Vera Greenwood: DEATH- Retrospective In The Dining Room

Vera Greenwood, Tinted Windshield, 2015. Inkjet print 27 x 20.5 cm.

Vera Greenwood, Tinted Windshield, 2015. Inkjet print 27 x 20.5 cm.

An exhibition of documents, photographs and artifacts of works that reference death.  October 4 – 24, 2015

Vera Greenwood: DEATH—Retrospective In The Dining Room.

By Petra Halkes

Making friends with the impersonal necessity of death is an ethical way of 
installing oneself in life as a transient, slightly wounded visitor.
                                                       - Rosi Braidotti[1]

 How did Vera Greenwood end up with a real casket in her basement?

It’s a long story.

It begins in 2004. Maurice Cattelan, the controversial jester of the contemporary art world, installs a wax figure of a dead president in a casket at the Carnegie International. A dispute between the artist and the museum about the location of the piece arises, and within a few days the installation is removed from the exhibition. [2] Facts about this incident are not clear when Greenwood visits the Carnegie shortly after the opening. So, always intrigued by secrets and stories, she tries to figure out why Cattelan’s installation, Now, the casket with the JFK effigy that she travelled all the way to Pittsburgh to see, is nowhere to be found.

While the incident generates no more than a short bulletin in the press about a cranky artist with a big ego, in Greenwood’s telling it becomes a long tale that involves a string of emails that tell of JFK lying in state in a cheap suit, or perhaps naked with a “boner.” The story involves awkward questions (or not) to museum guards, and an ornate hidden room in the Museum. And when, eventually, she is ready to tell this story, it needs to be done, naturally, in a gallery. And, of course, she needs to buy a real casket for the occasion; almost identical to the one she buried her father in, no less. The exhibition, NLQ (No Leading Questions) was shown at Patrick Mikhail Gallery in 2005.

After 2005, there’s a lull in the story for about eight years, during which time the box sits in Greenwood’s basement. “Initially,” she writes on her website, “having a casket next to the TV was a bit of a lark, but as I age the idea of death is becoming less and less abstract. I needed to get rid of the casket!”

     Vera Greenwood: Where Old Artwork Goes To Die (2013) Detail of installation/performance, in which the 2005 installation, No Leading Questions, (NLQ) was put to rest.     

Vera Greenwood: Where Old Artwork Goes To Die (2013) Detail of installation/performance, in which the 2005 installation, No Leading Questions, (NLQ) was put to rest.

Then the story picks up again in 2013, when the thing appears in Room # 208 in the Gladstone Hotel in Toronto. Here, in a new installation, Where Old Artwork Goes to Die, the casket waits for its demise. On October 5, the day of Nuit Blanche, the artist installs moody lighting, some obligatory lilies, and a playlist of music in the key of Ave Maria. She dresses in black, a funeral director. The room becomes a funeral parlour; the scene is set for the casket’s last night. A ritual in which viewers stream by the deceased artwork and partake in it by letting themselves be photographed folded neatly or not so neatly into its white, satiny insides, is followed by the de(con)struction of the work that begins at precisely 3.31 AM, October 6. From 4 to 7 AM, that morning, bleary-eyed visitors walk away with pieces of the casket and other parts of the installation, until the artwork has truly deceased.

Vera Greenwood, Where Old Artwork Goes To Die (2013) Installation View, Gladstone Hotel, Toronto

Vera Greenwood, Where Old Artwork Goes To Die (2013) Installation View, Gladstone Hotel, Toronto

For many years, Greenwood has worked through her feelings on death, that most awesome fact of life, through her art. Death has long been a taboo topic in our culture, talked about in language shrouded in euphemisms, and in rituals that serve to shield us from death’s reality rather than embrace its inevitability. Greenwood breaks this taboo by approaching the subject with her usual dry wit, which leaves viewers not just smiling, but thinking. Can we not imagine better ways to live with, and ritualize, death?

Greenwood breaks some taboos in exhibition conventions as well. In the effort to bring together all her work that deals with death, she resurrects and documents older work, shown here in reproductions, texts and QR codes linked to her website. One could say that, DEATH— Retrospective In The Dining Room, is where some of Greenwood’s exhibitions have gone to die. In the dining room they are served up like death warmed over, welcomed as a dish that will nourish food for thought not only on death itself, but also on the demise of artworks and exhibitions.

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Vera Greenwood, DEATH-Retrospective In The Dining Room. 2015, RIA Ottawa, Installation view.

Recycling is a familiar strategy in Greenwood’s practice, but one that subverts the expected Duchampian transformation from found object to art object. A found object, such as the genuine Flower Press complete with dried flowers, which she discovered at a thrift store, was extracted from its original context, but it remains here, in the gallery, an (albeit unique) everyday object that retains its function and meaning. It draws our attention to “homely” rituals that deal with death and it sets up a conversation on death between the art in the exhibition and everyday life. The flower press suggests that art and ritual are found outside of galleries, churches and funeral parlours; drying flowers remind us of a familiar practice that is in fact a common ritual of death. It springs from a desire to preserve the beauty of the flowers, and overcome their death.

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Vera Greenwood, DEATH-Retrospective In The Dining Room. 2015, RIA Ottawa, Installation view.

Overcoming death is the subject of Magnificent Corpses as well. Two panels (there are three in the original artwork) show pages of a found book and its annotations by an anonymous reader. Here the artist displays a found object in a more artful manner (as photographs mounted on aluminum). The book by Anneli Rufus, Magnificent Corpses, nonetheless retains its original function; it can be read, and, as we shall see, its content is intensely relevant to this exhibition. The book deals with relics, those curious preserved body parts of Saints believed by many Catholics to have real power to change lives, even centuries after the bodies they were part of have decayed.[3]

 Many common everyday practices, from photography to cosmetic surgery to taxidermy can be read as signs of a human desire to stop the flow of time that inescapably brings us death. Cattelan’s waxen JFK may have been wishful thinking as Kennedy, maimed by bullets, was buried in a closed casket, but Lenin’s body has been on display since shortly after his death in 1924.[4]  We fear the end of life, but, as philosopher Todd May reminds us in his book Death, immortality would be insufferable: “[death is] like a disease whose cure, if it existed, would be worse than the disease itself.”[5] While overcoming one’s own death matters in many major religions of the world, the boredom of endless time is something that is not usually spoken of in beliefs that preach life after death. May writes: “It gives us a clue as to the significance, and dread, of death in human life.” [6]

The book, Magnificent Corpses, is written by a non-believer, who is intrigued by the lives of Saints “as individuals of their own times, whose remarkable talents and in some cases madness transcend the religion through which it was expressed.”[7] It tells stories of pilgrimage routes in Europe, that lead to church displays of relics. Greenwood documents 34 page sets of this library book, that show all the penciled-in remarks by an anonymous reader, who, in the margins, keeps up a heated argument with the author. When the author reports on counterfeit relics that were “duly enshrined” (p.5) the margin-writer notes: “False!” If that flesh was dead, how come it was incorrupt? God kept it!”  Exasperated, she scribbles on page 60: “the writer of this book is stupid!” Yet the book is not put down till the end.

If immortality is no solution to our fear of death, how do we learn to live with the certain knowledge of our end? Greenwood provides no clear answers to this question in this exhibition, but the reproductions of two paintings, Day of the Dead, and, A Ghost Flying, that date back to 1988, show her curiosity about other cultures’ approaches to death. The Mexican festivities around the Catholic Day of the Dead (November 2) strike her as “refreshing.” “How novel,” she writes in an artist statement, “—a contemporary culture that dares to contemplate death—and with such humour!”[8]

Another source of wisdom that Greenwood has long been interested in is Buddhism, with its belief “that we should embrace change and accept impermanence.” [9]  It gives her comfort in contemplating death, and teaches her to nurture individual moral responsibility within the inevitable contingencies of life: even though we can’t change the circumstances of our lives, we can change our relationship to those circumstances,” she writes.[10]

On the other hand, her  series of photographs of  a dead bird (2007), show a keen awareness of life’s senseless fate, which negates all personal responsibility, all agency, be it the will of a bird who flies against a window pane, or the choices of a passenger on a plane that crashes into a building.

Vera Greenwood: Dead Bird (2007) inkjet prints 35.5 x 44.5 cm

Vera Greenwood: Dead Bird (2007) inkjet prints 35.5 x 44.5 cm

Dead Bird forms a momento mori, a reminder that all sentient beings will die. If we have no say in our death, how much say do we have in our life?  In several of the photographs, the bird looks alive; it eyes the viewer directly, unnervingly. What is being, what is nothingness, the philosopher bird seems to ask us. Perhaps this feathered friend brings us closer to Tao, which is, in Taoism, the life force that encompasses everything that exists.  In Taoism, May writes, “Each of us is like a wave on the sea of being. We arise from the sea, thinking ourselves to be unique and irreplaceable individuals only because we don’t see that we are nothing more than temporary movements of something larger. Eventually, we will return to that larger something, and become a part of it.”[11]

The human person, with its ego and sense of central importance in the universe, is reduced in Taoism, as it is in the “vital materialism” of contemporary thinkers such as Karen Barad, Jane Bennett and Rosi Braidotti.[12] Their take-down of the ingrained hierarchy between human and non-human, and between living and non-living entities in Western thinking, has roots in ancient beliefs and religions and in Western vitalist philosophy, but has a particular resonance for our time; global human habitat is re-shaping the world, which, paradoxically, shifts our ideas about human-centredness. In the face of the earth’s endangered existence, beliefs in our species’ superiority and in the rationality and autonomy of the human subject, which were anchored in European, human-centred thinking from Classical Antiquity to the Renaissance and Modernity, have been shaken deeply.[13]

Vera Greenwood: Another Dead Bird (2014) ink jet print 20.5 x 27 cm. and Brid in Hand (2015) ink jet print 17 x 13 cm

Vera Greenwood: Another Dead Bird (2014) ink jet print 20.5 x 27 cm. and Brid in Hand (2015) ink jet print 17 x 13 cm

A different ethics needs to be created, one that does not rely on a human command of nature. Greenwood’s Bird in Hand (2015) which shows a hand holding up a crumpled Kleenex, can be read as an admittance of human powerlessness in the face of  death as well as life.  We could not keep the bird alive. There is no bird in this hand, the bird is dead, all we have is a tissue to wipe our tears. “Making friends with the impersonal necessity of death is an ethical way of installing oneself in life as a transient, slightly wounded visitor,” writes Braidotti.

Greenwood’s work on death foremost urges us to get away from the Tinted Windshield (2015) that does not let us accept the reality of death as the event that has a determining influence on every moment of our lives. The exhibition does not provide what this photograph promises: a quick drive straight through the cemetery. Greenwood’s retrospective shows a thoughtful, complex insight in death, though it refuses to give clear suggestions on how to live with its sadness. The exhibition’s comic relief is but a foil for a struggle to find a balance between a sense of personhood and the inevitable flow of life. Her art is an important contribution to the work that needs to be done to create an ethical way of life in a world in which, we have finally realized, we are but one creature among many.

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Vera Greenwood was born and raised in Calgary, Alberta and now lives and works in the Gatineau Hills of Québec. She has a Diploma of Visual Art from the Alberta College of Art and Design (Calgary), as well as a Master of Fine Arts degree from Concordia University (Montreal, Quebec), both specializing in printmaking. Her printmaking background has developed into a multi-media, research-based installation practice. Her work has been widely exhibited across Canada and internationally. Her artistic residencies include the Canada Council Paris Studio, The Banff Centre for the Arts, the Art Gallery of Sudbury, Centro de la Imagen (Mexico City), Daïmon (Gatineau, Québec) and The Vermont Studio Center (USA). Recent exhibitions include the group show, Wallpower, at the National Gallery of Canada Library and Archives and a solo installation/performance, Where Old Artwork Goes To Die, at the Gladstone Hotel in Toronto for Nuit Blanche 2013. http://veragreenwood.ca/

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NOTES:

[1] Rosi Braidotti: The Posthuman (Cambridge/UK: Polity Press 2013) p. 132

[2] This short (178-words) version of the story can be found on the ArtBlouin Info page of October 26, 2004: Tyler Greene: “Cattelan removes work from Carnegie Int’l.” http://blogs.artinfo.com/modernartnotes/2004/10/cattelan-removes-work-from-car/

[3] Anneli Rufus: Magnificent Corpses. Searching Through Europe for St.Peter’s Head, St. Chiara’s Heart, St. Stephen’s Hand and Other Saints’ Relics. (Boston: Da Capo Press 1999)

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lenin%27s_Mausoleum

[5] Todd May: Death. (Durham,GB: Acumen Publ.2009) p. 80

[6] Ibid, p. 18 May adds that the importance of surviving death “is not, of course, the only role in religion.”

[7] Anneli Rufus: Magnificent Corpses.p. 8

[8] Vera Greenwood, exhibition statement, 2015 n.p.

[9] Vera Greenwood, email to the author, September 2015

[10]Vera Greenwood, exhibition statement, 2015, n.p.

[11] Todd May, Death,p. 81

[12] It should be noted that Taoism is not unique in its non-hierarchical view of human and nature. The nature beliefs of some First Nations for instance, treat non-human entities as subjects rather than objects.

[13] I have written about this in the introduction to the catalogue for RIA’s extended project Growing Up Human, in which this essay will be included. See: https://researchinartottawa.wordpress.com/ria-artist-project-room/growing-up-human/