One foot on the ground, one foot in the water: An Art Exhibition

I did a runner.

Refreshments were offered at the lobby of Bunjil Place after the talk Grief, Memory & Objects to give the attendees a chance to debrief and share their thoughts but — and I’m not proud of this, because I did want to stay back — my shyness got the better of me and I found myself walking out the door and into the cold night, driving back home disappointed with myself.

Because it was such a beautiful talk. The art exhibition, even more so. As soon as I walked in, I was entranced. There’s just no other word for it. The gallery was perfectly arranged in such a way that there was enough spaces in between to provide just the right amount of breathing room to feel and to absorb the artworks standing there before you, whispering to you the screaming pain of loss.

I was this close to crying, I kid you not. The moment I saw the word “DAD” etched on one of the urns in a display called Final Resting Place, I seriously thought I was gonna lose it.

Final Resting Place is a collection of vessels hand-carved from biodegradable floral foam. Through a series of workshops titled Facing Death Creatively, artist Catherine Bell asked participants to sculpt the floral foam into an urn, each one a ‘portrait’ of its maker and a way for them to imagine their final resting place. The dust accumulated during the workshop would then be gathered into a ziplock bag and brought home by the participants to scatter into where they imagine themselves being buried or as a way of facilitating a discussion with their loved ones about their final resting place.

Crucifixes, Richard Lewer (above left and bottom left); Final Resting Place, Catherine Bell (above right); Monument to Muther, Michael Needham (bottom middle); Kulama, Timothy Cook (bottom right)

The speaker was Dr. Karen Annett-Thomas, with her background in visual arts research and her PhD Memory, Loss, and the Memorial Books of the First World War. I took notes as if I was going to be tested for listening and comprehension after. Scribbling on my little Moleskine whose pages are randomly filled with Raven’s drawings and my own writings every now and then when pensiveness hits me. A rare occurrence, as most of the time when I’m out, I’m out with Raven and/or Jeff so I’m not one of those “writers” portrayed in movies quietly pouring their thoughts into their notebooks while sipping coffees at cafes. My little black notebook that I bought for that purpose has turned into Raven’s doodle notebook. She’d be there drawing on it while waiting for her food.

If you read some of my entries, you’d probably assume I’m depressed. You know, with my fascination about death. But see, that’s the thing. It provides the perfect juxtaposition to life. Being aware of your own mortality makes you appreciate every breath, every heartbeat. The same breath you find holding when looking at your child in awe.

The speaker made several fine points. About how we have this tendency to treat memories as if they are possessions when, in fact, they are recreated and reinvented every time we remember them depending on where we are in life, looking back on them from a different perspective each time.

Also, every one remembers the same event differently. Memory is highly subjective.

We materialize the intangibility of memories by holding on to or creating something symbolic that we can experience with our senses. Memorials were built for people to congregate and to mourn in solidarity. Mothers grieving over their sons who died in the war and whose bodies never made it back home. Surviving family members writing down the names of their deceased loved ones in memorial books with shaking hands, overcome with the weight of their emotions.

Even the most random object can hold a memory. Cute baby boots can tell a tale of loss. A story of a child who’s no longer here. A mother’s yearning for another embrace. Such was the exhibit titled With things being as they are… by Nell.

For some reason, I was attracted to the wooden stool with the egg-shaped forms sitting on it. Both eggs sharing the same space but never touching each other. The wooden stool glossy and smooth like a well-used piece of furniture as if it had been sat on a thousand times. A familiar contour taking shape on the seat unknowingly carved by the mourner’s bum. As if they spent a lot of time sitting on the memory. Dwelling on it, even.

I don’t know. That’s my take on it, anyway. I have this thing with wooden pieces, either as an art piece or as a furniture. Thus, my love for Spanish ancestral houses.

“Those are tear drops,” Jeff noted when I showed him the photos later that night. As if it was obvious. So obvious that I didn’t even notice because I was focused more on the words. I am passing through. Bye.

Another interesting exhibit was that of Sara Morowitz’s artist book. An accordion-type display of photos of the contents of her stepfather’s wallet on the day he died of a motorcycle accident. One of which led her to ask, Why was this in his wallet? Why did he keep it?

Questions the living are left with. The answers buried with the person who had the knowledge of it.

And then there was that painting by Richard Lewer titled As a bald man, I miss going to the barber. A portrait of his final visit to his barber as a personal expression of loss.

All these simple, everyday things. Ordinary things. You never really know if it’s the last time. Something I felt so strongly in my breastfeeding journey with Raven. It’s the anticipation of loss that grounds you into the sacredness of the moment. Allowing them to flow and settle according to the universe’s perfect timing.

And as far as non-ordinary, ordinary things go, I have kept vigil at loved ones’ death beds twice — one with my dad, and the other with his mom. Both left peacefully in their sleep. But it was the constant Is this their last breath? Is it this one? Maybe the next one? that keeps you on your toes as if searching for a marked transition that would signify, without a doubt, that they are gone. As if by identifying them, you are given permission to officially grieve.

Nawurapu Wunungmurra identified that these are happy spirits. They are going home. The spirits come in together to the sacred ground past the other side for all the spirits to get together.

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