by Jac Renée Bruneau
“no thing has no end,” the artist Jenine Marsh writes in this issue’s Composition column. As we know, endings produce absences, and absences rouse new processes, new feelings, new layers of ourselves. It’s notoriously hard to talk about, write about, produce culture from this rousing; I tend to think that means it’s as vital as blood. I’m grateful to every contributor in this issue, for moving their hands toward this thing called grief, seeing what happens when contact is initiated.
During our Curious Criticism symposium in autumn 2021, Harry Dodge said something like: poetics are chiefly a means with which not to obscure what’s inherently clear but rather to echo the obscurity inherent to so much of life, the world. In their lush conversation, Nadine Khalil asks the Saudi multimedia performance artist Sarah Brahim: “[I]s the language of grief abstract? Does it occupy this space that’s beyond language?” Having met in the wake of the passing of their mothers, the latter responds by asking, “Have you been able to write about your mother’s death?” Yes, Khalil says, but only after the Beirut port explosion in 2020 (an allusion to grief’s self-determined connective activities below our threshold of notice). An excerpt from Khalil’s poem goes: “A man writes / about writing himself out / of disaster. I write / about the failure in documenting / subtraction.” The feature ends with a text Brahim writes in response. Such tender imploring crops up again and again in this issue, with even the most individuated griefs snapping into relation, by some invisible chain of grace.
In other words, grief sees grief—even when it doesn’t follow the (Western cultural) script. “I always found it interesting that [Lou Sheppard’s] work was rarely contextualized as addressing grief (even by him), because to me it is so viscerally present in his practice” Michèle Pearson Clarke writes. The two artists draw parallels between grief and the way they think about queerness in their respective work, which is typically not as a subject but as a lens. The “idea of grief being a way of seeing resonates with the ways queerness can ask us to see differently,” Sheppard says. “What does it mean to see through grief? What can grief show us?”
These more elusive, open-ended ruminations around representation are tempered by lucid questioning that Rana Nazzal Hamadeh undertakes in her feature about the tensions in sharing imagery of conflict, having spent time in Palestine during the Unity Uprising. She considers work by Emily Jacir, Lawrence Abu Hamdan, and Rehab Nazzal, as well as the Abu Ghraib photographs and the glut of imagery depicting police violence against Black people, in weighing the importance of disseminating images of violence (for consciousness-raising) against honouring the privacy, loss, and grief of those afflicted. “As artists, how can we make work that invokes the value of life? How can we represent violence without replicating the relations of domination depicted?” And then, rejoining many
others in considering the ineffable core of this theme: “How can we express everything that cannot be recreated: the invisible, banal, physical, and psychological effects of loss, suffering, and violence?”
It’s no surprise that photography resurfaces throughout, given, as April Thompson writes, photography’s age-old relationship with death. “Barthes believed that to be photographed was to experience ‘a micro-version of death’; for Sontag, photography was the ‘inventory of mortality’; and for Levi Strauss, it was that photographs ‘are always about something that is gone, and so are in league with death.’” In concise, potent, and often personal fragments, Thompson examines how Roxanne Charles, Kali Spitzer, and Tania Willard approach photography in ways that work toward a decolonial decoupling of death from the medium. What does it look like to stop treating photographs as rote memory-keepers that exempt us from doing the remembering with our bodies, our senses, our non-linear networks of feeling?
Lindsey Sharman’s “The Scent of Death” focuses on one sense in particular: notoriously the one with the strongest link to memory. Drawing on work by Azza El Siddique, Rolande Souliere, Vicky Sabourin, Brian Goeltzenleuchter, Omer Polak, and others, the writer looks at funerary rites, reverse engineering of redolent flowers lost through colonial land interventions, replication of the forest’s olfactive profile before and after fire, refugee narratives distilled into scents suspended in hand sanitizer, and attempts to capture the smell-scape of the home of one’s demised loved ones. The latter, a work by Sabourin, was offered as take-home experience in an ongoing project the artist is involved in at the Musée d’art de Joliette and this desire to bring others into the fold, to depart from the individual realm of grief and enter into communion, is present in Esmé Hogeveen’s, Muheb Esmat’s, and Theresa Wang’s texts as well.
Hogeveen speaks with Estraven Lupino-Smith and Regan Shrumm about Collective Grief, Collective Futures, a workshop series they orchestrated in Victoria; the text opens up questions about the implications of community support mechanisms offered by art spaces. Esmat invites the textile artist Hangama Amiri to reflect on the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Taliban takeover, and the proceeding implications on the meaning of her work—which focuses heavily on feminine worlds both internal and external. Wang’s One Thing is Mother, a photo series by Chun Hua Catherine Dong in which she returns to the Chinese village where her late mother had lived; by the time she arrived, her mother’s possessions had been customarily burned. She asked her mother’s female relatives and friends if they could lend her an outfit that resembled another they owned, wear that, and then pose in a portrait with her.
Lois Taylor Biggs, the winner of our inaugural Indigenous Art Writing Award, co-presented with the Indigenous Curatorial Collective, revolves around the work of the late artist Kimowan Metchewais who sought to build a personal photo archive toward his “imagining of a post-[Edward] Curtis world, without ‘ethnographic baggage.’” Kosisochukwu Nnebe’s artist project strikes me as similarly concerned with searing the edges off an ongoingness: in her case, Black grief. She swirls into the historic use of cassava as a poison wielded by African-descended and Indigenous people living in the Caribbean, positing “simmering rage” as a natural outcome of inherited grief and “reclaim[ing] Black emotional subjectivity” by “constructively defying Black victimization and passivity.”
Biggs ends on a 2021 work by Duane Linklater in which he tries to remove layers of paint from the walls of the ICA Philadelphia in order to exhume images Metchewais had transferred onto them nine years earlier. The simultaneous earnestness and futility of this concept encapsulates something exquisitely heartbreaking, and central, about this theme; it also seems to match (or at least meet) the distortions caused by the compounded grief that marks this time. Metchewais’s images remain interred in the walls, but the craters produced from the effort are something unto themselves. Not better, not worse, just something else; the outcome of a momentary transference.