Symposium discusses ‘Grave’ symbolism

This weekend, the Clark Art Institute organized a symposium, hosted by MASS MoCA and the Clark, concerning professor of religion Mark Taylor’s “Grave Matters” project. On Saturday, three presentations were given by members of other disciplines relating to the exhibit.

After opening remarks by Michael Conforti, the director of the Clark, and Michael Ann Holly, the museum’s director of research and academic programs, installation artist and MacArthur Fellow Ann Hamilton described three of her recent projects and their thematic relationships to Taylor’s book entitled Grave Matters. She opened by saying that although she has not often associated the words death, mourning and memory with her work, she realized that those concepts are implicit in her art.

The first work she talked about was an installation that she did in the American pavilion at the Biennale in Venice. In front of the pavilion, she constructed a large glass wall that distorted both the image of the pavilion and the image of the outside world from within the pavilion. In the pavilion’s front courtyard was a high table with many pieces of knotted white cloth, which symbolized part of American history, in that knotted cloths were some of the first tools used for record-keeping in ancient civilizations. This image related to the record-keeping purpose of gravestones.

Inside the pavilion were four galleries, which were stripped down to the walls and opened to light for the first time. On the walls were magnified Braille manuscripts that became visible as an automated system slowly dropped an intense fuchsia powder down the walls. The powder was made to be so intensely colored so as to appear toxic and unnatural. Hamilton said that one of her main interests as an artist is how we know things through materials.

The next project that she showed us was called “The Picture is Still,” which was created in an old Japanese torpedo warehouse. The main rooms in the warehouse were densely hung with long pieces of charcoal, at a level where one had to stoop down to walk in the room. The only place where one could stand up was in the long tunnels that led from the storage rooms down to the docks. Hamilton talked at length about the previous uses of the building; she described how the doors that led out onto the docks had been welded shut and were never to be opened, by order of the Japanese government.

Another interesting part of the installation was video that she made using a one-bit camera (that produces only a grainy, black-and-white image), attached to her finger. She believed that touch was the primary way that we make connections, and noted that with the video, she wanted to accomplish using her hands to “see.”

The final installation she discussed was constructed in a five-story Swedish farmhouse. She was asked to work on all five floors of the building, and in order to create a connection between the floors, she cut holes in the floors to create long shafts that went through the entire building. A pulley system was created that slowly lowered and raised an apparatus that was taken from a Hammond organ that played the sounds of the farm owner and his daughter humming Swedish folk songs. On the top floor of the farmhouse, there were many shirts hung from the rafters; on the bottom floor, many items of clothing were packaged and stored on shelves. The two floors showcased what people left behind, and helped relate to gravestones as memories.

The second speaker in the presentation was Thomas J. J. Altizer, a professor of religion emeritus at the College, whose talk focused on the works of van Gogh and how his artistic innovations represented advances in philosophical and scientific thought. He showed several slides of some of van Gogh’s self-portraits and noted that the eyes captured his character and gave his viewers a “new face of death.” He compared these revolutionary self-portraits to new ideas in physics, as both dissolve boundaries between the observer and the observed.

He also noted that the self-portraits represented a revolutionary transformation of the subject. Altizer then proceeded to focus on van Gogh’s final work, Wheat Field with Crows, which depicts the place where van Gogh would go to commit suicide. He noted that the blackness of the crows symbolized that darkness of death, but that in this picture, the image of the crows combined with the image of the sky showed that light was indistinguishable from darkness. Altizer concluded that van Gogh was responsible for a reversal in the icon of God and was the first painter to envision the darkness of God.

The final speaker of the presentation was award-winning novelist and Joanna Scott, professor of English at the University of Rochester. She read three excerpts from her novels that dealt with the issue of death in different ways.

The first passage was from her novel Arrogance, which is a fictional account of the Austrian painter Egon Schiele. The scene takes place in a graveyard, where Schiele has come to bury one of his paintings. We gradually learn what led up to this act, as the depressed artist had come to believe that his fingers had a life of their own and had become “afraid of those virtuoso hands.”

Schiele had set out to produce images that were so offensive that they would even shock himself. The figures in his paintings became more and more grotesque, but that did not succeed. The painting that he created was one of himself as a solitary monk and artist, as he felt such an acute loneliness in the world. He had thus come to destroy what he had created.

The second excerpt was from Scott’s novel Tourmaline, which detailed the final thoughts of a historian obsessed with Napoleon on the island of Elba. As he is dying, he considers Napoleon’s end, and sometimes even confuses himself with Napoleon. He notes that the character of Napoleon “made no sense” and attempts to understand Napoleon’s motivation for coming to Elba. He also considers how Napoleon was “ready to give up everything for the good of others,” realizing that that is one of the highest moral actions.

As a conclusion to the symposium, Scott read he final passage from the novel Make Believe, which is narrated by a young girl named Ann, waiting for the body of her mother Marge to be pulled out of the water. As she sits on the shore, many thoughts course through her head. She thinks to herself that she needs her mother to tell her what she is supposed to feel. She imagines that she hears her mother, telling her to “find a way to while away the time. You should be aware of exactly what you are, even as you are changing.” Scott noted that this was her attempt to “give voice to the dead.”