In All Sincerity
Amy Gahyun Lee
Nov 30, 2018
For two years after his mother’s death in 1977, the influential French philosopher Roland Barthes was keeping a diary about his loss. He wrote, in a harsh and unrefined manner, of his raw feelings towards his mother’s death in ink on 330 small index cards, which were published by his longtime translator Richard Howard with the intuitive title, Mourning Diary.
“Struck by the abstract nature of absence; yet it’s so painful, lacerating. Which allows me to understand abstraction somewhat better: it is absence and pain, the pain of absence – perhaps therefore love?”
– Mourning Diary (2009)
Barthes finally learned abstraction from his loss. He believed that mourning was the feeling of sadness allowed only to those who experienced loss, and realized that this emotion of mourning came into contact with abstraction. At such a speechless moment following his heartrending grief, he encountered the sanctity of such abstraction. For him, abstraction is pain, absence, and love for his lost mother. In contrast to Barthes’s usual intellectual and rational texts, the diary is filled with irrational and emotional banalities. Some may criticize its rugged candor and straight-forwardness, but we could say that it is properly abstract, and further, aesthetic. “Don’t say mourning. It’s too psychoanalytic. I’m not mourning. I’m suffering.”
If mourning is the unrefined emotion, what remains of those who have departed, remembrance is the practical work of emotion that is done politely by those who want to remember them. In 2007, Colombian artist Doris Salcedo created a deep and dark crack on the cold concrete floor of the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, just like the scars carved deep inside someone’s mind. Visualizing Shibboleth of the Old Testament, which symbolizes persecution due to differences, the artist commemorated those who suffered from social standards—more precisely, those who crossed the border in search of freedom.
In communion with everyday objects and spaces, Doris Salcedo has read memories and narratives inherent and memorialized those who have been sacrificed by social absurdity and violence through her delicate and implicative presentation. A decade after Shibboleth, Salcedo, at her solo exhibition at the Bermondsey space of White Cube in London, filled the entire space of South Galleries with rectangular stone slabs, on which the names of over 300 victims appear—mostly of those who fled from Africa or the Middle East over the past 20 years but drowned in the Mediterranean or Adriatic attempting to cross into Europe.
In connection with the literal meaning of the Palimpsest, ‘a piece of writing material on which later writing has been superimposed on effaced earlier writing,’ Salcedo indicated the names of those who passed away prior to 2010 in sand, then overlaid the names of those who passed between 2011 - 2016 in droplets of water. Palimpsest is the artist’s formal and respectful gesture to someone or to certain values that we let slip from our minds without retaining. In other words, through this monumental body of work, the artist mourns in memory of the deceased and shows the most appropriate, and earnest way of saying farewell, signifying remembrance.
“Bringing to mind the image of a ‘crying’ earth, Palimpsest attempts to expose the inability to collectively mourn, highlighting the way memory functions in a society which is trained to forget, where each new tragedy erases the previous one.”
– from the exhibition description of Doris Salcedo solo exhibition (2018), White Cube Bermondsey
We forget everything so easily, and do not spend much time on the act of remembrance. We react very instantly to the tragic issues happening around us, but we do not let them linger long in our minds. We are becoming insensible to such things, and as such, we often fail to bid proper farewell to even the things and to the people that we care about. Nowadays, no one bids farewell in the ways of Emily from Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. Perhaps this is because it is too melodramatic and delivers such a feeling that we have never experienced, and therefore, we have never related to, but it reminds us somewhat of all the bygone sentiments and values like sincerity, dignity and courtesy of which we have, for a long time, forgotten.
Good-by, Good-by, world. Good-by, Grover’s Corners…Mama and Papa. Good-bye to clocks ticking…and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths…and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it
– every, every minute?– ‘Our Town’, Thornton Wilder (1938)