It is rare a rare opportunity today to have meaningful dialogues about death in ways that feel both real and artful.
On Friday night I had such the honor at the New Museum’s 7th floor Sky Room in Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
The catalyst of the evening was Heide Hatry’s latest book Icons in Ash, which is a stunning ensemble of monochromatic portraits made in part with the cremation ashes of depicted individuals. It is an arresting experience to see in person (which one can still do) as it strikes primordial roots of commemoration habits like shrines or memorials that are so familiar. Hatry herself honestly confesses that the first portrait was in fact to honor her close friend.
The evening began from the moment the elevator doors opened as a full immersion experience with acts that found you; like the black suited woman continuously repeating “I will die, you will die, I will die…” or the young man kissing the petals of a plant above a poem: “Love is Not Enough.” These were immediate and bold confrontations of the night’s theme and unique style.
The readings during the show were powerful, compelling, and surprising; like the diary excerpts by Jonas Mekas who was friends with Allan Ginsberg, revealing to us a memorabilia box with remains of Ginsberg’s own beard! “He is still here with us!” He exclaimed as the audience gasped and applauded.
Newly translated letters by Rainer Maria Rilke, Condolences were also unforgettable as Rilke’s lyrical and philosophical frankness perfectly reflects on the soul: “The secret of life is to include death in life… no longer denied, nor rejected.” Rilke’s didactic approach to the subject of our own finality became the sort of thesis of the night. He is right to say that we must learn to live with death and to move toward it with a calm ferocity.
The evening culminated with a performance by the lively and radioactive Jennifer Elster whose ode to death’s finitude still rings in my mind. With such contagious vitality, Elster and her musicians riff two songs with remarkable spontaneity like a seasoned rockstar: volatile, sexy, and action packed!
I congratulate her on a performance that breaks boundaries, and she tells me that’s the point. “I want to break free from the constructs. I don’t see the constructs. I think they are in the way of true life and we’ll be dead soon anyway.”
The event provoked a profound reflection on the human being’s final chapter. Hatry has challenged our current fetishized attitude about death, which keeps us close to paranoia’s doorstep. As we mused through the night and shared philosophy and song about the subject, our terror loosened. Each act was an astonishing display of creativity and truth that invited contemplation not just of death, but also on the breath of life.
Towards the end I kept thinking about the color theory of black, the darkest hue, which beautifully binds Hatry’s magnificent book and is the color most associated with death. I reminded myself that it is not the absence of color, rather the presence of them all, which constitutes black— much like the mélange of Friday’s performances as each radiated in its own distinct fashion— full of life, intimacy, and potential.
photo 1: New Gallery, Sky Room. Friday May 12, 2017
photo 2: Portrait, Roberto Guerra (a) by Heide Hatry
photo 3: Jennifer Elster performing Cemetery: Is Death? at New Museum, May 12, 2017
photo 4: Heide Hatry hosting Book Party at New Museum. May 12, 2017
photo 5: Queen Esther performing Gloomy Sunday at New Museum. May 12, 2017