Ruth Barker

Death Witness Burial (text)

Commissioned by Castlefield Gallery, Manchester, May 2008.


Part One

The idea of death, or the presence of death is something I find I return to fairly regularly, and that may be for a number of reasons but partly I keep coming back because it is at one and the same time a profoundly common condition, and an essentially complicated idea. That strange combination of qualities leads to my fundamental inability to resolve some questions, which I then continue to consider.

Even that introductory line hints perhaps towards an inherent point of flux or shift in my own thinking. “The idea of death, or the presence of death”. They are two very different nouns actually – idea and presence. Perhaps if we invert them, I can talk a little about the presence of death first and then come back to talk about the idea of death slightly separately.

‘The presence of death’ is a phrase that suggests the occurrence of, as well as the attendance of death: when we acknowledge someone’s presence we are confirming the existence of that person, as well as their proximity. In this way, we can think of ‘presence’ as suggesting that we are in the company of death, which, we can confirm, does exist.

Death is the term we use to describe the moment of cessation of all vital functions and processes in an organism or cell. This is a moment of permanent discontinuation, of the broaching of a previously cyclical process of internal regeneration and as such it is a final interception that occurs once, and has a permanent effect.

Death is, in very real terms, an absolute. It is also, as I have suggested, ultimately common. It can be contrasted with the process of dying, which is on the contrary ultimately singular.

One’s dying is utterly unique and personal in the most intimate, private, and – I would argue – important way. Dying occurs while we are still alive, and it is a period of our lives that retains the most unquestionable individuality. It follows, that the manner in which our dying is both induced and experienced has undeniable significance at a personal but also at an ethical and social level. This is why the manner in which people die is such an important issue for our society to consider – and why a ‘good death’ – a death that we can characterize as peaceful, personal, and pain-free, means so much. It also suggests why the manner in which people die can be so grotesque, obscene, appalling, or outrageous; we will all I’m sure have different personal examples of that, but abuses that might figure include public execution, torture, neglect, humiliation, and so on. The list, unfortunately, is very long, and the subject is not one that I wish to go into here in too much detail.

But. Once the dying is over with – once that intimate and uncommon moment has passed and death has occurred – we are faced with a very different condition that is in some crucial way an opposite. Because although death (like dying) does happen to all of us, yet (unlike dying) death is to all of us the same. Some dead people are not more dead than other dead people. At a physical level all dead people are all in the same unconditional boat.

Having passed from the state of living to the state of no longer being alive, we have lost in a very significant way, our individuality. I’m talking here explicitly not about the capacity of the living to emotionally relate to the dead– clearly, this is important and again, unique. Likewise, I am not talking about the degree to which I believe the living should show respect and dignity to the dead person – this is a wholly different matter. I am talking about the dead person themselves, who enters a state which is the same state entered by every death. Death is a circumstance that is ordinary, general, and essentially universal as a certainty that we might describe as present.

If I can go on to talk about the implications this raises for the idea of death, which I suggested was slightly different than our understanding of the death’s presence. Fundamentally, then I think that much of our cultural thinking about death - certainly in a Western, northern European context – is related to our fear of it. As a society, we are routinely afraid of death – death as distinct from dying, which we might also fear but separately. We can see this evidenced in many ways but perhaps most clearly in the fear that many people have of corpses – a fear which is after all irrational. When we are afraid of a dead body, our fear comes not directly from the object itself (it cannot hurt us, after all), but rather of what it reminds us of. Like the skull painted into a memento mori, the corpse reminds us of our own impending death.

Why do we respond to that thought with fear? It’s a question I can’t fully answer. Perhaps in part however, we are afraid of that loss of recognition that death necessitates; a fear of absence, a fear of the loss of specificity. Death is very anonymous because it is, as I’ve described, a common condition. Thinking and language are clearly related to that idea, as ways of defining and articulating self as well as others and the world. Through definition we are able to challenge nothingness, but the disparity – the gap – between thinking and articulation must also always be questioned.
That relationship between nothingness and definition, between perhaps the gulf of death and the specificity of life, has in the past reminded me of the American writer Susan Stewart, who talks about poetry as a form of illumination. She talks about light through articulation, because to illuminate is also to see. She talks about words giving shape to darkness through the entry into it of language and metaphor.

The idea of death in this sense is an idea of Nothing; an idea of the undefined, the absent, the anti-linguistic (or un-articulatable), and the unformed or unmade perhaps in a sculptural sense. Death is the unglimpsed, not because we have not looked, but rather because there is nothing that has shape enough to be seen out of the corner of our eye. Perhaps that in itself is more horrible to us than the shadow cast by the idea of dying, which enters sometimes into the periphery of our vision.

This idea of death - as opposed to the presence of death, which I touched on earlier - leads me onto the second of those maybe related, not quite related ideas that I said I would talk about this evening; the notion of the Witness.

Part 2

I heard someone say that art is a series of acts of witness. That is an important idea I think, though it is also a very complex one. As a statement, which I may or may not subscribe to, this account of art as an act of witness reasserts that one of the important things about art is that it notices. Art, this statement suggests, sees. And we can suggest that that is why, when a country or a society seized by a tyrant, art is often among the first things to be banned, or strictly controlled.

Art in this context becomes an act of subversion or resistance, and yet perversely perhaps, it is a subversive act that is almost impossible to stamp out. At times I have described art as a compulsion - like shaking, or grief - that comes from deep inside a society, and which that society may not be able to prevent. We know that art was made inside the Nazi Concentration camps, for example. It is made in prisons, in mental hospitals, and in the horror of civil war and revolution. In these contexts, art might be considered as a way for cultures to bear witness to horror and atrocity. I’m talking here about the practice of art, the gesture of what it means to make art, rather than any single artwork. But sometimes we can also see the moment of witness as it might be spoken about in an individual work. Maybe we can think about pieces like Picasso’s Guernica, or even Anselm Kiefer’s Grane. But even in the most optimistic of still-lives we still see the transience of flesh, if that is what we choose to look for. The objects may be recorded here, and fixed, but they will later be moved, and broken, and lost. The image of the still-life painting in this context immediately becomes a symbol of pre-imagined loss.

And yet, this isn’t the only way that we can talk about art in relation to witnessing. Surely not all art deals with questions of The Witness, and indeed we know as artists how useless it is to try and make up rules for art. Lots of art is made in peacetime, by artists who would not see themselves as political, or investigatory, or concerned in any way with representation. But perhaps there is another kind of witnessing going on here, one that is slightly more complicated, and at the same time perhaps connected with the idea of death as nothingness (death and nothingness?) that I was trying to describe earlier.

In talking about death as an obliteration, as a kind of encroaching nothingness, I’ve been trying to give an impression of subsuming guideless nothing; absence; zero. Not blackness, because blackness is very much a presence – a startling, technicolour, brilliant presence compared to the infinite nothing that I’m trying to articulate and failing because actually what I’m trying to describe is the indescribable. It’s whatever is left when there are no words, no thoughts, no colour, but just the absolute.
Bugger all.

And, in relation to that, the making of art. The making of anything: the abstract mark; the referential statement; the figurative painting. Anything.

And suddenly the making of art becomes about producing small signs to stand in the way of death. Art becomes a series of marks that are made and remade because it is important for us to make them. Perhaps that is why people continue to make art and why they will always make art.

In this way art may be a witness to our selves; because we as individuals – maybe as human beings – tackle that lack of specificity, and that in itself becomes in turn an act of witness, or witnessing.
Perhaps this is why, in those contexts of atrocity, we continue to see this compulsive act of art-making as a regurgitation, a vomiting up, of mark-making in the face of obliteration.

So we can see that perhaps this idea of ‘the witness’ is actually quite central to the idea of what it might mean to make art, but this fairly idiosyncratic portrait of the witness that I’ve put forward is not how the question is usually addressed. Perhaps this difference comes from the fact that I am an artist and so I am mostly concerned with the making of my work rather than the looking at other people’s work, but the fact remains that many other people who have approached the notion of art and witness have done so from the perspective of the viewer.

The question I posed a second ago is essentially ‘what does it mean for artists to make things’. The question that complements that in a way is ‘what does it mean for us as viewers to look at what the artist has made’.

In terms of the notion of witnessing, that question becomes very important, because it provokes an observation about the roles of art and artists in society. The relationship we’re exploring is no longer between the artist and the work, but between the artwork and the people who look at the work. Here we have another suggestion of what it may mean to witness. That perhaps the artist is expected to witness on behalf of the society, and then to re-present that back to the society. That reminds me of the idea that art is a mirror, reflecting only ourselves – not individually, but collectively, somehow. Art has the capacity – this model says – to show us ourselves. It’s a difficult model for me to have empathy with because it renders artists themselves inherently passive. We’re like reflective backing paper of some kind, and I feel (I don’t know, but I feel) that most artists don’t see themselves in this way. They have opinions, they posit a critique, they generate new knowledge, and they inquire as often (if not more often) as they are simply inspired.

So maybe I’m not totally sold on that question of the artist as a passive reflective surface, but I am – as you can tell - interested in it. And one of the reasons that I’m interested is because it makes that divide quite explicit about the reasons an artist might make something, and the functions that that has in society. That in turn will allow me to talk about the last of my three states this evening, which is that of Burial.

Part Three

Just as the idea of witness divides into what might be described as an internal and an external condition – the condition of the art object’s production as a gesture of witness, as opposed to the artist’s condition as a potential witness to society – so the idea of burial can also be seen from both inside and outside.

Again I think that the idea of burial – of the cultural meaning of the act of burial – can be closely linked to this rejection of the anonymity offered by the state of death itself. Although of course burial is very far from being the only way that societies deal with the body after death, the idea of burial is significant because in some ways it seems designed to directly address that dual fear inherent in death’s anonymity – the fear of not being recognized, and not being remembered.

Graves and burial places are marked. They indicate the dead person’s location – their continued physical presence if we can return to that idea. They also, typically, bear a name and a date, and sometimes even a small image of the dead person. There is a powerful desire, it seems, to memorialize through burial, and, despite decomposition, to retain the individuality of life.

We can see this need, this deep-rooted craving for definition, in the very real pain and distress often caused when this act of burial is prevented by external circumstance. The families of missing murder victims may crave the grim resolution that a marked burial site would give them, while the heaped anonymity conferred by the mass graves of the victims of genocide or natural disaster feels horrific to us.

In burial we conceal, we absent the body into the ground, and we leave behind a visible marker. The emotional connection shifts from the physical corpse itself (which is left to decay and to become increasingly unrecognizable) and transfers itself to the grave site.

There is another fear related to this however, and that’s what I would like to finish by talking about, because for me it’s the most personal. There is a very physical of premature burial, which is held by a great many people, myself included. The idea of live burial is a very base fear if I can call it that – it’s almost primal in some sense, it’s something that Edgar Allan Poe in his short story ‘The Premature Burial’ describes as “too entirely horrible for the purposes of legitimate fiction.”

The idea of burial alive is pungent. It is what I am most afraid of.  I force myself to imagine my own live burial: it is the final image of my claustrophobia. I insist on picturing the soil and rubble as they compact to make mudstone casts of my clogged lungs. And the horror I feel is unremitting. I coerce myself into supposing different scenarios - first in a coffin, with wood pressed against my sides, the knowledge of thick earth pressed infinitely against the lid, and the sensation of absolute blackness and proximity. Then after an earthquake or collapse, with a thousand tons of debris pressing on my memory of light and oxygen to extinguish it.

I feel a choking sensation. I find it is difficult to breathe normally while I make myself imagine being inhumed. The image is utterly vivid to me. It is viscerally abhorrent, and yet it is also an image I find a difficult to retain. I push it out involuntarily, revolted and aghast. I find that the image is so personally appalling that I am physically incapable of examining it. My brain slides around the idea, willing / unwilling but too repelled to gain traction.

For this reason I’m afraid that it fascinates me.