Person #1: “I will die.”
Person #2: “I will die.”
Person #3: “I will die.”
Person #4: “I will die.”
Angelo Filomeno: Well, first of all, let’s talk about death.
Yui Suzuki: Death is an inevitable experience that everybody has to go through. There’s no way to escape that.
Ilan Stavans: Death occurs to all of us; it is commonplace in the human experience. And yet we experience it according to the lens, to the kaleidoscope that our own culture provides us.
Stanley Brandes: Death is one of the most traumatic occurrences that we can experience and I think it’s for this reason that it is a font of so much creativity.
Segment Title: Art for the Living
The Day of the Dead that refers to the Mexican version of All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days, which is a holiday throughout the Roman Catholic world.
Anna Indych-López: Day of the Dead is celebrated on November 1st and November 2nd, where Mexicans honor their ancestors and the dead, usually by presenting some kind of offering, going to the cemetery and bringing flowers, specifically marigold flowers, food, and water to the spirit of their ancestors.
Stanley Brandes: A characteristic of the Day of the Dead in Mexico is the humor associated with the art.
You don’t have a lot of comic figures or examples of humorous art on tombstones or on the home altar during the Day of the Dead. The humor comes out in public venues, in marketplaces, in the press, but not in the sacred spaces.
José Guadalupe Posada’s figure, the Catrina, is the female dandy with the big floppy hat with feathers in it. And this is an icon that is very closely associated with the Day of the Dead.
Ilan Stavans: That skeleton, the calavera, it’s joyful, it’s funny, it’s humorous, it’s engaging. It’s smiling and it’s always commenting on what is happening here and now. These calaveras are, for the Day of the Dead, made of sugar. Mexican art wants you to perceive death as sweet, as candy, as attractive. Death is not an end; it is an invitation to look at life differently and to smile. Crucially, to smile.
In contrast, where and how the skeleton and the skull appears in Western art, it appears to represent the coldness, the rigidity, the sharpness and decisiveness of death and the fear that that presents: “Look, look at what we become when we no longer are ourselves. This is your end.”
Stanley Brandes: The Dance of Death was a tradition that started in the fifteenth century in Paris.
The big difference between the Day of the Dead skeletons and the Dance of Death imagery is that in the Dance of Death we have actual human beings, live human beings, talking to and communicating with the skeleton which represents death.
Larry Silver: And the line is, “As you are now, so I once was.” That’s what death says, but he goes on to say, “As I am now, so you will be.”
The art that we see in the late Middle Ages was art that was very much for the living. It was meant to make you pause; it was meant to make you be frightened; it was meant to make you think about what really mattered.
Life was shorter in those days, and sudden death was always a possibility. So salvation loomed large. And in a funny way, because life itself was harsher, people may have hoped for something better in the afterlife.
I think that there’s a huge difference, especially in the noble and ruling classes, during the Renaissance in the way that they thought about death.
When you first approach the Holbein Ambassadors in London, you can’t help seeing these two full-length, life-size figures and their beautiful garments. And all the things that are around them.
Worldly instruments, instruments that measure the heavens, instruments that are geographical, globes. You see works of creativity. You see lutes, songbooks.
The experience of the viewer is to be immersed in the picture in its rich and wonderful details. And only with some guidance are you told that this strange white object that seems to go diagonally across the picture is something you need to look at from a different point of view.
But it comes right when you turn to that side edge of the picture and look down on it. And in fact, you see it reconciled as a skull.
We see art that’s meant to make the living think about death, and that life will stop, and it has its joys and we have to figure out how to balance those things.
Ilan Stavans: I think that death is a decisive factor in the way we perceive life because it not only colors the way we think about what will happen if we are not here, but it colors, defines, shapes the way in which we see every single moment of our lives.
Yui Suzuki: The Buddhist notion of death was that there were six realms of existence that people can be perpetually reborn into.
Eugene Wang: You could be reborn in the celestial realm, or in the demigod realm, or in the human realm, or in the animal realm, or in the hungry ghosts realm, or, the worst, hell.
Yui Suzuki: These are all realms that are subject to death. It’s subject to suffering. It’s subject to pain. It’s subject to passion. It’s subject to earthly attachments.
Eugene Wang: The only way for one to escape this endless cycle of reincarnation is to enter the Buddha’s way.
Yui Suzuki: In Japan, there are various sets of paintings that represent the six realms of rebirth. When you look at hell, paintings of Buddhist hells being represented, in one sense it seems to be about death and what happens to you after you die. But it really is also about this life and living. It is reminding a Buddhist practitioner what could happen if one is not attuned to this particular life and living this life as a good Buddhist.
Segment Title: Art for the Dead
Deborah Vischak: The Egyptians certainly had a sense of an afterlife. They thought there was something after this world. And they did very much see the next world or hope for the next world to be one that was very similar to this one, especially the elite. They had it pretty good here, so they were happy to have it continue that way in the next world.
Larry Silver: Musicians, food, comfortable beds, clothing—they literally did try to take it with them.
Deborah Vischak: The Book of the Dead is something that emerged in the New Kingdom period.
The idea of the Book of the Dead was in essence a guidebook to the netherworld, with these kinds of cues and helpful little hints to get you through an obstacle that you might confront or a scary beast of some kind, what you would need to say. It’s typically not just a text; it’s typically created including these little vignettes in a way, illustrations of particular spells, talking about what’s going on. And so it was a very valuable thing for the deceased, for the person to bring with him into the burial.
Jenny Liu: What you want for a Chinese tomb, are things that will serve and protect the dead. And that is what Qin Shi Huangdi, the first emperor, got in a very grand sense.
There were supposed to be a complete world, a universe inside the tomb of the first emperor. The main mound has never been excavated, but there are slightly later textual descriptions which talks about rivers of mercury inside a complete palace.
Over 7,000 terracotta soldiers were constructed in the tomb over ten years. These soldiers are about life size. And they were of infantry and also charioteers, middle ranking officers, generals, and they were in formation as they would in a real battle.
The scale of the tomb of the first emperor is unprecedented, and we never see a tomb of this scale after.
Perhaps an answer for why tombs after, even for emperors, were never so grandiose as the first emperor’s was that values changed. For example, there were more courtly figures in the Tang tombs because it was more of a courtly culture.
In modern times, they don’t make these elaborate tombs anymore, but they make, for example, elaborate mansions and then they burn them, sacrifice them for the dead, for what we think of as luxury in modern terms.
Funerary art and tradition tell us what’s important to the people of their times.
Christa Clarke: Fantasy coffins are these coffins that are produced in southern Ghana.
Paa Joe: This coffin style started by a man called Kane Kwei about seventy-five years ago.
Christa Clarke: These coffins are made in very elaborate forms that are meaningful to the deceased and the deceased’s life, the person’s achievements in life, the person’s status in society.
Paa Joe: I am standing next to a lobster. This is a symbol of a fisherman who was expert in catching lobsters. Some businessmen who are successful, they decide to go with sometimes Mercedes-Benz.
Only the Ga tribe of Ghana practice this coffin style. Most of the people, they belonged to a church, but a church doesn’t allow, they consider this a fetish practice. So some people can either have this and they have the regular coffin. So they go and do the church prayers and everything, and then they bring them back home and then transfer them into their favorite onion or pepper coffin. Because as far as they are concerned, the dead is still carrying on what he or she loves best or did in their lifetime and they are obviously taking it with them to the afterlife.
Christa Clarke: It is this idea of kind of really celebrating a life and making it a big deal, a big visual event.
Paa Joe: After all, if you die, it shouldn’t be just sorrow and crying. We should think of some positive side of death, you know, because after all, the flesh is just dead, but the soul goes on somewhere. So we should kind of celebrate the dead instead of just sorrow all the time, yes.
Segment Title: Art for the Grieving
Stanley Brandes: The way living people deal with their grief shows an awful lot about the ability for people all over to cope with this finality, the disappearance of loved ones, to the point where they can survive and go on.
Anne D’Alleva: In New Guinea among the Asmat, bis poles are set up to celebrate people who are deceased, to send their spirits off to the spirit world.
Until a few decades ago, there were very few men, especially, who died of old age in their beds. Men died in warfare.
They are saying in essence we are sending you off but we are not going to forget you. We are going to take revenge and avenge your death.
The form of the poles is really interesting. They can be up to twenty feet tall. So they are very, very dramatic. And when they are set up, they are set up facing the river because the river leads to the sea and the spirit world is conceptualized as being sort of out there on the other side of the sea, which makes a lot of sense actually, this vast ocean. So that there would be something out there on the other side expresses that distance.
After the ceremonies were over, in which these poles are displayed, then it’s interesting—they are brought to the swamp. They are left there to decay. And all the spiritual power and energy that was put into them then goes back into the earth, goes back into the soil. So everything comes full circle in that way.
Stanley Brandes: In terms of the role of art in the commemoration of death, there’s a lot of variation. In the Christian world there’s much more likelihood that people are going to work through their grieving process in part through art, through representations of the deceased.
Robin Jaffee Frank: Miniatures were perhaps the most powerful, tangible expressions of love and loss in their era. Among the most moving miniatures still to us today are those dedicated to the very young. This miniature memorializes two infants—Solomon and Joseph Hayes—who died in New York City in 1798 and 1801, respectively.
And here you see a maternal figure, who protectively rests her arms on both monuments to both boys as if still watching over them. And this would have become a kind of wearable shrine.
Much of the texture in the earth below and in the back in these memorials is fashioned out of hair. Hair survives time and decay. Hair has this magic power.
Solomon’s long blond strands form the abstracted weeping willow on the left side of this double memorial. His brother Joseph’s long brown strands form the weeping willow on the other side. And this circular miniature, which like a ring is without beginning and without end, is a way of keeping the dead within the circle of the living.
There’s this need on the part of human beings to deal with loss through having something that’s tangible.
Babatunde Lawal: The Yoruba, in southwestern Nigeria, have one of the highest twin births in the world. In the past, the Yoruba believed that every individual has a spirit partner in heaven.
Now in the case of twins, the Yoruba believed that the bond between the two before birth was so close that one could not live without the other. Now if one of the twins should die, the belief is that the other might follow unless certain measures are taken. As a result ìbejì, twin memorials, will be created into which the soul of the deceased will be invoked.
If the second twin should die, you create another memorial in their memory. And then the mother of the twin keeps both. And it is believed that the spirits of these twins will continue to bless their appearance.
Yui Suzuki: Paintings, memorials, or tomb structures that were made to enshrine the dead—it’s about the living as much as the person dying or who have died.
Stanley Brandes: We can learn to live with the presence of death through converting it into something beautiful, meaningful, enduring, and it helps the family to get over the grieving.
Angelo Filomeno: I lost my parents when I was very young. I lost my mother when I was twelve and my father when I was nineteen. So right in the teenage stage of my life, you know, was not that easy. You have that loss and that grief for a period of time and then when you are grown up, that grief and loss comes back again. So I am taking that experience as inspiration of my work.
My favorite piece is, the title is, My Love Sings When the Flower is Near. And it’s a man and a woman on a broom flying over Los Angeles. Why Los Angeles? Because it’s the City of Angels. And that was an homage to my parents. So both of them flying over this beautiful city and taking a beautiful ride to paradise.
I would like to forget what happened to me thirty years ago but, you know, still it’s there and cannot go away. And maybe unconsciously I say to myself, “Okay, that happens to me when I was a teenager.” So I made a little lighter this, depicting my parents, that they are taking this journey to paradise as two skeletons on a broom stick over Los Angeles.
My work is not just personal as the loss of my parents; it is a universal message because everybody lost either their parents or their lovers or relatives or whatever. Death is about everybody and in any culture and in any part of the world.
My work mostly is about skulls and skeletons and human condition. Always you will see in my work the contradiction of subject matter with the richness of the material.
You are looking at the black on black piece, and this is a seascape, and there is this kind of relic, which looks like a tree trunk floating on the ocean.
You know the material that I use in my work is, they are precious materials. And I use embroidery on silk with metallic threads. And so it’s everything, it’s shiny and everything; it’s opulent and everything; it’s beautiful.
So in this Western society where everybody is scared about death and everybody wants the immortal life and the eternity, seeing my work maybe can be a kind of blessing.
Larry Silver: On some level, death is the perfect subject for art.
A still life that has a skull and an hour glass and a watch and a smoldering candle tells us about the importance of art, as well as about the importance of life’s brevity.
Person #5: “I will die.”
Larry Silver: Ars longa, vita brevis. Art is long, life is short.
Person #6: “I will die.”
Person #7: “I will die.”
Person #8: “I will die.”
Person #9: “I will die.”