals, transmitted forward from the Latin. Each chapel has a bell, even though most don't ring, replaced by electronic fakes.
Peters is a descendant of Portugal through the Azores, and he went to the mountains for a sound-art residency, which is where he created his own version of the chapels, describing them as "the resonant chamber[s] for the soul of the community."
His four-channel installation in Portugal has been expanded into eight channels of sound here; local Portuguese speakers added their voices, speaking the names of flora and fauna, both common names and Latin. The wind blows, the bells ring, and you get a little lost in there, in the constant meditative flow of the words and the winds, no tombstones, just, as the title says, encrypted Lições dos Antepassados (Lessons from the Ancestors).