Two unrelated things have struck me recently and were in my mind as I prepared for this evening. Firstly: recently, I attended the funeral of someone I had never met. And secondly, Lauren remarking that we need town planners for the dead, for the large urban necropolises that sit at the peripheries of our metropolises – that there is an architecture of death and that this is at play in her work.
Both of these things are about the uncomfortable disjunction between intimacy and impersonality, that awkward feeling that you’ve encroached upon something intensely personal, yet somehow still readily abstracted into a ceremony, a cemetery, a ritual, a way of navigating the mourning process and a trajectory to guide you through it. An incense to mask the smell. There is a gap here that needs to be filled – the empty space people speak of when they lose someone close. But this is also the space that is said to be transgressed by the dead: the crossing over into the unknown. Funerals, cemeteries, coffins, urns: these are the spaces, the rituals and the objects of a mysterious in-between that religion has struggled to represent – or rather, has generated intensely powerful artwork and ceremony precisely in not representing death, instead approaching its threshold or seeking to fabricate an intimacy with it. This is what excites me about Lauren’s work here tonight.
Architecturally we’re familiar with quite a range of spaces for the various thresholds of intimacy and impersonality: tram stops, airports, spaces of intense hellos and goodbyes, spaces for just passing through. What happens when architecture tries to accommodate the interstitial, the unresolvable? Quite simply, it fails. No architecture for humans consciously aims at sterility, at a negation of the living and of possibility itself. And yet. The tram stop is a home for the homeless. Hospitals are clinical and fluorescent instead of being healthy and hospitable. Airports are impersonal thoroughfares rather than inviting spaces accommodating personal moments. Cemeteries are spaces for the living to inhabit temporarily as a means of communing with the permanent tenants. Cemeteries are disciplining spaces, quiet, normalising. Landscaped death parks. Ostentatious tombs are the click-and-drag McMansions of suburbia, proportions constrained yet down to a tenth of the size. In vast contrast the pyramids of Egypt not only housed tributes to the pharaohs, but a great many live Egyptians, doomed to die slowly against the backdrop of other decaying bodies – the reality of death which is denied by our silken coffins and carefully crafted urns.
Spaces for death have tended towards an architecture of absolutism rather than radical alterity. How do you design a space for death that does not caricature it? Lauren and Linda say, why try?
Doesn’t it strike us as absurd that the dead need such careful planning? Do we need a map, a space for death, a key to its objects?
Death is absolute and ultimate and terrifying and often sudden and painful and incomprehensible. There is no last word, no magical solution, no going back and fixing things, no amends left to make, nothing left to resolve.
When we’re faced with situations that are impossible to resolve, we do extreme things. The carnivalesque and the absurd take over. And indeed isn’t there something absurd about death? One moment alive, the next moment vanished. A live, present, immediate person with all her words and dreams and hiccups, suddenly become ashes in a small neat box. Abracadaver! As if by magic. Abracadabra! The magic word that invokes the other, that heralds a change in state, a transgression, a surprise. It’s performative – the word IS the magic. The mark of radical change, the transformation of something into something else. It’s the moment, the cleavage, the shock that the architecture of death wants to hide.
Lauren’s work evokes this magical moment itself, the sawing in half, the spring of the jack-in-the-box. The blinding white light that distracts the hypnotic subject – the inability to represent. The exit sign flickers. Now, this is not the “moment” of death. This unresolvable, this interstice is just that: the unresolvable. The interstitial. It’s the altar, the sacrificial table, the accoutrements of death themselves. A coffin is not a final resting space but a container, a form in which to contain decay. A cemetery is a space for the slow and irregular movement of the living, with the dead secreted away.
Architecture’s take on death is architecture at the point of failure.
This exhibition says: don’t represent. Play. Engage the interstices that can’t be dealt with:
– the deep, dark crevice in the dark eye of the skull
– the tentative red zig-zag stitch
– not the ON nor the OFF but the ON-OFF, ON-OFF
– not the coffin nor the pieces but the cleft
– not the close nor the open nor even the ashes but the shock, the anticipation, the unexpected.
I wanted to make a final point on the colour red. Jean-Luc Godard was famously asked why there was so much blood in his films, to which he replied: “That’s not blood, that’s red.” Red is the colour of life, in all its clamouring visceral demands. The stark contrast with death adds another element of play here – and I mean play in all its playfulness, as an endless exchange of signification between the living and the dead. As the unresolvable. As the colour of blood, it can be seen to mark the absence of life, but always a warm absence, a nearness to death, the near-death experience which brings life into sharper focus. It’s my great pleasure to declare Abracadaver open.
Abracadaver (Lauren Brown and Linda McCrae)
Allan’s Walk Gallery (Curator: Tamara Marwood), 2008