Film, painting and installation work by Cléa van der Grijn, 2016.
In Cléa van der Grijn’s short film ‘Re-constructing Memory’, a child, wanders along a shadowy road at evening, into a graveyard, where she stops at a grave and picks up the toys she finds there. Given all that we now know about the things that disrupt such pictures of innocence we might be forgiven for fearing some evil, but there is something reassuring about her quaint but purposeful appearance. In her demure little Victorian dress, she is like a person from an earlier time. And, indeed that is exactly what she is. The film was inspired by the Mexican Day of the Dead rituals which are as much about celebrating the afterlife of dead loved ones as about mourning their loss. Van der Grijn was particularly drawn to modern Mexico’s “Día de los Inocentes” (Day of the Innocents) or “Día de los Angelitos” (Day of the Little Angels), held each November, on which dead children are commemorated.
Death rituals are especially poignant when the person they relate to is a child, because the shortness of the lived opportunity intensifies those questions we all have about the meaning of life. But the Mexican rituals are open-ended; children’s graves there record their date of birth only, 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 and interact again with the places and among the memories that were part of their worldly lives. Those lives continue to have active meaning as long as there are people to remember them.
Modern culture attempts to deny death, by never mentioning it, inventing other words for it, removing it from immediate experience and inserting an obsession with youth and the eternally healthy body into our consciousness instead. Woody Allen’s facetious remark that he is not afraid of death, he just doesn’t want to be there when it happens, serves only to remind us of how pervasive the fear of death actually is, regardless of how much we try to ignore it. In Mexico there is a different attitude. Like communities in rural Ireland half a century ago, Mexicans continue to mark death as an ever-present and even, positive experience. Cléa van der Grijn is determined to remind us of what death really means and to suggest how it might be approached. Instead of pretending it doesn’t exist until it, inevitably, happens, she reminds us of the importance of death as part of the framework of our mortal, human lives. In re-enacting the imagined return of the child’s spirit, and in her wider project to participate actively in the Mexican rituals (held on the feast of All Souls, just like the Irish feast of Samhain or Hallow E’en) van der Grijn embraces death as a part of life, while the concentration on a child’s death further reminds us of birth, and the short span we have between those two commonplace but significant markers. It is by accepting these framing markers, van der Grijn says, that we begin to gain some appreciation of the life that they circumscribe. For her, that active participation meant travelling with her own family to Mexico in 2015 so that they could all take part in the Day of the Dead in the village of Sayulita. Perhaps even more tellingly, it also meant a long period of preparation, in which she engaged her Irish family, friends and neighbours in growing marigolds, from seed to maturity, living surrounded by their pungent odour, allowing thousands of flower heads to dry on racks in the sunshine, before shaping them into objects that could be used as part of the ritual events, three thousand miles away.
Marigolds, living or dead but preserved (given an afterlife), are central to van der Grijn’s project, as they are in Dia de los Inocentes or Dia de los Angelitos celebrations. Known in Mexico as cempasuchil or flowers of the dead, they symbolically light the way back for the spirits of the deceased for their annual festivities, which involve household altars, graveyard picnics and family reunions. They are also associated in many cultures as well as in Mexico, with health benefits and fragility, – like life itself. For van der Grijn, the process of growing them in the north-west of Ireland, far from the heat and sunshine of South America or Africa where they originated thousands of years ago, was itself an act of dedication to life, which was then enhanced by the scent and the flowers’ own abundant colour and by the involvement of all the friends who engaged with her in the growing and drying processes.
The marigolds, with their blazing golden colour seem the very antithesis of death. They are modest flowers, and relatively easy to grow, but their very ordinariness becomes a potent symbol of transformation in Cléa van der Grijn’s use of them. Above all the flowers, like us, are organic, they grow and die. Some even have an afterlife in the form of dried flower arrangements and in the Day of the Dead ornaments that the artist and her Mexican cohorts make. Massed or magnified they also provide the basis of a series of abstract paintings by van der Grijn, each one of which is large enough to envelope the viewer in its golden glow, or alternately, presented on a smaller scale but cumulatively, as a series of thirty wooden tiles (The artist likes series, she is also showing a series of thirty photographs), which have been toughened and hardened, and seem designed to last forever. Our frail human bodies may not endure, they seem to say, but we can be comforted for eternity by this warmth and radiance.
Death is not a new theme in van der Grijn’s work. Momentous in 2008 (large fomat photographs and film stills based on maternal loss) was the first show which dealt directly with loss and death. For her solo exhibition Ambivalence in 2013 she produced a body of work that was more pointedly about her own death. The show included, Death Mask, her portrait in polished bronze, cast, like a death mask, from a plaster mould, and another work, Mayo man, whichcombined bronze-castings of a head and feet, arranged at each end of a coffin-shaped bench, the length of the void in between symbolising his absent body. By tantalisingly offering the viewer a place to sit, in the empty space, h/she is implicated in this meditation on death and invited to make it their familiar. The sombre, black catalogue that accompanied that exhibition bore no words on its cover or spine, but carried a challenging self-portrait, gouged into its inky surface. In its powerful understatement it connects the viewer immediately to Thomas Hardy’s poem ‘In Time of Wind and Rain’. In it Hardy conjures up a series of lively and celebratory word pictures only to shut all the gaiety and family conviviality down, abruptly, with a single, devastating, graveyard line, ’Down their carved names the raindrops plough’.
For an earlier exhibition, Chanced, the artist had concentrated on loss and emptiness, in a series of wonderful paintings into which no trace of sentimentality was allowed to intrude. Instead of her later exploration of the impact of death on the living, whether human, animal or insect, Chanced forced an encounter with the void, either as the dark tunnel from which we don’t return but the end of which is not visible, or the unimaginable bottom of the cliff face. Many artists have grappled with the power of death over our lives, some emphasising its macabre mockery of the living, like Goya or earlier artists such as Albrecht Durer and Hieronymous Bosch, others matter-of-factly squaring up to it, as Marina Abramovic does, busily scrubbing gristle and grime from the bony sockets of a skeleton, or Kathy Prendergast, less dramatically, weaving silver, black and golden hair from three generations of her family together to make a spool of life. Van der Grijn takes all of those positions on board, and in her most recent body of work, in Mexico, widens her focus on death and life to see what we can learn from folk cultures. Instead of Abramovic, or Goya or Prendergast, it is Gauguin’s famous painting Where do we come from?, What are we doing?, Where are we Going? (1897, Boston Museum of Fine Art) that offers the closest parallels to this work. Although their work is very different, they share an appreciation of age-old rituals, the exotic, primitive societies that continue to value them, and the essential questions at the heart of existence.
In the Day of the Dead works, van der Grijn has moved on from those earlier and more private encounters with loss and the physical reality of death itself to an exploration of memory. In the Mexican folk rituals, family members seek to entice the spirits of their loved ones back to the family altar or the graveyard by surrounding them with the things that were once familiar to them, the things that the living think were of greatest significance to the dead one. For van der Grijn that quest becomes bound up with identity, with how we are perceived by our friends and communities. Did our friends really know us, is the persona the world picks up of us the one we recognise or want to project? Among the ‘toys’ left on the grave for the little girl in the film Sayulita are two glass eyes, exact replicas of van der Grijn’s own eyes. The eyes are often said to be the mirror of the soul, but they are the first part of the body to decompose. For a visual artist, the eyes are especially important. Van der Grijn was clear that, ‘I wanted her, the girl, to be able to see. It was really important that she could see. For whatever reason, this is important to me. It is part of the reconstructing of memory. Of giving the child the opportunity to really see and perhaps make changes before she returns the following year?’ By giving the child her own eyes, van der Grijn tangibly accepts her own demise, but also endows the child with her own history of seeing and constructing a world through her vision.
The final question then is not about death itself but about how we will be remembered. If the afterlife is confined to how we live on in the memories of those close to us, how do we want that to be? Unless we accept death and prepare for it, how can we have any guarantee that we will be remembered for those things that mattered to us in life? If we could come back would we recognize ourselves in the memorabilia that our friends and families have preserved of us? Did we communicate those things that really define us? Did our lives mean what we wanted them to mean?
An installation, in this show, that combines beautifully conserved objects from the past, well –worn and much-used items, such as old toys, a hairbrush, an antique Aztec ceramic bowl, damaged, but its cracks carefully filled with gleaming, golden resin, a fairground horse, battered but still enchanting, personal items of various kinds, shapes and materials are lovingly gathered together to form the altar gifts for the dead. Colourful and pungent- smelling Marigold or sugared decorations are placed among them and the whole assemblage is watched over by a bucolic plaster statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In a second short film piece, a circle of 100 children’s skulls, made from gleaming white porcelain form a perfect circle on the floor of a darkened room. They are lit by flickering candles, symbolic of the vigils held to entice the spirits. Does religion offer any comfort now, or in the insistence on its conventional platitudes, can our spirits recognize themselves? Van der Grijn doesn’t tell us. She simply reminds us of those powerful, escapist symbols. Do they or the gathered tokens of our lives locate us, identify us? Michael Hartnett finishes his poem to the dead Irish woman with a series of possibilities. Are we like her?
She was a summer dance at the crossroads,
She was a card game where a nose is broken,
She was a song that nobody sings,
She was a house ransacked by soldiers,
She was a language seldom spoken,
She was a child’s purse, full of useless things.1Michael Hartnett
Cléa van der Grijn worked in a hospice as an artist in residence for four years. The experience confirmed her view that we must not shy away from death, but rather see it as a reminder of the importance of living, while we still have the chance. ‘Death is not dark’, she told an RTE reporter for the series Works in 2014, but ‘It is important to me that it is beautiful’. Over a decade she has worked her way through a concern with the physical decay and loss of death to an imaginative look at life as seen from beyond the grave. How we will be remembered will depend on how we have lived and how well we are known and understood. Philip Larkin understood that well when he said,
this body of work, we know that Cléa van der Grijn, the artist, will be
remembered for her commitment to a process that involved growing, collecting,
shaping, making, painting, sculpting, filming, for craftsmanship of a very high
order, and all of those finely tuned skills used in the service of beauty, truth