The Other Reality

From Loss: The Politics of Mourning

Posted in Annotation, MFA by aryckman on March 18, 2009

Susette Min’s “Remains to be Seen.” And Charity Scribner’s “Left Melancholy.”
Loss: The Politics of Mourning. Ed David L. Eng and David Kazanjian. University of California Press, 2003, pg. 229-250, pg. 300-319.

In the essays, “Remains to be Seen” by Susette Min and “Left Melancholy” by Charity Scribner, the authors explore the relationship of specific works of art to the themes of mourning, melancholia, and nostalgia. Min reveals how the artists in her essay have transformed their specific experience of loss into a collective one through their artistic strategies. Alternatively, Scribner shows how three artists have interpreted and portrayed the collective loss of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in vastly differing ways.
“Remains to be Seen: Reading the Works of Dean Sameshime and Khahn Vo”
Susette Min starts the essay by identifying how mourning and melancholia can be the means of production and a process of becoming. In melancholia the lost object is internalized and incorporates itself in the ego thus becoming the object, but also acting as a poor substitute for it. Both artists that she studies externalize this melancholic act by re-presenting their lost objects. Min chose to examine Khanh Vo’s installation, April 25, 1975 (resonance), and Dean Sameshima’s In Between Days (Without You). Both of these works are dependent on the viewer’s reading and interaction with the piece in order for their representation of mourning and melancholia to be internalized by the viewer.
In Between Days (Without You) is a series of fifteen small color photographs of empty beds in the corner of a room. In each image a different color spot light floods the scene, besides the bed and a nightstand a few objects remain in the frame, a pack of cigarettes, etc. The statement by the artist explains that these “beds are located in the private rooms of underground gay sex clubs” this information “imbues the image with a sense of loss” (236). The absence of bodies in the beds but the evidence of their presence, the rumpled sheets, forces the viewer to see what is not there. “It animates a life external to the photograph” creating a blind field which in turn “creates the possibility to see the unexpected, to view a drama that has—or has yet to be—unfolded” (239). By allowing the viewer to imagine the missing bodies it turns the desire for the object and subsequent loss on them, forcing them to make that loss their own.
Similarly, Khanh Vo’s work forces the viewer to activate the space of his installation as a way of incorporation. Vo creates his installation by laying down cardboard across a gallery floor and then scattering objects on it, then using long strips of packing tape he covers the entire composition, rendering the objects identifiable only by their outlines. The title of his piece is the date he was forced to flee Saigon and emigrate to the U.S. “The dispersed remains in April 25, 1975 (resonance) evoke both a loss and a refusal of that loss… Vo’s installation works like memory in an attempt to resuscitate and preserve an untimely evacuation” (230).
As the viewer negotiates the objects they become part of the installation and the objects cause them to falter. Because only the shapes of the objects are visible they act as mnemonic devices, triggering memory and becoming symbols rather than keeping a strictly personal meaning. Vo’s piece “seems to invite collective mourning ‘bit by bit’ if we metaphorically view this installation as a whole, as an open sore of pain and homelessness. By inviting the observer to renegotiate the objects physically and psychologically, Vo reinvests the lost object in the realm of the social” (245-246).
In Sameshima’s photographs the object of desire is outside the frame of the image and the viewer is forced to imagine its presence as a means of incorporating the loss. Inversely, the objects taped to the floor represent Vo’s loss. While physically present, these objects appear lost and the viewer is forced to negotiate them, almost as if negotiating memory’s landscape. Both art works “rely on the process of incorporation to unfold an existence of the unreal that makes an attempt to substitute and appropriate a loss” (242). And by this appropriation the personal loss becomes collective.
“Left Melancholy”
Charity Scribner discusses three artists whose work relates to the collapse of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). “Conceptual artist Joseph Beuys, curator Andreas Ludwig, and playwright Judith Kuckart have joined in the conversation about how to commemorate communism; each of their works embodies a distinct mnemonic mode” (303).
Joseph Beuys’ installation Economic Values is a collection of household objects from Eastern Europe as well as a sculpture made by the artist.  Each object was carefully chosen based on its packaging, “Bueys selected only those that looked the most superannuated; he passed over any that evidenced the traces of sophisticated Western marketing strategies in favor of those packed in course, unbleached paper, printed with a single color or perhaps two” (306-307). As the contents of these items spoil and disintegrate Bueys replaces the items with sand and chalk so that they appear the correct weight and density. Instead of relics of the past these objects are like souvenirs. Interestingly, Bueys created this installation before the final collapse of the GDR and as a westerner his collection comes across less as mourning for the passing of the socialist state but instead nostalgic for the unrealized potential, a past that never really existed in the first place.
On what seems like the opposite spectrum, easterner, Andreas Ludwig, curates the Open Depot museum. The museum allows people to donate any remnant of GDR goods as an alternative to throwing the items away as they modernize their homes with goods now available from the west. Along with receiving the items, Ludwig’s museum staff “interview the donators, posing questions not only about the provenance of the objects but also about the owners’ memories of the way they once lived with them or among them” (303). Scribner sees this work as a ‘laying to rest’ of the GDR, a ‘tender rejection.’ This is a mourning for the reality—the successes and failures—of the socialist government accepting all aspects of what life had been under it, “Ludwig creates a space not only where viewers can come together to debate their past and future but also where they can identify and insert their private lives, their own memories of countless tiny details, into the larger timeline of German history” (303).
The third work Scribner looks at is Judith Kuckart’s play, Melancholia I, order Die zwei Schwestern. Kuckart is a westerner who’s play surreally places prominent historical figures in the contemporary setting of post-unification Germany. Her play looks at the present instead of the past “asking what we imagine ourselves to have lost and how we lost it” (302) as a way to gain footing in the lull that spread over Germany after the initial joy of the tearing down of the Berlin Wall.
Scribner views Bueys’ installation as nostalgic for the past turning “revolutionary resistance into so many objects of tasteful appreciation” (308). In opposition to this “Kuckart’s characters harbor no nostalgia for the past but rather the compulsion to return to the sites of their failures” (309). Her character of Vladimir Mayakovsky, despairing that his best years are over, commits suicide. His absence and his unrequited love propel Elsa Triolet to start her literary work. “Elsa pauses in this depressed time, at once heavy-hearted and spiritually empowered. But recognizing that she never has (or could) posses Mayakovsky, she sets herself the task of writing her desire and so moves beyond this reserve. Mayakovsky on the other hand, is crushed by the weight of the present” (313).
Both characters viewed the revolution form a distance; Elsa was able to “maintain the fiction that an authentic revolution [was] raging behind a veil of atrocities. Meanwhile Mayakovsky…left to long in suspense [was] driven to destruction” (314). He could only see suicide in his future. Mayakovsky’s ideals could not be accomplished imbuing him with a sense of unshakable loss, a similar feeling that many felt in post-unification Germany.
If citizens of the former GDR suffer from this sense of being strangers to themselves, this nevertheless cannot be taken to mean they were conquered by the West and left with nothing more than their past reveries. Rather, Easterners embody radical melancholia: they possess the object (their land, their freedom) but are disenfranchised of their dreams (315).
While Open Depot takes the task of mourning the end of the social state, Bueys’ installation is at a standstill within its nostalgic view of it. In her play, Kuckart looks to the present and recognizes the tendency to romanticize revolution but shows that “it also stages the intrepid, suicidal assumption of failure” (315). Her drama “attests to both the losses of the socialist history and the dejection of the present” (315). Scribner suggests that this collection and looking back at the past is a refusal to accept that our only option is that of late capitalism.

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