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Week 10 – Bear Witness to the Invisible

Theme of the week: Art and Spirituality

The Musée d'art de Joliette’s collection includes several works representing religious scenes and saints, as well as pieces of material heritage related to the rites of the Church. This can be explained, among other things, by the history of the foundation of the Museum, as recalled by my colleague Émilie Grandmont Bérubé in another entry of this blog. The sacred dimension of these artworks and objects is evoked both by their subject matter and their use.

In all iconophilic religions, the image serves as an intermediary between the believers and their gods. In the Catholic religion, following the Council of Trent, images are given the function of teaching, moving, and convincing. This is done through spectacular and intentionally didactic compositions, and naturalistic representations that favour identification. Often these images tell a story. It is through narration that they convey a religious message, or sometimes a critical reflection on religion.

With modernity, the spiritual dimension of existence has broadened. Many people live their spirituality without identifying with a religion. Artists have thus gradually turned away from religious scenes and Bible protagonists in order to explore other ways of representing the invisible forces of existence. They did this notably by investing the field of abstraction. For several centuries, religion contributed to giving meaning to life. When people gradually turned away from it, it was necessary to respond to the questions, doubts, moral dilemmas, and mysteries of existence in a different way. The meaning of life was no longer to be sought outside oneself – by looking forward to an afterlife, for example –, but within oneself. Without religion’s prescribed rules, one had to look elsewhere for fulfilment and guiding principles. With "the death of God," the notion of transcendence lost its value and became a commitment to the here and now, to the immanence of our human, mortal, and material lives. As a result, the relationship to death has been disrupted and intensified.

One of the rites associated with religion is precisely that of death and mourning. How can we live with the awareness of our own finitude? How should we mark the moment of death and proceed to mourning? The passage to the afterlife, the soul rising up like smoke, is crystallized in the Catholic rite of incensing. The inhumation, or burial, of the deceased is the ultimate stage in the celebration of a funeral, and is modelled on the entombment. How can one experience mourning outside of the religious gestures related to these rituals? The belief in a world beyond our own (defined above as transcendence) no longer soothes our suffering in the face of our own death, or that of a loved one. In this context, memory becomes an immensely important space: the only place where our loved ones go when they pass away.

This week, these ideas made me reflect on the work of two contemporary artists. Following the death of a loved one, both have developed, an artistic research that addresses mourning. They have been able to soothe their sadness, make sense of their experience and pay tribute to this person – a husband, a father – through their work. For Spring Hurlbut, it took the form of a photographic series and a video, while Céline Huyghebaert created an artist’s book.

Spring Hurlbut, Otis and Barley, 2019. Courtesy of Georgia Sherman Projects.

Spring Hurlbut

Recipient of the Governor General's Award in Visual and Media Arts in 2018, Spring Hurlbut will exhibit her work at the MAJ in the winter of 2021. She has always celebrated the ephemeral and intangible aspects of life through art. This has notably led her to be interested in the theme of vanity and the methods of natural history museums, which attempt to evoke animal life through inert staging. The tension between the living and the non-living, and the idea of the museum as mausoleum – a place of memory –, are at the heart of her approach. When her father died, her mother gave her his ashes. Several years later, she felt like paying tribute to him through her artistic practice in photography. Since then, she was asked by several families to create abstract photographic “portraits” with the ashes of their loved one.

Spring Hurlbut, Cujo and Boomer 2,  2019. Courtesy of Georgia Sherman Projects.

These sober images suggest a close relation between the infinitely small specks of bodily dust and the immensity of the universe of which these human beings are a part. The realms of micro and macro are poetically united in her compositions. There is nothing macabre about them: for the artist, they are a celebration of these deceased persons’ lives, whose remains she treats with great respect. She takes very seriously the trust that people place in her, and considers it a privilege to offer one last form to their loved one. Once the artworks are completed, she puts the ashes back in the urns and returns them to their owner.

Spring Hurlbut, Cujo 1,  2019 

Avec l'aimable collaboration de Georgia Sherman Projects 

In 2016, she created a series dedicated to her late husband, the artist Arnaud Maggs, which plays on the contrast between order and disorder. She sees this series as a final collaboration between them. The video Airborne, made in 2008, is reminiscent of a very personal version of the rite of incensing: with the simple gesture of opening a box, the fine fragments of what was once a body fly away in slow volutes that unfurl in the air, until they vanish for eternity. Successively, six of these last dances are presented in a simple but poignant video. Ultimately, this work is about confronting our inevitable destiny; it is about learning to contemplate mortality without looking away. Because the works are peaceful and profound, they perhaps allow us to engage in a reflection that reconciles us with this ultimate stage.

Céline Huyghebaert

Words fascinate Céline Huyghebaert. Through them, she seeks to materialize the invisible, to push back ever further the unspeakable, to keep a trace of the stream of existence, which flows and is largely forgotten despite all our efforts to retain it. It is often by detour, by going backwards in order to reveal the reverse, silent side of the words, that she succeeds in grasping their meaning.

“And yet, all that remains visible, expressible, is often the superfluous, the appearance, the surface of our experience. (...) The more intense things are, the more difficult it becomes for them to emerge in their entirety. (...) The very act of forgetting, more and more, is absolutely necessary: if 80% of what happens to us were not repressed, living would be unbearable. True memory is oblivion, emptiness: the one that allows us not to succumb to the oppression of recollection, the blinding suffering that, fortunately, we have forgotten.”

Marguerite Duras, La passion suspendue, quoted by Céline Huyghebaert in Le drap blanc.

Céline Huyghebaert, Le drap blanc, 2017. Photo: Jean-Michael Seminaro

In 2017, while working at the Darling Foundry in Montreal, I invited Céline Huyghebaert to exhibit her project Le drap blanc at the launch of her eponymous artist's book, published in 100 numbered copies. Le drap blanc was subsequently published by Le Quartanier in 2019, and won the Governor General's Literary Award that same year. This five-year project began with the death of her father. Through a lengthy investigation, she tried to prevent the erasure of this man with whom she had a troubled relationship. Having left France to settle in Quebec in 2002, she had gradually moved away from him over time. Through the patient and reconstructive gesture of writing, she scrutinizes the emptiness and guilt that this absence has created in her. Because she was not there at the moment of his death, because she was not able to watch over him, say goodbye, witness his last breath, but perhaps most of all, because she couldn’t reconcile herself with this complex human being at the source of her own existence.

“Or would the opposite of presence be not absence, but disappearance?”

Ryoko Sekiguchi, La voix sombre, quoted by Céline Huyghebaert in Le drap blanc.

Céline Huyghebaert, Le drap blanc, 2017. Photo: Jean-Michael Seminaro

In this book, the artist explores the voids, the holes, the blanks that punctuate all life stories. How do you reconstruct someone's life? How to distil it so that the story conveys its essence? Impossible undertaking. The sincerity with which she shares her process in this eclectic book is truly moving. Questionnaires, dialogue from a play, memories, photos, quotations, dreams, lists, graphological analysis, testimonies: so many ways to portray a disappeared person. This portrait reveals both the author and her father, and is thus as imaginary as it is real. The more time passes, the more the fog of fiction thickens, not necessarily distancing us from the truth, but rather bringing us closer to sensations, which are also truth.

Each in their own way, Spring Hurlbut and Céline Huyghebaert make the celebration of life and the work of mourning the centre of their works. They develop personal rituals to deal with the experience of finitude, which concerns us all. Their works move us and their shared experience teaches us different ways to deal with the ultimate stage of life.

View of Céline Huyghebaert's workshop. Photo: Céline Huyghebaert.

This article was written by Anne-Marie St-Jean Aubre, Curator of Contemporary Art, Musée d'art de Joliette.

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