In Mexico, the date of birth is marked on the graves of children, but not the date they died. The feelings evoked by this poignant fact, and an understanding of the cultural motivations behind it, are amongst the most evocative takeaways from artist Clea van der Grijns Reconstructing memory show at Limerick City Gallery. This knowledge comes from the catalogue texts that accompany it. In her essay, Catherine Marshall notes: “Mexican rituals are open ended…allowing for a further development of the child’s spirit in the afterlife, when s/he can return to their grave, pick up their old toys…” Megan Johnston writes. “In Mexican culture, this means the soul is free to come and go.”
Sligo-based van der Grijn has worked with the theme of death before. This show is haunted by the image of a fictional child, who may be dead or alive, but whose presence is conjured through photographs, video works, objects and installation pieces, including an “alter” strewn with dried flowers, loaves of bread, dried fruit, incense sticks, candles, decorated skulls, a Victorian toy horse, a soft toy monkey and childrens teeth.This girl wanders through a grave yard, wearing a white dress, acting as a benign guide through the exhibition and its exploration of death, a proxy for the viewer, and maybe the artist too.
Marshall notes another fact, probably more familiardue to increasing popular knowledge of Mexico’s annual Day of the dead festival, or Dia de los Muertos. “Those lives (of the dead )contine to have active meaning as long as there are people to remember them.” In Mexican culture, dead ancestors are kept present through living memory. By picknicking at gravesides on November 1 and 2, relatives conjur the departed back again to the family meal.
Coinciding with All Saints Day, these Mexican death rituals were absorbed into the Catholic calender to become part of the dominant religious belief structurer. Dia de los inocentes/Los Angelitos ( Day of the Innocents/Little Angels), On November 1, is for remembering dead children. Dia de los Muertos follows the next day.
Van der Grijn spent 10 weeks on residency in Mexico in 2014. She also went in 2015 with her family to take part in the Dia de Los Muertos celebrations in the jungle village of Sayulita. She involved family, friends and neighbours in Sayulia and Sligo to dry marigolds for use in the work. There is a wide anthropological and community – related base to her project – and yet the show she has produced feels at once personal and deliberately arms length in its revelations.
Marigolds have special meaning – they light the way back for the dead to the annual festivities. Van der Grijn’s broadly abstracted paintings of them are striking and handsome with Barry Cooke-esque dribbles and spotting. These magnified flower fields filled with saffron coloured blooms and black eyes are striking en masses, in size, number and colour.
Her Marigold Ball , studded all over with dried flowers, echoes previous works including her own Silent Noise (2012), a paper ball covered in dead locusts. The hanging Victorian dress which throws its shadow onto the back wall is dramatic, but her two video pieces play in a spaces that are not dark enough to see them.
Showcased in a glass vitrine, a rose ball, cracked antique Mexican clay pots, a box of five taxidermy frogs ( originally part of her 2014 Ballina show Conflict/Ambivalence. A dead kingfisher bird and a pot with a replica set of the artists own eyes can be read as ofrendas, offerings or gifts, to the young girl whose presence is evoked throughout. It appears that the artist is exploring ideas about her own prospective death as much as the general concept of death, or that of a particular representive figure of a little girl.
Van der Grijn’s 2008 show, momentous, was an acutely personal take on her family’s response to the death of her brother. She went on to work as an artist in residence in a hospice for four years. In many cultures, the predominant emotion around death is fear. Van der Grijn’s approach is partially to disarm and explore this gut reaction. Van der Grijn’s intentions are sincere and her show is likely to evoke mixed reactions ranging from the profound to the indifferent, some which may also stem from a fear based response.