Queering Contemporary Art: Death and Grieving
Essay by Ariel Elise
Art by An Qui Dai
The death and mourning of a loved one is an experience that is not exclusive to conventionally prescribed groups of people. Mourning is universal and expressed by a broad spectrum of identities. This essay will explore the fascination of death in contemporary art and the social spaces that these works occupy by looking at artists identifying under the queer spectrum and their art dealing with the grieving and loss of a loved one. This essay will also speculate on what it means to mourn over a queer relationship, or for work to be dedicated to the loss of a partner in a queer relationship. The purpose of these findings will be to expand on the kinds of conversations and interpretations that arise from these works that address queer-related issues so publicly. For example, gallery institutions are a specific type of space that allow queer grieving and are activated when queer concepts and identities occupy the space. But can these spaces be challenged in terms of their occupation and deliverance of specifically themed artwork? Can queer grieving be accessed by all, or only by the queer community? What happens to the work when it is presented outside the institutional space? These questions will be considered and discussed through examples by the following queer artists and their works: AA Bronson’s photograph Felix Partz, June 5, 1994, Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ Untitled (bed), and one of Annie Leibovitz’s documentative photographic pieces, Fig. 1, of Susan Sontag’s death after she passed away from leukemia. Through their work, these artists gesture towards illnesses and their own mortality, bridging the illusioned gaps between the queer body and the heterosexual body, as well as consider universal illnesses that affect all bodies. These works address the death of a relationship and a union that is unconventional to heteronormativity. Furthermore, the works are an invitation for an intellectual and empathetic emersion for the viewer to enter a very personal space, while also revealing of queer relationships through the concepts of presence and absence, and life and death.
I will consider these presentations of grief through the lens of Gregg Bordowitz’s discussion of “queer structures of feeling,” which he describes as an “articulation of presence forged through resistance in a heterosexist society”. This definition complements the following works that will be discussed in the sense that queer mourning is expressed as a certain type of “presence” just by existing, as it resists the heteronormative narratives pertaining to the death of a partner in society. I will also briefly examine Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands’ ruminations in her work “Melancholy Natures” in which she investigates queer melancholy in relation to the environment, and utilize her theory of queer melancholy expressions through nature and dedicate a similar view to queer melancholic expressions through art. She refers to this as “queer acts of memory” in regarding these queer expressions as “memorial projects” . Her findings will help to inform the speculation of death as a concept in contemporary art as well as help to understand the spectacle-like essence of the death of a queer person expressed through art.
AA Bronson’s work (Fig. 1), Felix Partz, June 5, 1994 finds an echo in the words of Mortimer-Sandilands, who discusses:
“How does one mourn in the midst of a culture that finds it almost impossible to recognize the value of what has been lost? …[M]elancholia is not only a denial of the loss of a beloved object but also a potentially politicized way of preserving that object in the midst of a culture that fails to recognize its significance.
Mortimer-Sandilands’ haunting words echo Bronson’s mournful photograph of Felix Partz in parallel uniformity, one of his artistic and romantic partners, shortly after he passed away from AIDS. Jorge Zontal was another partner of AA Bronson’s, as well as an artist/contributor to a trio group known as “General Idea”, however, this essay will focus on the work dedicated to Partz. This work serves as a visual eulogy and obituary to the loss of a partner, a conceptual artist group (General Idea), and due to a fatal fight against an epidemic, AIDS, that affected many. We, as viewers, are invited to be drawn to this photo, not only because of the aesthetic of the loud, explosive colours or the mystery behind the gaunt man who lies expressionless in bed, but also because of the awareness that the image contains: death in an exuberant manner. Viewers are fascinated by the spectacle of death but are also faced with the challenge of acknowledging that a life has been lost. Here, Bronson portrays his death as visually extravagant to represent a life lost to a brutal disease that was societally condemned and stigmatized at the time. Through this, the viewership of this spectacle draws attention to the horrors of the illness and its political context. It resists the heteronormative narrative by highlighting a crucial, deadly issue prominent in the gay community: an issue that was constantly being repressed by stigma and bias. In other words, it denies intentional ignorance. More importantly, it allowed Bronson to visually mourn over the death of his partner, as it also gestured toward the death of an artistic collaboration: “General Idea”. This work was sold and currently exists in the National Gallery of Canada, where it continues to activate a queer space within an institution by memorializing the AIDS crisis. However, although Bronson’s original intent was to grieve artistically through this image, he seemed to be aware that this photo could be interpreted differently outside his original intent, as he stated: “Dear Felix, by the act of exhibiting this image in this exhibition…I declare that we are no longer of one mind, one body. I return you to General Idea’s world of mass media, there to function without me.” Furthermore, a controversy arose in 2010 when the National Gallery of Canada loaned the work to Portrait Gallery for the “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” show, in which Bronson requested the work be taken out due to his disagreement with the museum’s removal of fellow artist David Wojnarowicz’s video. However, since Bronson sold the work to the National Gallery of Canada, the institution retains full control on its loaned pieces to other galleries, therefore denying power from Bronson over his work. This particular example illustrates how a queer artist’s work of mourning can shift from its original meaning based on its placement in context. While the work still activates queer space anywhere it is placed simply by existing, it can stray from the artist’s original intent based on its movement through institutional and public environments, which also affects the viewers’ interpretations of this mourning. Nevertheless, based on the speculative nature focusing on death from AIDS in the photo, it is clear that Bronson’s intention is to expose the horrors and tragedy of loss, and this photo brings this underlying meaning to whichever space it occupies.
Similar to Bronson’s expression of grief, Annie Leibovitz produced photo works of her partner Susan Sontag in her photobook A Photographer’s Life 1990-2005, which was initially exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum in 2006. I will be referring to her image Fig. 1 from her book for the purposes of this essay. Fig. 1 displays Susan Sontag post-mortem in sequenced photographs collaged together—an artistic pause from the lively nature of the rest of the book. While Leibovitz is best known for her commercial and fashion photography, this specific segment of the book documents a moment of her life that is particularly less commercial and abruptly raw and personal. The photo piece declares a level of mourning that transcends friendship and signals the loss of an intimate partner. Leibovitz and Sontag were very private about their relationship while Sontag was alive, therefore this photo actualizes and acknowledges the existence of a queer relationship between two strong well-known presences, that was withheld from the public and media. Their relationship catered to their own definitions and labels, leaving ambiguity in the eyes of the public. Thus, Leibovitz exhibiting these private works confirms and exposes their queer identities. McKinney notes, “the Sontag images similarly document and display the intimate nature of death, but they picture a death from cancer, a disease without a clear social group of victims it abjects.” To present the body is to present the evidence of the effects of a terminal disease, motioning to the fragility of life that affects all bodies. The spectacle of presenting and viewing the dead of a queer relationship creates a space of honouring the deceased, as the relationship, along with the body, has passed. Furthermore, her work on display allows for collective grieving for those who also connected with Sontag and her work. Culturally, it establishes a validation to their queer relationship and officially marks its existence. Mortimer-Sandilands says that “for lesbians, public melancholy is a form of survival.” While the two kept their lesbian relationship private, it seems that it is Leibovitz’s intention to not necessarily discredit or completely erase its existence. Setting such a space invites the queer community to partake in similar grieving practices and enables their voices to be heard as well. However, the work documenting Sontag’s death faced ethical challenges and criticism; thus the photographs enter the “original artist’s intention” dilemma because these works cannot be controlled in terms of their circulation in the public or media. Much of the public had ethical concerns about the work documenting Sontag’s body when it was first presented outside the context of the photobook, consequently removing Leibovitz’s original intention of grieving the loss of her partner. Again, similar to Bronson’s work, Leibovitz only has enough control of her artistic intention of queer mourning behind the work until it is circulated in the media, and up for the public’s interpretation. However, I argue that the work existing on its own without the context of the photobook still declares a queer space of mourning, indicating the loss of a loved one as well as a spectacle based on the queer nature of the imagery. In conjunction with Bronson’s work, McKinney also raises the awareness of how the documentative photographs are akin to the photographs of gay men dying due to AIDS through the 1980s to 1990s. The imagery of death and dying asks for empathy and emphasizes that an individual, regardless of sexuality, has lost their partner. Furthermore, this intimate form of expression is Leibovitz’s ultimate way of preserving Sontag’s memory as well as the relationship they had together, which allows her an outlet to mourn artistically.
These concepts of “queer mourning through art” may also be applied to Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ art, who is known for his works pertaining to grieving and loss in relation to the passing of his partner, Ross Laycock, due to AIDS. Specifically, I refer to his piece Untitled (Bed), a photograph that was first exhibited on twenty-four billboards in Manhattan in 1991. The photograph displays an unmade bed, left presumably by two bodies. In comparison to the last two examples, this work does not directly display a dying body, nor does it immediately announce “death” to the viewer. Instead, it displays an absence, and this ambiguity delivers a different haunting feeling. The spectacle of the body is replaced with a ghostly image: an absence of a body. The lack of a presence incites curiosity to know who is missing and why. Ultimately, the work signifies a loss of a specific partner, yet it also lends itself to a loss of an entire community who was affected similarly by AIDS. As Mortimer-Sandilands notes, “in a context in which there are no adequate cultural relations to acknowledge death, melancholia is a form of preservation of life—a life…that is already gone, but whose ghost propels a changed understanding of the present.” The absence in the bed changes our understanding of the presence by acknowledging the human loss due to AIDS. Interestingly, it pertains to Bordowitz’s definition of being a “queer structure of feeling,” as mentioned earlier, in the sense that it escaped the walls of an institutional space by being directly and publicly displayed. While there is not much immediate visual context upon first glance, those who are familiar with Gonzalez-Torres’ works or do in-depth research on this particular work will understand the context of the empty bed being left by a gay couple (the artist and his partner). Furthermore, the space that these billboards occupy becomes queer because the missing occupants of the bed were queer. In other words, the absence was caused by a queer presence, leaving behind the trace of a queer context. Removing the body removes a site of possible contention, while still leaving the symptoms of a societally repressed political and social issue. However, the beautiful ambiguity of the visual absence in the bed can intrigue and be interpreted by anybody and any body. Essentially, these traces left in the sheets could have been left behind by anyone, as it is seemingly anonymous. It quietly installs Gonzalez-Torres’ relationship into the public as well, by revealing a part of his private life to an accessible space while still retaining modesty. With its ambiguity leaving itself open to interpretation by anyone, these same attributes of accessibility can apply to the concept of death and how it is universal and inevitable for all. Similar to Leibovitz’s and Bronson’s work, this work invites intellectual and empathetic engagement with the concept of mourning the loss of a loved one while considering the hurdles the queer community faces upon the loss of one of their own.
These works provide an understanding of how queer art expresses mourning by occupying certain spaces and how these works communicate social issues pertaining to the queer community. Mortimer-Sandilands says that
For many, queer melancholia is thus not so much a “failed” mourning as a psychic and potentially political response to homophobia: a preservation of both the beloved and the fact of love itself in the face of a culture that barely allows, let alone recognizes, intimate queer attachments. Melancholia is pressed, here, into the service of memory, and this insight is vital in order to develop the conditions in which…loss becomes something recognizable and meaningful—and grievable.
Mortimer-Sandilands, “Queer Natures,” 339
Mortimer-Sandilands outlines how these expressions of mourning not only resist heteronormative narratives of mourning expressions, but also fight heteronormative repressions of queer emotional expressions, and furthermore serve to commemorate and permanently press these identities and relationships into history. The works listed above are considered the creative, emotional, and political processing of queer loss while ensuring that their deaths are memorialized with acknowledgment of their queer identities. These works also ask us to consider the dynamics of the body, where it is initially a vessel of agency but transforms into a prison awaiting death. Not only do they signal the fragility of life, but also challenge the dominant narratives of grief expression, those of which are heteronormative, to make space for queer mourning. It is also important to note that all three of these artists were present with their partner while they were dying, none of whom wanted to die. Therefore, these works also document the observation of an illness devouring their loved ones and indicate the presence and absence of a queer testimony and declaration of space. Thus, their work simultaneously create a queer space to grieve while also creating a space for others to grieve as well. Ultimately, these works bring us closer to understanding grief and mourning as a human expression, made to unite the living and respect the deceased.
Works Cited and Consulted
Allis, Ellary. “No Body There: The Empty Bed and The HIV/AIDS Crisis.” SevenPonds. Last modified 30 August, 2015. http://blog.sevenponds.com/soulful-expressions/no-body-there-the-empty-bed-and-the-hivaids-crisis.
Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands and Bruce Erickson. “Melancholy Nature.” Queer Ecologies: Sex, Nature, Politics, Desire. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010: pp 331-358. https://muse-jhu-edu.ezproxy.library.ubc.ca/book/319/.
Enright, Paul. “Particularizing some General Ideas: An Interview with AA Bronson.” Border Crossings, 02, 2004, 28-44, http://ezproxy.library.ubc.ca/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/215535806?accountid=14656.
Folland, Tom. “Felix Gonzalez-Torres, “Untitled” (billboard of an empty bed).” Khan Academy. Accessed 1 December, 2018. https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/global-culture/identity-body/identity-body-united-states/a/felix-gonzalez-torres-untitled-billboard-of-an-empty-bed
Gregg Bordowitz, “The AIDS Crisis Is Ridiculous,” in The AIDS Crisis Is Ridiculous and Other Writings, 1986-1993, ed. James Meyer. Cambridge, MA & London: The MIT Press, (2004): pp 43-63.
Guthmann, Edward. “Love, family, celebrity, grief—Leibovitz puts her life on display in photo memoir.” SFGate. Last modified 1 November, 2006. Accessed 1 December, 2018. https://www.sfgate.com/entertainment/article/Love-family-celebrity-grief-Leibovitz-puts-2548168.php.
Lim, Mary Ann. “Mortality in Photography: Examining the Death of Susan Sontag.” Treehouse.
McKinney, Caitlin. “Leibovitz and Sontag: picturing an ethics of queer domesticity.” Queen’s Journal of Visual & Material Culture. No. 3 (2010): pp 1-25. http://shiftjournal.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/mckinney.pdf
Patton, Andy. “The Manner of Their Dying.” Momus. Last modified 15 June, 2018. Accessed 1 December, 2018. http://momus.ca/the-manner-of-their-dying/.
Scott, Janny. “From Annie Leibovitz: Life, and Death, Examined.” The New York Times. Last modified 6 October, 2006. Accessed 1 December, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/06/arts/design/06leib.html.