How Artists Reimagine Our Relationship With Death

As an artist-curator whose practice is focused on death and dying, I’m deeply invested in the work of my peers. Many of us share an ongoing process of reclaiming our cultural traditions, language, and social permissions of grief, mourning, and memorialization from their taboos and industrialized systems. In a social atmosphere where death is primarily avoided or otherwise presented through platitudes and euphemisms, translating death from heritage and lived experiences is vital in honoring the vastness of end-of-life practices and our inextricably tied humanity.

In “The View Inside a Casket” (2020), artist and filmmaker mk finds connections to their late older brother through his headstone and burial site. Centering a photograph of their brother, who passed away just before turning two years old, mk builds outwards with delicately stenciled soil patterns, baby’s breath flowers, and mementos left at the grave. This installation “is an attempt to blur the line between the celebrations of a funeral and what happens to a cemetery once we leave it,” they told me. Here, mk is focusing on the connection to a sibling whom they never met and the family dynamics that spring from loss even when we are not immediately aware of the long-term impact.

While mk reimagines what we leave with the dead, Nirmal Raja transforms mementos the dead leave behind with us. After her father’s sudden passing in 2020, Raja turned toward her studio as a place of grieving and healing. Mirroring the process of cremation, clothing belonging to her father was dipped in slip, glazed, and fired, thus destroying the original fabric and replacing it with the fragile shell of the ceramic sculpture. Pairing the clothing with her father’s handwriting custom-printed onto pillows, Raja’s series Material Remains became a memory record while also, as she told me, “meditating on transience and exercises in letting go.”

“In Between / Underneath (Entremedio / Por Debajo)” exhibited at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (MIA) features the faces of Mexican journalists who have been murdered or made to disappear through mud prints placed on the floor. Artist Jonathan Herrera Soto made collective memory tangible with each visitor walking over the faces and, in doing so, leaving with pieces of them on the soles of their shoes. In a closing performance, “La Tarea de Reconocer un Cuerpo (The Task of Recognizing a Body),” Herrera Soto mopped the floor, wiping away what was left of the faces while wearing a piece of black fabric over his head. Herrera Soto also makes a point to reclaim the language surrounding death by corrupt authoritarian systems. He noted during an interview for the exhibition at MIA that while this is an act of remembering, “It is not documenting a tragedy. It’s a rendering of what is done very purposefully. It’s a tragedy for us but it’s not accidental.”

The Sacredness of Hills series by Shinnecock artist Jeremy Dennis is based on the recurring desecration of Indigenous burial grounds of his tribal community in Southampton, New York, enabled by a lack of legal protections for “unmarked” burial sites and the economic motivation of real estate. The Shinnecock Hills are the primary location of this recurrence, as they are an expansive traditional burial site for Shinnecock ancestors. Each photograph presents the dual figure of an ancestor and future descendent manifested at the disturbed site, acting as an entry point for awareness of the graves, a call to action to support protections, and preservation of cultural legacy.

Performed onstage with their mother at the Abrons Arts Center, Sheela Mantri, Resham Mantri’s “Intergenerational Home” projected their late father’s photo slides of family, New York City, and India through the ’70s and ’80s while serving their mother’s chai and inviting audience members to join them in the home setting created onstage. Intergenerational Home is part of an evolving conversation between Resham’s art and death practices that asks, as the artist told me, “What if an art practice could help you get through the box of your dead father’s gorgeous old photo slides?” Mantri’s work expresses a personal loss while simultaneously forging a community offering of reciprocal healing and support.

In my own contribution to deathwork as an artist, I’ve developed works addressing my personal experience of loss, and over time, looked more broadly at shared rituals and norms in memorialization. Aquí Descansamos began as a living cemetery composed of floral sculptures that mirrored the shapes of common grave markers. In contrast to the somber, grey-stone visuals of conventional cemeteries, these alternate memorials highlight color, growth, decomposition, and renewal, offering a space to celebrate life’s vibrancy while acknowledging its temporary and ever-changing nature. An expansion of the series evolved to incorporate burial vessels including caskets, urns, and shrouds, all similarly crafted from organic, ephemeral materials such as moss, soap, sand, seaweed, and beeswax. When installed, these vessels come together in the form of a funeral showroom, creating a familiar yet novel environment in which to consider end-of-life planning as an opportunity for empowerment.

A young Yu in collaboration with Nicholas Oh (Performers: Sohye Kim, Gemma Yu; Director of Photography: Mitch Blummer), Mourning Rituals (2022), performance-based film, 1:00 trailer of 21:47 film (trailer courtesy the artist)

Hybridizing tradition and contemporary revival is the performance-based film of A young Yu. “Mourning Rituals” reimagines the Korean ancestral ritual ssitkimgut, during which the spirits of the deceased are cleansed and guided into the afterlife. With a diasporic context in mind, the film integrates sites of personal and geopolitical significance, including the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea, the Hudson Valley, Kauai, and installations referencing prehistoric caves and burial mounds. The performances themselves blend together, as Yu explained to me, “mimicking the rhythmic and circular nature of ssitkimgut.” Yu generates healing and renewal in a hybrid of ancestral reconnection, funerary rites, folk dances, and movement-based gestures of care.

By stepping into vulnerability, speaking to injustices, and creatively reinterpreting deathways for our contemporary lives, artists offer an opportunity for renewal in our relationship to death. These practices carry on the legacy of art as deathcare for our immediate needs and for the next generation to grow. 

I would like to thank all the featured artists for entrusting their work and stories to this project. I hope you’ll explore more of their work and thoughtful insights: Jeremy Dennis, Jonathan Herrera Soto, Resham Mantri, mk, Nirmal Raja, and A young Yu.

Editor’s Note: This online exhibition is part of the 2023/24 Emily Hall Tremaine Journalism Fellowship for Curators and follows two posts by the author.

Brianna L. Hernández will discuss her work and research in an online event moderated by Editor-in-Chief Hrag Vartanian on Tuesday, March 5, at 6pm (EST). RSVP to attend.

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