Symposium Speaker Abstracts — The Art of Memory and Mourning

Jennifer Van Horn

Assistant Professor, Department of History and Art History George Mason University

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This paper explores a group of unique mid eighteenth-century tombstones carved with portraits in New England and erected in Charleston, South Carolina. These grave markers allow us to consider the intersection between civility, race, and the landscape in British North America during the colonial period.

The constant specter of illness and death in the eighteenth century posed a challenge to a Charlestonian society struggling to maintain its sense of decorum and propriety. On their gravestones, elite Charlestonians sought to counteract this unpleasant reality by eternally linking a mimetic but highly idealized representation of the refined, civil body to the deceased’s decomposing body. By denying the ravages of the grave, which, over time, darkened a corpse’s skin, tombstone portraits also reinforced boundaries between white elites and “savage” others.

Situating Charlestonian tombstones within the context of transatlantic burial and mourning practices, this paper reveals these artifacts’ divergence from Londoners’ standards. Likewise, it considers these grave markers as but one example of a series of ornamented stones (also including boundary and property markers) that were erected in the colonies as a means of establishing an aesthetic community in Charleston and civilizing the untamed North American environment.

Sarah Beetham

Independent Scholar

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In a slightly overgrown square in Sparta, Georgia, a draped marble obelisk stands in front of the Hancock County Courthouse. Erected in 1881, the monument honors the county’s soldier dead, who fell while fighting for the Confederate cause in the American Civil War. One side of the obelisk bears the seal of the Confederate States of America, while the other depicts a soldier in bas-relief accompanied by the words “In Memoriam.” The monument stands in an explicitly civic setting, but the draped obelisk is a form most commonly used to mark graves. Part civic exemplar and part gravestone, it remembers the dead and honors the cause for which they fought.

This modest monument embodies the intersections between personal loss and political commemoration in Confederate memorials in the wake of the Civil War. In the years after the war ended, towns across the North and South began to erect citizen soldier monuments to honor the soldiers who had died in the conflict. The first soldier memorials were placed in cemeteries, often in special sections set aside for the soldier dead. These early monuments were often supplied by local stonecutters chiefly employed in the funerary arts. In the North, the grief of the war’s overwhelming loss was tempered by victory in the conflict. But Southerners mourned their dead alongside the defeat of their cause, and postwar memorial activity was complicated by a tense political climate. This paper explores how the Confederate soldier monument was shaped by individual mourning and national politics, and further reflects on how the era’s specific circumstances influenced visual form.

Erika Doss

Professor, Department of American Studies University of Notre Dame

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In the past few decades, thousands of new memorials have materialized in the American public landscape, including temporary and permanent memorials expressly dedicated to those harmed by social, political, religious, and economic injustices. Memorials to the victims of terrorism, mass killings, racial violence, and to natural disasters such as earthquakes, fires, and hurricanes, increasingly occupy specially designated and designed spaces. These “victim” memorials represent changed cultural and social practices regarding formerly privatized performances of grief and mourning, and changed understandings of death and dying. They further embody heightened expectations of the capacity of public, material, and affective cultures to manage, or control the potentially volatile social and political disorder that can arise from sudden and often inexplicable moments of tragic and traumatic death. Focusing on select examples of temporary and permanent memorials, this paper considers the expanded presence and privileging of grief and mourning in contemporary commemoration.

Miguel de Baca

Kenneth and Harle Montgomery Assistant Professor in the Humanities and Assistant Professor of Art History Lake Forest College

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At the heart of Anne Truitt’s minimalist sculpture of the 1960s is the key theme of memory, which enabled her not only to express her personal experiences, but also to address how perception was changing for a contemporary viewership. The artist gravitated toward the idea that an object in one’s focus can unleash a powerful return to the past, which in due order brings a fresh, even critical, attention to present experience. Truitt’s polychromatic freestanding planks, plinths, and columns required a newly attentive sensory perception that was deeply contingent upon present viewing contexts but not void of references to the material world.

This paper considers A Wall for Apricots, the title of two sculptures—one destroyed, one extant—dedicated to a memory of Truitt’s close friend who died in extreme circumstances. The first sculpture was made while the artist lived in Japan, already a tentative moment in her studio practice, and one overshadowed by the aftermath of this shocking loss. The second, made after the artist’s return to the United States, was one of the first to exhibit characteristics of her mature style. Truitt’s abstract sculptures rarely ever represent what we comprehend from their highly allusive titles. Rather, these works evoke the indirectness inherent in acts of memory and suggest the oblivion of loss.

James Meyer

Associate Curator of Modern Art National Gallery of Art

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If modernism is now our antiquity, as art historian T.J. Clark has argued, then the 1960s is surely our modernism, or what stands for it at present-—the memory of the Enlightenment dream that we can invent a new society, that we can “be new.” The Civil Rights movement is the very emblem of this idealistic Sixties-—a martyrology centered on the figures of Martin Luther King, Jr., Medgar Evars, and others who gave their lives in pursuit of social justice. In his Mementos installation presented at the Renaissance Society in Chicago in 1998, Kerry James Marshall (b. 1955) examined the legacy of Civil Rights memory within the broader context of African American historical imagination. The focal point of this presentation was the series of Souvenir paintings depicting African American angels with portraits of Civil Rights martyrs in domestic interiors with marble tables and flower arrangements evocative of funeral parlors.

In Marshall’s art the past is never past. History returns, often unconsciously, in the minds of the living. For African Americans in particular the Civil Rights era is both a figure of emulation and a mnemonic burden, an object of mourning and nostalgia. The works in Marshall’s exhibition explored the mnemonic hold that that seminal era still exerts. Yet rather than dwell in nostalgia for a period perceived to be more idealistic than the present moment, Marshall’s installation could be described as anti-nostalgic: confronting a spectator with images of black schoolchildren killed in shootings in South Chicago during the Nineties, the show enacted an abrupt shift of attention from the Civil Rights period to the present. In Marshall’s painting Memento IV, a painting completed several years after the Chicago exhibition, the angel of memory closes a curtain festooned with the dates of the decadal Sixties (1960-69). In this, the final work in the Mementos series, the memory of the Sixties recedes. A viewer is no longer compelled to remember a monumental past. There is only the present.

Lisa Saltzman

Professor, History of Art Bryn Mawr College

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With particular attention to the work of American artists An-My Lê and Gregory Crewdson, this paper will explore the ethical distinctions that separate those instances when the medium of photography serves as a kind of witness, even if only belatedly, to historical events, from those instances when history is but one more subject for the spectacular pictorial fictions that characterize so much of photography in the arena of contemporary art.

Despite their attentive focus on situations of modern warfare or the architectural remains of western antiquity, Lê’s and Crewdson’s cameras are ambivalent instruments of truth. While Lê’s Small Wars and 29 Palms and Crewdson’s Sanctuary evince something of a documentary aesthetic, neither is in any conventional sense of the term an exemplar of that genre. For all the veracity of the black-and-white images, what the camera witnesses are neither combat situations nor classical ruins, but instead, their simulation. The camera turns its unflinching eye on proxies and substitutes, capturing and recording fabricated scenes and scripted scenarios. Documents of fictions, these two series nevertheless deliver a set of truths about the possibilities of photography as a site of memory and memorial.