Spontaneous Shrines

"We who build shrines and construct public altars or parade with photographs of the deceased will not allow you to write off victims as regrettable statistics…They are, I believe, the voice of the people." –Jack Santino

Archive for the month “December, 2011”

Roadside to film to canvas – artwork and shrines of the Southwest

I’m back in my hometown of Riverside, California for the holidays and I’ve seen some unique roadside memorials along the highways.  There is a particularly vibrant shrine culture in Southern California and throughout the Southwest due in part to strong Catholic influences.  While I work on tracking down information about a few of these local memorials, I’ll share a site that I came across a while ago.

The people at Barhead Goose Studios drove from Cerrillos to Taos, New Mexico and recorded many of the roadside shrines along the way.  They use the Spanish term descansos meaning ‘resting places’ to describe the memorials.  Their photography is beautiful and captures some of the most exquisitely decorated shrines I’ve ever seen.  But the thing that caught my attention about their Descansos project was the series of gouache sketches they did of the shrines.  It is rare to find such evocative artwork of descansos.  Below is their video of the project which includes live footage of the shrines, their photos, and their drawings  which wonderfully illustrates the careful progression from roadside to film to canvas.


Roadside shrines of North America: The tour without a guide

I came across a website today.  It’s called Memorial Hiway: A tour of North America’s Road Side Memorials.  The main page indicated that the site was created in 2007 with the goal of becoming a comprehensive list of roadside shrines throughout Mexico, the USA, and Canada.  I clicked on several states to see what shrines were listed.  There weren’t any.  There is only one memorial actually covered on the site–a shrine for six young people killed in a 2003 accident on Chilliwack River Road located somewhere in British Columbia.

This is not the first “comprehensive list of shrines” site that I’ve seen.  There are many out there and most have encountered a similar problem, I’m guessing.  Not only do shrines go up and come down in the blink of an eye, but it is very hard to track down the people that build them.  I know that I’ve passed hundreds of shrines in my lifetime, but I can only recall the precise location of a few.  I know even fewer stories about them.  For me, this underscores the personal nature of these public objects.  Although they are meant to be seen by many, they are only fully understood by a few.  While this does seem to homogenize them–by making them appear as easily recognizable occurrences of a common phenomenon [oh, it’s just another roadside shrine, like all the others], it also serves to set each shrine apart from one another [this may look like the shrine you built/passed on the road earlier, but it’s story is unique and unknown to you].

For this reason, I understand why it is very difficult to build a comprehensive list of shrines.  The same people that build one shrine have no connection to the people who build a different shrine.  There is no network of shrine-builders from whom to get information and locations.  Each shrine and each story must be sought out individually, or must be brought forth individually by someone who knows it.  Because there are no definitive parameters for memorialization [more about states’ attempts to regulate shrines to come in a future post], they may stay where they are for years or be taken down in a matter of days.  Unlike a permanent memorial, they come and go sporadically, each telling a different story with or without words.

Although it would make it easy for someone like me who is interested in finding these shrines and their families, I am glad there is no comprehensive list to follow.  Like the people they stand for, the shrines and their builders are unique individuals who, once found and invited, may or may not choose [or be able] to tell their stories.

Who tampered with a roadside memorial?

On 4th of July this year, a young woman was killed in a hit-and-run accident in Buffalo, New York.  Her family constructed a shrine for her at the site.  I find it interesting that the local news (WIVB-TV) chose to focus this spot on the impropriety of tampering with a memorial.  While other news coverage I’ve found that deals with shrines tends to use the shrine as the hook to catch readers’/viewers’ attention and then changing the focus to the cause of death, this clip actually features the shrine as the main subject.  Although the controversy about shrines and their placement is mentioned in the clip, the clip does seem to favor the idea that it is not appropriate to deface/remove/or tamper with a shrine.  I’m curious about this relatively recent interest in memorialization and shrines and their sacred place in public space–why now, I wonder?

Points of Departure: Roadside Memorial Polaroids

I just came across this youtube video featuring polaroid photographs of roadside memorials.  It is a promo for a book that will be coming out in January 2012.  While I am curious about the use of roadside memorials for a folk art book, I found the video to be surprisingly moving.  The song and the photographs take the viewer through a series of shrines, starting slow [it’s easy to see the wonderful uniqueness of each memorial], gradually speeding up [which tragically emphasizes the number of roadside deaths] and then abruptly stopping on one single shrine while the song repeats “look at me.”  I’m always fascinated by how roadside memorials are dealt with in popular culture, and I must say–this clip is one of the most respectfully constructed videos on shrines I have ever come across.  I look forward to seeing what this book has to offer.

The Man Who Mapped Descansos

The Man Who Mapped Descansos
by Alan Birkelbach, from New and Selected Works

The fold in his felt hat
was as pure as a taco’s.
He always tried to have
shined shoes.

He kept an old loose-leaf notebook,
where he had one page for each marker
telling about the day he found it
and what debris had been settled on it.

He felt that moving slow and deliberate,
driving always under the posted speed,
walking with straight shoulders to each
was what was wanted.

He knew that at the moment of tragic death
sometimes the soul stays around to be visited
and that when enough honor has been paid
then they will finally let go.

Ah, the descansos, the roadside markers for the dead:
Luis May He Rest in Peace
Always Missed
She is with the Angels.

He kept careful track;
one especially venomous corner had three crosses.
They were all unmarked but they were stone
and he wondered at first if they were an advertisement

for what, though, he wasn’t sure.
He liked the wooden markers better because
they weathered well,
with fibrous wrinkles.

Each one had a smell he said:
most were flowery and sweet
but a few were kind of salty,
and some had a deeper scent

that made the back of his tongue curl up,
all sour and thick.
Here on the border road
he had filled a notebook this year alone.

His ’65 Chevy with the bald tires
was always washed.
He felt like he needed to look good.
He imagined that, when he drove

with the windows down
he could hear low voices talking to him
because they all knew him
and they stroked his arms with the wind.

The one he liked best
was one he found that had
the rattlesnake skin wrapped around it.
He felt like that family understood.

The vanished ghost bikes of Harlem

I’m looking for ghost bikes near Harlem.  I take the subway to 145th Street and St. Nicholas, in an area known as Hamilton Heights.  When I leave the station, I walk east on 145th, past Edgecombe and Bradhurst.  The sidewalk is crowded with people.  It smells like incense and Christmas trees from the pirated CD and holiday vendors lined up along the curb.  At the corner of W. 145th and Frederick Douglass, I start my search for the ghost bike of Jamel Lewis, who was hit and killed by a sanitation truck on November 30, 2006, at age 21.  According to the ghost bikes website, his death was not reported in the news despite the fact that there were journalists called to the scene.  A local photographer told the ghost bikes organization about Jamel Lewis, not wanting his death to be forgotten.  I walk south on F.D. to 144th, cross to the west side of 145 near the cigarette shop with the old men outside, go north on F.D. to 146th, cross and head back down the intersection.  On the southwest corner, there is a halal food cart with a man scraping meat off the hot cooking shelf.  I ask him if he’s ever seen a spray-painted white bicycle chained up in the neighborhood–a memorial for a young man killed in an accident a few years ago.  He thinks about it for a few moments and says he’s sorry but he can’t help.  I do one final sweep of the area and find nothing.

I decide to move on to the second bike on my list, a Manhattanville memorial located on W. 133rd and Amsterdam, for 21 year old Juan Espinoza-Navarette, who died when his bike was pushed into traffic by a stranger who had been chasing him.  I walk west on 145th and turn south on Amsterdam.  The turn takes me from a bustling shopping area to more sparsely populated avenue, wide and empty.  There are very few shops lining the sidewalk, and no street vendors.  Elderly men sit smoking and chatting in groups on the stoops of the immense apartments on either side of the road.  To my right is one of the city’s housing projects, a collection of towering red brick buildings with rows of tiny windows.  The projects fill an entire city block and are completely encircled by a short, black wrought iron fence.  I walk past a park, with men playing chess in the middle of a curious crowd, and a large soccer field filled with CUNY students playing football.  After the parks the street becomes very still; the few people standing on the corners watch me as I pass.  P.S. 161 is on the corner of 133rd and Amsterdam, along with a few parked cars and short, scrawny trees supported by stakes shoved in the dry dirt.  A teenage boy with baggy pants and a sideways baseball cap has been staring at me for a while.  He yells something unpleasant in my direction as he watches me circle around the block in search of the bike.  Once again, there is nothing to be found.

A few days go, I read a comment left on the blog of a photographer friend of mine, A. Jesse Jiryu Davis, who had posted a bit about shrines.  The commenter says, “In fact, our culture seems rife with memorials, and I often wonder if it’s not healthier to let our disasters recede into the mists of time rather than erect monuments to them.”  I went in search of ghost bikes that had vanished like ghosts.  I began to think about the temporality of these spontaneous shrines.

The words used to describe these shrines allude to their impermanence–they are “spontaneous” and “makeshift.”  They seem to stand as the grassroots memorials within a much larger culture of memorialization that includes such monumental structures as the markers of Gettysburg and the new 9/11 Memorial.  These massive, permanent, and often stone monuments honor those who died as heroes of/for their country.  They are memorialized as such, which sets their deaths, the reasons for their deaths, and the way in which their deaths are remembered/placed in the national psyche, likewise in stone.  These heroes died for a reason, a country, and a cause.  They did not die in vain–they died necessary deaths–either on the battlefield fighting for freedom, or because they stood in the way of another who would take that freedom, so to speak.

Spontaneous shrines, as memorials erected by a community for a loved one it has lost, stand in contrast to the memorials of the state.  They commemorate the unnecessary deaths–the deaths of people who should not have died.  By focusing on the death of an individual, rather than a death [or several deaths] and its place within a larger national/political narrative, spontaneous shrines serve to de-heroicize the story of death, not out of disrespect, but to challenge the status quo in a way that rigid stone monoliths cannot.  When a death is memorialized as not heroic, not for a cause, not for a state, and not for any reason other than drunk driver/unsafe road conditions/high gang activity, etc, it allows room for individuality, dialogue, and change.  When a death is trapped and sealed by stone into an unbending narrative of heroism and purpose, the individuality of the person is overshadowed, there is no room for a different story to be told, and it is fixed firmly in a time and place.  When deaths are remembered as unnecessary, they can be seen as preventable, and steps can be taken to stop the same kind of thing from happening again.

Because spontaneous shrines tend not to be so fixed, they may disappear over time, like the bikes I tried to find.  By continuously disappearing and popping up across the landscape in locations they should not be and are not expected, they de-stabilize the way things normally are–thereby challenging those who see them to stop and think.  Especially in cases of organized makeshift memorialization, such as the ghost bike movement, viewers are familiarized with an image (the white bicycle) that becomes easily recognizable, but they are surprised by the unpredictability of the bikes’ locations.  Unlike with stone monuments in fixed positions, people do not know when or where they will pass a ghost bike–unless they frequently pass a single bike, in which case they do not know when they will stop seeing it there.  The ghost bikes, while still conveying a sense of connectedness among bicycle fatalities (as a type of preventable death), the important thing is that they stand as markers for unique people and respect the need to recognize each death individually.

Memorials, murders, and the last post of Nic B.

While I was searching google for “makeshift memorials” today, which I frequently do to keep abreast of any new stories that might come up, I came across the website entitled Oakland Makeshift Memorials 2007.  Although the blogger decided to stop posting at the end of that year, I found the project to be insightful and thought-provoking.

I am fascinated by the intersection of spontaneous shrines and social justice, and believe memorials can be a useful tool for protest and community organization.  However, I had not really considered the documentation of shrines to be equally as powerful.  Whereas the shrines themselves call attention to individual deaths, the collection and documentation of shrines shines a light on the number and incessancy of those deaths.  When the documentation is done in a manner that respects the individuality of the shrines [such as this site, which lists the names of the deceased, along with some known personal details], it provides an interesting coming together of the unique personal nature of a shrine with the power and relentlessness of sheer quantity.

What Nic B. has accomplished in the Oakland Memorials blog is in providing a space for a community to come together and speak back to the shrines and with the shrines.  The project provides a web that links the shrines to one another without overshadowing their distinctiveness from one another.

However, I do have a few things I am still wondering about.  Nic B. has a clear goal in mind when documenting the shrines–to call attention to the reasons behind the deaths with the hopes of changing the environment that allows them to occur.  Does this serve to overtake the voices of the individual shrines–by using them as a means to an end, that may not be clearly stated by the shrines themselves?  Does being part of the public landscape invite and perhaps even condone this use?  I wonder.

With that, I’ll leave you to the final post of Nic B–

“Dear all-
I’m both saddened and relieved to say that I will not be continuing this project in 2008.
It has taken its toll on me in a number of ways, the worse being that I’ve caught myself feeling more sorry for the fact I had to go visit yet another homicide site than for the fact that another human life, dear to many, was lost.
As some of my readers have commented, this is one of the saddest consequences of these homicides: they become acceptable, routine, just an unfortunate ongoing phenomenon.
I so appreciate all those who have posted comments, reminding us that these victims were part of others’ lives. All human life is inherently sacred and valuable, and any loss, especially by violence, is unbearably tragic.
Here’s wishing 2008 sees us being more committed to addressing the issues that create the environment where such violence occurs.
Nic B”

Tech <3 for Steve Jobs

I was given a tip about some great photographs of the spontaneous shrines for Steve Jobs located at Apple Stores across the country.  They are from the blog of photographer Katja Heinemann and are well worth a look!  Like the one featured here, her photos beautifully capture the tech<3.

Return, Remember: Ephemeral Memorials in the Legacy of September 11th

Walking around DUMBO, Brooklyn during the week of September 11th this year, I saw a number of what looked like spontaneous shrines and public art tables set up between the Brooklyn Bridge and the Manhattan Bridge.  I talked to the people running the booths and found out that the Brooklyn Arts Council [BAC] had come up with the idea to have an exhibition of ephemeral memorials co-created by members of the Council and the public, who were invited to participate in an activity at each of the booths.  I walked from one activity to the next and did a wide variety of things including painting a small canvas the color of the sky that morning, creating a bundle of memory herbs, placing a marble on a clay-covered table to represent 1 day since September 11th [there were enough marbles for every day in 10 years], and writing a note for a community spontaneous shrine.

During the week prior to the 10 year anniversary, BAC invited anyone to make an “ephemeral memorial” [often a spontaneous shrine] in memory of September 11th.  One could make it at home, at a public place, at the office, or anywhere else they chose.  Photographs of these homemade ephemeral memorials are now on the BAC website.  You can see the online exhibition here.

I find it very interesting that the Arts Council chose shrines and memorials as the medium for their anniversary commemoration.  Personal yet public, for the living and the dead…

Shrines and Ritual

A ritual is a repeatedly performed action with particular attributes. Rituals are efficacious; they help one achieve desired results. They are aesthetically pleasing so as to respectfully and non-chaotically support the performance. Rituals are orderly. Even if there is no exact order in which to perform certain actions, they are orderly in the sense that they are not disorganized. They are done deliberately and carefully, not haphazardly. They are cooperative—with participants working alongside one another to perform the ritual as smoothly as possible. When a ritual is performed by a single person, it is done in a cooperative manner with respect to any other person who may have come before them, will follow them, or with respect to that for which the ritual is being performed. Finally, rituals are magical. They compel people to act in a way they would not usually act, which sets the ritual apart from everyday behavior, (Fingarette, Confucius: The Secular as Sacred).

Space and place, and purity and pollution are factors to be considered with regard to the importance of correct performance of ritual. There are two main kinds of rituals performed around spontaneous shrines, both of which recognize and defer to the sacrality of the site. The first is the ritual of creating the shrine and the subsequent visitation and maintenance by acquaintances of the deceased. This is the ritual of familiarity, so to speak, as the people performing the ritual have a personal connection to the ones they are mourning.

Shrines are most commonly put together as soon as possible following the death. As respect for space and place are key to correct performance, the shrine is located as close as possible to the actual place of death, even if the location is dangerous to access. There is usually a large grounding piece, often a cross, constructed from material gathered at the site (such as wood in a natural setting or a piece of the vehicle in the case of an road accident) or at home from metal, plastic, or wood. The name of the deceased and the birth and death dates or a short message are frequently written on this piece.

Carefully chosen offerings are then attractively arranged around the central piece. The offerings are very different from those found at other places of mourning, such as cemeteries. “[S]pontaneous shrines, because they are vernacular and thus outside the social conventions that govern formal religious observances such as funerals, contain infinitely more than flowers, candles, rosaries, and crosses,” (Grider, in Death and Religion in a Changing World). It is common to find such “idiosyncratic offerings” as bottles of beer and cartons of cigarettes at shrines. For a sacred site to be conducive to efficacious ritual, it must remain pure and unpolluted. While cans of Budweiser and cheap cigarettes could be considered highly polluting and rather inappropriate or tacky in traditional settings, such as funerals or in cemeteries, the communicative nature of spontaneous shrines allows for much more personalized offerings. “The artifact assemblages are sacred by virtue of the actions and intentions of the people who create and tend to them,” (Grider). As the shrines are most often constructed within the temporal boundaries of death and burial, I would argue they are able to serve as relatively open conduits between the living and the dead.

Through the performance of ritual and the providing of comfort via favorite food/beer/cigarettes, the bereaved are able to care for the dead, along with themselves—through feeling useful, during this liminal period. “The burial ritual is soothing in that it commits the dead to the world of the dead and thereby confirms the deceased’s status, while at the same time it confirms the bereaved’s status as belonging to this life,” (Westgaard, in Spontaneous Shrines and the Public Memorialization of Death). Before this definitive closure takes place, both the living and the dead must go through what Gerard van Gennep terms a “rite of passage.”. One stage of this passage is the time of being “betwixt and between”; that is when the conduit is open. As there is only a short window during which direct caring might take place, I therefore believe it would be more polluting to offer generic items rather than highly personalized ones. Finally, the very act of claiming the site polluted by death and creating a pure shrine to the deceased, works to cleanse the conduit between living and dead leaving it open for communication and care.

The second type of ritual is the viewing and visiting of the site by strangers—by people with no connection whatsoever to the deceased. This may take place soon after the death occurs, but often continues to happen for some time—sometimes years—after. This ritual is very different from the aforementioned ritual of familiarity, which is performed by the bereaved to achieve some type of result. The relationship between a passerby and a shrine at first seems tenuous, but I believe it is in truth, quite powerful. Not only does the visitor perform a type of ritual in the encounter with the shrine, but also the shrine itself becomes a self-sustaining ritual place. For example, roadside shrines in particular are often located on dangerous stretches of highway where accidents are likely to occur. The simple act of a driver seeing a shrine allows the shrine to act as a message, of sorts. It puts the personal face on the dangerous road. It says, be careful, someone died right here, on this road, where you are driving. It is eye-catching (which can also be dangerous), and calls attention to danger in the way a “Caution!” sign cannot.

For the driver, the shrine acts as a kind of memento mori—a reminder that death could be—and has been—just around the next bend.

The other type of stranger-ritual is performed by passersby who stop or change course specifically to experience the shrine up close. Despite the fact that shrines are often located in sparsely populated areas and they often have at least one offering of minimal value (be it a teddy bear or an entire carton of cigarettes), they are rarely vandalized. Rather, the visitor is cooperative, does not interfere with the aesthetic, and does not behave in any way contrary to the orderliness expected of them. To vandalize a shrine would be to pollute a sacred space with impure intentions and actions. However, the strangers who come into contact with the shrines have no personal connection to the deceased or to the living who constructed it. What makes a spontaneous shrine something not to be tampered with? Why is it seemingly understood that there is just something wrong about disturbing a shrine? What gives the shrine its magical ability to make people act in a way they ordinarily would not?

I look to Pierre Bordieu’s work on the habitus as a possible explanation. He suggests in Outline of a Theory of Practice that the habitus, or environment, in which people exist on a daily basis, is not necessarily created by those who live in it. Previously, it had been thought that humans were the only catalysts within their environments—that no other entities were capable of initially influencing the human existence apart from humans. Bordieu suggests that the materials and objects that comprise that environment actually influence people who in turn project their preconceptions and understandings onto similar objects and materials they later see, (1977, p. 72- 95). Spontaneous shrines are part of a larger material culture of grief. They resemble other commemorative memorials and markers of so-called hallowed ground.

With regard to the spontaneous shrines found in the United States–as part of the American material-memorial landscape, I believe they might function as personal practices and expressions of American civil religion. Americans are taught to treat the symbols and monuments of civil religion (the Vietnam War Memorial, Civil War battlefields, the USS Arizona, Shanksville, PA) as sacred spaces—deserving of the utmost respect (Doss, Memorial Mania). Thus, the similar, if smaller, space of a spontaneous shrine signals the same behavior as a larger memorial. The material landscape directly shapes a person’s response to public space.  I am also led to wonder if this is why there is frequently a very lax legal stance taken on spontaneous shrines. Though they are illegal in many states, they are rarely removed unless they pose a severe hazard.

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