Four neon letters on the wall leading to Cléa van der Grijn’s touring exhibition of paintings and film spell out the word ‘Jump’. Part lure, part command, it might be urging a passage to an act from which there is no return.
The act is death, here the fictional death on film of a maiden dressed in white who will walk along a concrete pier, look at the lake waters into which it leads and jump.
Paintings present images as surfaces and depths of the lake where the fictional young woman’s life may end. One shows a graceful hand drifting over virgin blues; another, a limp foot receding from view.
The exhibition emerges some ten years after the artist first tackled grief and mourning following her brother Ruriko’s death (Momentous, 2008). Loss propelled her practice into a series of investigations that led to a residency in a hospice for the dying and to villages in Italy and Mexico where she explored alternative cultural resonances to her own. Emblematic symbols establish an archival continuity from there to here: marigold flowers, a girl in a white dress, the image of a cosmos/wrecking ball constructed of locusts or flowers, a patinated death mask cast from the artist’s face and artificial eyes as blue as her own.
How we mourn, how we acknowledge our losses, is a personal script written by oneself uniquely. Western metrics of ‘stage of grief’ which are time-based can elide the depth of loss and despair we may feel. After losing his partner, Julian Barnes asked: “What is success in mourning? Does it lie in remembering or forgetting?” 1 Yet loss is not compartmentalised in the psyche or unconscious. The unconscious, as Jacques Lacan noted, knows no time.
Death is not presented frontally here. Instead, its presence is woven so intimately into the visual threads that viewers can create narratives themselves. The film’s open narratives allow for uncanny possibilities.
Angel, ghost or pure fiction? They show the young maiden in the waters, then as appearing to recall a majestic country house and an empty industrial building through which she descends. No doors are open. She is always alone. Dressed in white like an angel (the angelito of previous work), she happens upon altars of candles and marigolds that are disrupted by the classical memento mori of a human skull which she hurls against the wall. Is this representation a memory, which is itself an interpretation culled from life events, – or a fictional seduction for us viewers setting up imaginary purgatories and psychical senses of imprisonment and containment? She moves through a forest carrying a cosmos of marigolds, the flower whose “…bright colours and aroma lure the spirits of the dead souls to visit their families for a day”, as Niall MacMonagle explained for its connection to Mexican rituals. 2
The yellow-golds of the marigold images re-appear in paint as foils to the symphonies of blues which veil the depths.
Ultramarine’s visual history amplifies its effect here. In ancient Egypt, the colour was thought to open a dimension into the spiritual world. In the late middle ages and Renaissance, it was a sacred colour reserved for the robes of the Virgin Mary, partly because of the expense and difficulty in producing it from lapis lazuli.
Mary, an icon of female power, creativity and nurturing from pre-Christian times, also points directly to the marigolds: their name comes from Mary’s gold.
Images of water throughout could metaphorise isolation and despair. The jumping into water and the sinking and floating in it open a meditation on the moment of death as an ontological frontier where time and memory collide. If, on a literal reading, the maiden’s death by suicide is an attempt to produce meaning, to make sense of the impossible, it is a failed attempt because death erases all possibilities for her to experience significance and embrace life more passionately as a result.
Entering uncanny territories, the fictional maiden read as ghost or angel speaks to the experience of memory as a return to life’s events, whether through her own imaginings or as projected by an unseen author. The final frames of van der Grijn’s film show the maiden floating with enigmatically outstretched arms. Is hers a gesture of crucifixion or of welcome?
Van der Grijn’s decade of investigation is not one long funeral march, however.
She explores transformation, specifically what art and visual culture can do with such fundamental themes. Her conception of living in the knowledge of death is potentially liberating. We become passionately aware of our freedom to live well only by facing the inevitability of death.