Within the canon of western art, artists are often asked to perform civic duties, by acting as ethnographers or observers of specific moments. In considering the relationship between Mexican death traditions and the western idea of mourning, burial and commemoration there are stark differences. This essay will consider Clea van der Grijin’s practice in the context of ‘Reconstructing Memory’, occurrences and generating a narrative that builds upon a set of conditions outlined in Mexico, while intertwining this with a specific context to build upon a legacy embedded in ritual.
Firstly, I would like to begin by considering the role that ritual plays in art. Clea van der Grijin’s exhibition contains an impressive collection of objects, artefacts and constructed narratives, but crucially these incorporate a set of ritualistic acts that are embedded within both Mexican Roman Catholic traditions, and those of other indigenous cultures. In the last fifteen years, artists have engaged with re-enactment as a divisive meansto engage communities, such as in Jeremy Deller’s well-known performance and video, The Battle Of Orgreave (2001) which features a re-enactment of the violent clash between miners and policemen in Yorkshire, during the Miners’ Strike in 1984. His reconstruction brought former miners and residents together with historical re-enactment societies who restaged the ‘conflict’, as part of a major public spectacle. Deller’s work, primarily operated as a cathartic exercise for the local community, through the process of re-enactment he produced a new interpretation of a specific context in 1980s Britain. Of course, there is a risk, of this approach, as it focuses on a specific set of conditions and contexts, and may risk banalizing the formal complexities and interrogative possibilities of art under the homogenising umbrella of an ameliorative social goal.
However, the task of the artist and indeed that of the ethnographer is to capture specific moments, which may relate to ritualistic acts, such as those in religious ceremonies, folk traditions and ceremonial events. In order to explore and capture these specific elements from one body of work requires a set of conditions that build upon an element of historical research and narrative. Thus, in Clea van der Grijin’s video Reconstructing Memory (2015), we are able to witness a young girl who encounters a graveyard. The child is able to navigate the space and pay homage to those deceased who remain interned in the graves, which she walks upon. Unaffected by the surroundings her curiosity guides her into the graveyard and she becomes comfortable in these surroundings. In Mexico, deceased children are known as angelitos (angels) who are able to pass to the afterlife without needing to pass through purgatory.1 It is unclear whether or not the child is with the living, or the dead, and yet this does not matter for the viewer. Her presence occupies a specific state of being in the film that is neither comforting nor distressing to the viewer.
It becomes crucial to understand this body of work, to consider the role that death plays in Mexican society. Within visual culture, literature and popular media, there exists a specific view on death, that is, that all Mexican people have a special relationship, or rather affinity to this. The Mexican writer, Octavio Paz, author of ‘The labyrinth of solitude: life and thought in Mexico’, has observed that there is indeed a specific connection to death that exists only in Mexican society, he writes:
“The word death is not pronounced in New York, in Paris, in London, because it burns the lips.” The Mexican, in contrast, is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it; it is one of his toys and his most steadfast love. True, there is perhaps as much fear in his attitude as in that of others, but at least death is not hidden away: he looks at it face to face, with impatience, disdain, or irony…. The Mexican’s indifference toward death is fostered by his indifference toward life. … It is natural, even desirable, to die, and the sooner the better. We kill because life-our own or another’s-is of no value. Life and death are inseparable, and when the former lacks meaning, the latter becomes equally meaningless. Mexican death is a mirror of Mexican life. And the Mexican shuts himself away and ignores both of them. Our contempt for death is not at odds with the cult we have made of it.2
Paz makes a clear assertion that Mexicans embrace death, that it is ‘fostered by his indifference towards life’; not only is this about blurring the familiar European distinction between life and death, but more so than this. It could be said that Mexicans accept death ‘stoically’.3 The close relationship Mexicans have with death can be seen in their ‘Day of the Dead’ celebratory events, where death is in fact mocked, it becomes irrelevant and in some ways, they stare death in the face. However, as Stanley Brandes has observed this has become part of the national identity, and as such must be challenged.4
The Day of the Dead, and its carnivalesque performances and artistic displays, using decorated beards, paper cut-outs and plastic toys, confectionery and ultimately humorous displays on death.5 This celebratory event has become part of religious belief structure, as it coincides with the Roman Catholic celebration of All Saints and All Saints Day, widely celebrated throughout the church all over the world. However, it is known as the Day of the Dead in Mexico, owing to the specific affinity towards this cultural event in Mexican society. It is without doubt difficult to build upon a set of rituals and traditions and generate a new narrative that can be read within the context of the museum visitor and indeed beyond this.
Therefore, in an exhibitionary form, ‘Reconstructing Memory’ challenges both a Mexican portrayal of death, and a European one, in that it creates a set of narratives that tell an intimate portrayal of a fictive character – the young girl in the film – and the artists own interest in death, following the passing of a family member. The overwhelming display of objects in the gallery transforms the white cube into an experiential space; one where, our own perceptions of death are actively challenged. While we may become distressed at the site of child-sized skulls, the reference to the young girl in the film is a recollection of this, along with her white dress.
While the visual arts may challenge and reflect on the conventions of society, it becomes increasingly about a connection to site and place, and the variety of norms and functions that operate within this context. ‘Reconstructing memory’ reformulates well-known traditions and practices existent in our understanding of death, and displaces our inhibitions and understandings of this, while simultaneously challenging our own innermost confusion about death, and indeed life.