Four Deadlines & A Dinner

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The materiality of mourning: Representing grief through ordinary things.
By Anna Kiernan


Grief isn’t always about death. It’s often about memory. Memories that we cherish, memories that we go back to, memories that we wish we didn’t have burnt into our mind’s eye.

I am interested in grief both empirically and more abstractly. Through the projects I’ve worked on recently, which engage in some way with anticipated grief and memory, it seems that drawing on personal experience (whether it’s being discarded by a lover, or losing a loved one) can be a useful empathic starting point.

Remnants of lives, from archived objects to obituaries, are a rich source of stories. For me, in 2014, the notion of hidden histories prompted a desire to construct a small world of memory that was bound up with loss. I was keen to collaboratively explore ways in which objects and momentos could be seen as beneficial aids in the process of mourning.

In art, a very particular set of references and conventions come into play through momento mori. A basic momento mori painting might consist of a portrait with a skull, but other symbols include hour glasses or clocks, extinguished or guttering candles, fruit, and flowers. Artists from Pablo Picasso to Sarah Lucas and novelists from Muriel Spark and Max Porter all owe a debt to these metaphoric representations of death. Overtly symbolic in their depiction of time, life and decay, they function to represent life in the face of death as a series of objects.

‘Remember you must die’
Muriel Spark’s 1952 novel, Memento Mori is a darkly humorous exploration of memory and regret that’s captured by the eponymous concept of momento mori: ‘remember you must die.’ Max Porter’s 2016 novel Grief is the Thing With Feathers overlays an absurdist melancholy tale with a catalogue of seemingly irrelevant domestic remnants, creating an idiosyncratic version of momento mori.

Momento mori of a different kind can also be identified among the artefacts of those who may not have anticipated their own death and therefore the posthumous significance of their selected objects. ‘Abandoned Suitcases from an Insane Asylum’ is a powerful ethnographic account of how American society historically managed mental health. From the 1910s through the 1960s, many patients at the Willard Asylum for the Chronic Insane left suitcases behind when they passed away. Upon the centre’s closure in 1995, hundreds of cases were found in a locked attic.

The idea of a life’s work being reduced to a suitcase of objects was so compelling to me that I decided to create my own momento mori as a miniature museum. The Museum of Momentos’ exhibited objects and photographs I had acquired and inherited, and was intended to explore the space between heritage and hoax, memory and meaning, nostalgia and loss.

Housed in a custom-made antique mahogany box for a large microscope, the museum was filled with, among other things, faded black and white photographs, a 1950s dolls pram and a cat’s skull. Hand-painted signs by artist Amy Goodwin invited the viewer to peruse the museum. An old-fashioned address box contained original typed poems that corresponded to the objects in the box, so that the viewer might follow a point of intrigue from the display to a poem, thought or fragment. Like the abandoned suitcases, the Museum of Momentos fitted into a box that could be closed and carried away, the stories and memories within it discreetly contained.

Grief is the Thing With Feathers
Two years later I came back to the idea of grief through a collaborative project with Ben James, Creative Director at Jotta. We won funding from the Cultural Capital Exchange to develop a VR narrative experience inspired by a literary text.

Around this time (2016), I came across a novel that felt right for the project and right in terms of its cultural significance beyond the project, namely Grief is The Thing With Feathers by Max Porter. The novel became a useful starting point for discussions around death and grieving in a project that, eventually, took on its own identity beyond the text.

In his review of Grief in the London Review of Books, Adam Mars-Jones echoes the publisher’s promotional tag that the text is a ‘polyphonic narrative’ (Mars-Jones, 2016). He suggests that, at times, ‘the dead woman’ (the mother who has died) is ‘not so much a person as a sustainer of a set of categories or symbolic properties, metaphysical sensations’:

‘Soft./ Slight./ Like light, like a child’s foot talcum-dusted and kissed, like stroke-reversing suede, like dust, like pins and needles, like a promise, like a curse, like seeds, like everything grained, plaited, linked or numbered, like everything nature-made and violent and quiet./ It is all completely missing. Nothing patient now.’ (Porter, 2015, p.18)

The density of emotional states alluded to in this passage reinforced our own sense of the inadequacy of reductive constructions of grieving. Drawing on Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ seminal text, ‘On death and Dying’, our early stages of research kept taking us back to models that rationalize extreme emotional states.

Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grieving are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. The linearity of this model, while no doubt valuable in terms of managing difficult emotional states, may result in an expectation among those suffering from grief or extreme melancholia that is misleading. Put simply, the problem is one of assumed resolution. That after experiencing the first four stages of grief, the process is completed in the fifth stage.

Grief is The Thing With Feathers simultaneously interrupts and reinforces that assumption. Porter deploys narrative convention through several references to ‘Once upon a time’ (Porter, 2015, pp. 45, 71, 74, 77) but also toys with the notion. Written as an homage to Ted Hughes’ Crow, a viscerally powerful poetic response to loss, which, while delivering a blackly empathic account of negated interiority, refutes the possibility of closure.

The character of Crow in both Hughes’ and Porter’s texts is like a gently mocking god, omniscient and unpredictable. As Ben James noted in our correspondence around this project, in terms of the narrative flow, the veracity of Crow’s existence is immaterial since, whether he’s imaginary or real, the generative outcome is the same. Virtual spaces inhabit a similarly vague space and are able to coexist alongside ‘reality’. So while the landscape of Grief is populated with domestic objects that are documented in an encyclopedic way – in items listed, from toothpaste to turmeric – Crow’s presence is a sort of temporally stagnant palimpsest, mocking the simplistic assumption that time will heal, while simultaneously allowing (by drawing out the most brutal and absurd elements of grieving) time to heal.

‘And the memory fills all space’
This reading of crow formed the basis of the thinking behind our adaptation, in which ‘a permanent installation representing the ‘real’ could be installed alongside the VR element representing Crow. As such it could constitute an assemblage of objects or a magnified scene. The ‘real’ element could be performative as the twin narratives unfold – one in ‘reality’, one in virtual reality. The temporal framework for these dual narratives would serve as a critique of the notion of a linear understanding of the grieving process.

The materiality of mourning speaks volumes about grieving processes that are sometimes difficult to articulate through words or other coherent lexicons. Which is perhaps why an installation in an antique box or a VR project that exists beyond materiality, offer sites through which to explore the ideas of momento mori, memory and grief, from a range of perspectives and with open outcomes.
Book references:
Porter, M (2015), Grief is The Thing With Feathers. London: Faber.
Kübler-Ross, E (2008), On Death and Dying. London: Routledge.
Hughes, T (2001), Crow: From the Life and Songs of Crow. London: Faber.
Spark, M (2010), Memento Mori. London: Virago

Web references:
Felt, Daniel, Wired (7/11/15), ‘A VR Escape Room With a Twist: You’re Drunk’ in Wired: (Last accessed 2/7/17)
Mars-Jones, Adam (26/1/16), ‘Chop, chop, chop’ review of Grief is the Thing With Feathers in London Review of Books: accessed 2/7/17)