EPISODE 5: TO DEATH AND BACK
FACING THE UNKNOWN
Every culture and religion must in some way focus on the facts and mystery of life and death. Why are we here on earth, and where--if anywhere--do we go when we die. In addition, the problem of memory--how we keep in mind those people and events of the past that are most meaningful to us--ties us to the same questions about life’s lessons and purpose. While cemeteries, monuments and memorials have long been an essential part of people’s experience and representation of death, the invention of photography made memory both tangible and available to everyone in a new way. With photography, a person or scene could be “captured” in a real moment in time, and kept alive through the image. The impact of looking into the eyes of someone in a photograph—even someone that you could never have met or known—can be both emotional and uncanny. In this way, the photograph can lead to a sense of connection over great distances of time and space.
The following activities focus on the concepts of recorded images, memory, death, and memorial. The activities can all be approached independently of each other.
“Death drives us to create some of the most powerful images in the world”:
- Discuss how images help us to mark the passing of time, and to remember people, places and events from the past
- Discuss different ideas and images related to life, death and the idea of the afterlife
- Discuss the meaning of memorials in regard to their designs, purposes and roles in personal and public life
Homework + 1 classroom periods
- Family photos
- Examples of picturing or symbolizing life, death and the idea of the afterlife
- Examples of memorials from newspapers, magazines and the internet
- Using knowledge of structures and functions.
- Understanding the visual arts in relation to history and culture.
- Reflecting upon and assessing the characteristics and merits of their work and the work of others.
Have each student bring in a family photograph, from the present or the past. Discuss who or what is pictured, the circumstances in which the picture was taken and why the photo was collected and displayed. In addition, consider what significance the picture has in the student’s life? Is it from a photo album, a bulletin board, a wallet; is it something that is framed and hung on a wall, or recorded inside a cell phone?
IMAGES OF LIFE AND DEATH
Artists have created various characters and images of life and death, heaven and hell, eternity and the afterlife. (See Image “Skull Portraiture”) Discuss some of the fictional characters meant to serve as symbolic guides and reminders of our inevitable fate. The Joker in the deck of cards represents the uncertainty of good and bad luck. The Grim Reaper waits to announce the time of our death. Father Time leads us on to the promise of a New Year--sometimes represented by a baby in diapers. The skeleton character appearing at Halloween and in Day of the Dead festivals in Mexico, stands in for us, a reminder of where we are heading and how we are all the same “under the skin.” Images of the Devil wait to tempt us to misbehave and eventually end up in the Underworld, in Hell. Various images of God, Heaven and the Pearly Gates offer a promise of redemption, the reward for living a moral life.
Questions to consider: During the celebration of Halloween and Day of the Dead, people dress up as ghost, goblins, skeletons and devils. Does this make the idea of spirits more or less real or disturbing? In movies and cartoons like Casper the Friendly Ghost, or Ghostbusters, characters from the spirit world try to invade and impact on everyday life in both benign and destructive ways. Does telling stories make the possibility of other worlds more or less real or threatening? Have students talk about images or stories about spirits, magic and death that have particularly affected them.
What is a memorial? What is it expected to represent about memory, death, loss and time? Is it a lesson from the past, or a warning in the present? A memorial can serve a national purpose, like the Washington DC Vietnam memorial, or a very personal one as with cemetery tombstones and roadside shrines for the victims of auto accidents. It can be deeply sad, or openly political, endorsing differing views of past history. The design of a memorial may incorporate both abstract visual symbols and literal representations of people and events. It can use its formal design to direct emotions and responses, or leave them largely to the immediate experiences of visitors. It can directly express goals and beliefs about war, heroism, or justice, or it can simply create a space where people can contemplate their own sense of events. Discuss examples of both public and personal memorials students have seen or heard about in terms of their designs and intentions: forms, materials, the use of symbols; whether they portray ideas of public history or personal biography; how visitors are supposed to view or access them; how they use the idea of memory or remembrance to tell particular stories or versions of events; whether they are meant to be permanent or temporary; whether they are created by professional architects or designers or the product of non-professional individuals or groups (i.e., the AIDS Quilt or roadside memorials marking traffic accidents); whether they evoke ideas of grief, celebration or community.
Consider, as well, the implications and design of currently controversial projects like the 9/11 Memorial at the World Trade Center site in New York City. What does the present design propose about the immediate events and the lessons we are to learn from them? How is it meant to serve the many different visitors—families of victims, New Yorkers, politicians, visitors from around the US and the rest if the world? To answer these questions students will need to research and find images of proposed designs, intentions. One useful website is the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, http://www.renewnyc.com
- How Art Made the World: “Skull Portraiture” (image gallery)
- With Eyes Open:
Exploring Different Cultural Attitudes Toward Death
- American Experience:
The Center of the World, New York: A Film
- Art:21: Honoring Heroes & History
- World Myths & Legends in Art: The Minneapolis Institute of Arts
- Lower Manhattan Development Corporation: Design Proposals
About the Authors
Toby Tannenbaum is currently the Director of Education, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. She was previously Associate Director of Education at The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA). Tannenbaum has served as part-time faculty in the School of Critical Studies, California Institute of the Arts, as adjunct faculty in the School of Fine Arts and the School of Education at the University of Southern California, and as an assistant professor of art education at California State University, Los Angeles.
Paul Zelevansky is an artist and writer living in Los Angeles. He has published widely on the use of text and image, web art, popular culture and educational and aesthetic theory and has taught at several schools in the Los Angeles area on visual culture, artists books, design and art history. His website greatblankness.com is a collection of flash animation loops which explore language, philosophy, and storytelling.