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 tag “ephemeral memorials”

Washed away by the rain – street chalking and ephemeral memorials, Part 1

A colleague of mine from Columbia University’s Narrative Medicine program, Gillian Graham, sent me the following photos earlier this year:

 

–and a close-up of the chalking–

 

 

She also sent this explanation:

“So this popped up on the corner of 173rd/Haven Ave in NYC last week. I saw it in progress; I saw a woman find out for the first time that this woman had died through this shrine (she grew up with her), and then the next day it was washed out by a rainstorm.”

This New York City shrine is the perfect example of an ephemeral memorial.  I sometimes use the terms makeshift memorial/ephemeral memorial/spontaneous shrine/roadside memorial interchangeably, but in this case, I believe ephemeral memorial is the most appropriate due to the absolute ephemerality of the shrine.  Chalk, by nature, does not last on pavement for very long.  I grew up in the hot and dry suburbs, so as a child, a chalked hopscotch pattern could last for quite a long time (maybe two weeks).  In a place like New York City where there is extreme foot traffic and frequent heavy thunderstorms, anything that is chalked will probably not last more than about one or two days– if even that long.

A shrine like this makes me think of burning offerings for the dead.  You burn them and send them off away from the living to the dead.  A shrine that is made with the understanding that it will soon be gone is delicate yet powerful.  It has intense meaning for the fleeting moments that it exists and then it is washed away.  Like the person to whom it is dedicated, the shrine becomes a memory.

Tomorrow I’ll post about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire memorial project CHALK…stay tuned…

Spanish Spontaneous Shrine

I’d like to share some photos sent to me by a journalist and good friend of mine, Lucas Laursen.  He’s currently based in Spain and came across this spontaneous shrine earlier this year on the side of the road near Guadalupe, Extremadura.  I think this is a particularly lovely example of a roadside memorial.

It is simple yet elegant.  While it stands out against the landscape as something beautiful and human-made, it is also visually jarring.

The red flowers are a warning–a gash in the natural surroundings that passersby can’t help but notice.

Thanks for sharing these photos, Lucas!

If any of you have photos you’d like me to put on the blog, feel free to email them to me.

Remembering after the storm: 3 strands of Mardi Gras beads in the Lower Ninth Ward

These are from a website of photographs of the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, Louisiana.  They were all taken in January 2006, five months after Hurricane Katrina:

————————————————————————————————————

And then I saw this one:

And I knew it was different.

The caption for this photograph is simple.  It reads:

“Mardi Gras beads on an iron fence at Deslonde(?) Street in Lower Ninth Ward in fog at morning.  New Orleans, Louisiana, January 30, 2006.”

What is so moving about this photograph?  The first image shows the absolute destruction.  The second is terribly sad–a heap of children’s bikes and slumped beads and poppets.  The third is mind-numbing in its bluntness–the matter-of-fact message scrawled in blue spray paint: “possible body.”

But there is something different about the fourth picture.  It shows the devastation and the beads again, but this time they do not fit together as they should.  The background is chaotic and mangled.  Yet, the beads are perfectly straight, hanging calmly from a single point on the fence.  They are not tangled, nor are they haphazardly thrown on the wrought iron rod.  They are neatly wrapped around and balanced–green, gold, silver.

When I look at these beads, I do not see an accident or a consequence of the storm.  I see a deliberate act.  I see the work of a person bringing order to chaos–of a person re-familiarizing a desolate and unrecognizable landscape.  Perhaps the beads were found on the ground, picked up, and hung on the fence.  Perhaps they were around the person’s neck and were left there on Mardi Gras.  It doesn’t matter.  What does matter is the result of this action.  It is a re-claiming of space.  These beads, however small and simple, are a spontaneous shrine.

I initially thought that a makeshift memorial for an event as catastrophic as Hurricane Katrina would be impossible.  How does one spontaneously memorialize mass death, extreme suffering, unfathomable trauma, the absolute destruction of an entire city?  A massive shrine might be appropriate–a mountain of flowers and candles and photographs of all the dead, perhaps.  But when the city is gone, where does one put the shrine?  In the middle of the destruction?  In the midst of chaos, a chaotic heap of objects does not stand out–it only adds confusion to the already cluttered landscape.

The Lower Ninth ward was de-humanized.  It is inhospitable.  It is obvious from the other photographs that people cannot live in that.  In this once populated landscape, now devoid of human life, the greatest statement can be made by the simplest act.  An act of compassion toward the space through an attempt to bring familiarity back to the space is enough to mark that space from all that surrounds it.  The strands of beads stand against the mark of “possible body.”  They say clearly “people were here.”  They are meant to be seen and meant to be noticed by others who venture into this place.  Especially in a place where the tradition of Mardi Gras is strong, the beads are instant symbols of the way things should be–of the way things were.  The photographer noticed the beads–or perhaps even placed them, and then took a picture of them.  The message is passed along.

Three strands of Mardi Gras beads remind the lookers that people lived there once and that people are there again.  They invite us to look, to remember, and to begin to take back this devastated space.

Music as Memorial in Jim Fox’s “Descansos, Past”

I recently came across a Music From Other Minds interview with composer Jim Fox about his album entitled Descansos, Past.  The entire interview, which was conducted via email, can be read here.

Fox begins his written interview:  “As mentioned in the CD’s single sentence of liner note, the piece was written “in memorium” for a friend, John Kuhlman, who took his own life in 1996.”  I find it interesting that Fox chose to use only a single “in memorium” sentence for the liner notes.  Liner notes are often extensive pieces that go into detail about the artist(s), composition(s), lyrics (if there are any), “thank you”s, etc…  In terms of CDs, it is rare to come across a recording with such minimal explanation.  However, if one is thinking of this piece as a memorial, it is not so unexpected.  Shrines, also called descansos, are often dedicated with only a few words– the deceased’s name, birthday, date of death, and maybe a short personal message.

Fox goes on to explain his use of the term descansos in the title:

“”Descansos” are little roadside memorials that one commonly finds throughout the Southwest, marking the spot where someone died. They may be simple (just a cross or wreath) or ornate (a small shrine), and are a recognized form of Mexican-influenced folk art. The word itself means “rest,” and I have encountered two prevailing stories as to its roadside-memorial use. The first suggests that the idea arrived from Europe with the Conquistadors, who marked the death of one of their own with a small marker, usually a cross, referred to as a “descansos,” at the spot along the road where a person died–that individual’s final “resting place.” This story rings true to me. The second story seems a less-reasonable explanation: The markers originally marked the spots where pallbearers carrying a coffin to the graveyard would stop to “rest” during their journey. Tied to this story is another that relates the markers and pallbearers’ journey to the Catholic Church’s “Stations of the Cross” concept. In short, I believe the simple marker where a traveler (or anyone on a road or roadside) fell/died, dating from the time of the earliest European conquest of the Americas, is the most reasonable “descansos” history, and in agreement with present usage.

Perhaps I should point out here that in my use of “descansos” I dissociate the word from all particular religious meaning. I’m not a religious person in any sense whatsoever, but I find fascinating the ways that man has throughout history thought about and commemorated death, his own and those of his friends and enemies. And I feel a certain yet amorphous “resonance,” which I suspect most of us do, when strolling old cemeteries and battlefields and other places where death and life coincide directly. Perhaps this is tied to the simple sense that we’re all headed into inevitable oblivion, and for the moment we pause with that thought, we share something with all who walk the earth and all who have walked the earth in the past.”

One of the often controversial aspects of roadside shrines is the obvious use of religious objects and symbolism.  In the debate over shrines and public vs. private space, allowing a religious symbol to stand on public land is a definite point of controversy.  Fox seems to suggest that although descansos have a religious history, they are recognized–along the roadside–as more than just religious symbols.  They are recognized as places of death.  They are places where people may “share something with all who walk the earth and all who have walked the earth in the past.”  It is this coming together of the living and the dead–this point of crossing boundaries–this liminal space, that make spontaneous shrines such complex entities.  Therefore, I find it interesting, yet not surprising, that someone who does not consider himself a religious person should choose to use a musical descanso to commemorate a lost friend.

Although Fox’s piece of music is not typical, I believe it nonetheless should be considered a shrine, of sorts.  It is for a particular person, was constructed specifically for that person (“in memorium”), and is meant to not only commemorate but to call attention to this death.  It calls for a pause– to remember and to think and in this case, also to listen.

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…

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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

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