The journey to Jump
Four neon letters on the wall leading to Cléa van der Grijn’s new exhibition spell out the word ‘Jump’. The signifier reads like a flashing voice from the void. Part lure, part command, it seems to be urging a passage to an act from which there is no return. The act is death, here, the fictional death of a maiden dressed in white who on film will walk along a concrete pier, look at the lake waters into which it leads and jump. Staggering natural beauty surrounds her yet she appears not to see. The life insisting in every vista points up the poignancy that hers may ebb away.
Throughout the exhibition, paintings of exquisite beauty 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. Death is not presented frontally. Instead, its presence is woven so intimately into the visual threads that viewers can create narratives themselves.
The exhibition emerges some ten years after the artist first tackled issues of loss, grief and mourning – and what art can do with them – following her brother Ruriko’s death (Momentous, 2008). Writing then, Maurice O’Connell said that “… the project shows the power and dignity in the experiences of loss. …Calm and carefully distanced observations are being made and represented from amidst these moments of loss. It is these considerations and resulting decisions that make this all the more personal and moving.”1
The loss propelled van der Grijn’s 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. Certain emblematic symbols establish an archival continuity from there to here: marigold flowers, a girl in a white dress, the image of a cosmos constructed of locusts or flowers, a patinated death mask cast from the artist’s face and a pair of glass eyes with irises blue as hers.
By the time of her touring exhibition Reconstructing Memory (2016), Michael Birchall quoted from Octavio Paz: “The word death is not pronounced in New York, in Paris, in London, because it burns the lips.” Birchall recognised a dimension of civic duty in her practice and likened the work of an artist as an ‘observer of specific moments’ to the work of an ethnographer.
Catherine Marshall noted contrasting rituals of loss between Ireland and Mexico. “Like communities in rural Ireland half a century ago, Mexicans continue to mark death as an ever-present and even positive experience. …Instead of pretending it doesn’t exist until it, inevitably, happens, [van der Grijn] reminds us of the importance of death as part of the framework of our mortal, human lives,” she wrote. And, Megan Johnston emphasised, ‘the importance of interpreting the artist’s work as “bearing witness to… death and dying, memorial and shrine, but …asking us to remember, to create, and to imagine as part of the viewing process.”
Van der Grijn’s decade of investigation is not one long funeral march, however. Her investigation explores transformation, specifically what art and visual culture can do with such fundamental themes. Far from being morbid, 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.
Here, Jump is a further flow – a jumping forward – in van der Grijn’s practice leading to a sparer, unplugged composition of material and technical forces. The exhibition counterpoints the artist’s meaning-enhancing production of film, neon and paint with the grave theme. It questions memory and desire, remembering and forgetting. It questions art.