Dancing with the Dead
An exhibition, postponed due to Covid-19, explores the depth of darkness, but also its journey to illumination, aiming to create dialogue by sharing it online.
Has there ever been as pertinent a time as this to consider curator Grace Partridge’s concept of Dancing with the Dead? As the world reawakens from Covid-19 lockdowns and the horrors that define it, are we dancing with the dead?
Partridge engages collective thinking on global perspectives, harnessing the power of artists as activists, truth-tellers and revolutionaries under her curatorial platform, Antidote Projects. “We are inspired by the transformative power of contemporary art to promote awareness and discourse on important social issues,” the curator shares. “We are dedicated to combating apathy, one artwork at a time.”
Dancing with the Dead pulls these concepts together, exploring the works of artists who dig deep into the human psyche — questioning our responses and balancing right and wrong in a global society. None of this has been as important as today, while entire countries are forced into lockdown, the divide between right and wrong becoming highly visible.
Long-drawn to artists and art that uncover deeper elements of humanness, two years ago Partridge’s dear family friend, Fanny Jean-Noël, died suddenly of aggressive breast cancer. “She was the most passionate and exuberant person I’d ever met and was a filmmaker,” she recalls. Before her death, Jean-Noël had recently completed a documentary called Move! Dance your life. Here, Partridge was introduced to Famadihana — the infamous Madagascan ‘dancing with the dead’ ritual which sees families and loved ones exhuming bodies from tombs, carefully re-wrapping, then lovingly dancing with their corpses.
The exhibition became a way for the curator to explore themes of memory and corporeality within the context of deaths, extending to ideas beyond physical death and into spiritual or cultural death. From her own experiences she reveals a Western perspective of coping with loss and darkness; how we struggle to deal with these themes. But instead of finishing here, the curatorial rationale invites multi-cultural thinking and how death can coincide with joy, light, rebirth, and even dancing. The artists ask us to consider darkness in a journey of acceptance.
Dancing with the Dead brings together artists from across the world, such as Australian-Indigenous artist Fiona Foley, who examines the ingrained racism in Australia, while LA-based Jemima Wyman uses collage and camouflage to reveal social injustices such as high incarceration rates of African Americans and Indigenous youth in Australia.
Sydney-based artist Stanislava Pinchuk uses her artwork, The Red Carpet (2020), to reflect the topography of Kiev’s Maidan square protests, which marked the beginning of Ukraine’s revolution and ongoing disputes. Australian-based artists, Khadim Ali and Pierre Mukeba, both use storytelling to reveal perspectives of darkness and their migrant experiences, while Sarker Protick continues the balance of time and temporality with his video work, (রশ্মি ), (Raśmi) / (Ray) (2020).
Cape Town-based photographer Pieter Hugo joins the narration of Famadihana with his series, 1994 (2014–16). The artworks focus on children at the same time period in two different countries in Africa — South Africa and Rwanda. For South African’s ‘1994’ marked the end of apartheid, yet in Rwanda, it was the year of genocide by members of the Hutu majority who killed nearly a million Tutsi in a span of a hundred days.
For Partridge, Hugo’s representation of transnational solidarity is bringing light to stories of children born on either side of extreme darkness. His works invite thinking of ‘freedom’ and what it means to survive, through the truth-telling medium of photography. “Art has the ability to slow down our thinking process, to give us a time for reflection,” Hugo shares.
Glasgow artist Soojin Chang explores surrogacy, the movement of bodies, and deconstructions of species in her video artworks. Her works cross over between video and performance, using mediums that seemingly deny manipulation, yet have their own agency in identity politics.
In The Death Ritual (Shown in the Mirror) (2019), Chang plays with the ideas of death and animal sacrifice and how this takes shape in Cambodia. “I create or depict deconstructions of rituals — particularly consumption rituals — for audiences to face the ‘darkness’ of sociological and ecological problems,” Chang shares. “This process begins first and foremost by accepting our individual ‘darkness’ and recasting the emotions of shame, guilt and fear in hybrid forms that join with light, ultimately creating generative, celebratory spaces full of multiplicity.”
Chang’s work delves into a place of suffering, and ancestral suffering yet strives for celebratory transformations. “‘Darkness’ as a word denotes fear and assumes despair, when in fact it’s merely shades of difference and depth — elements that are required in a life of multiplicity, dimension and joy,” the artist considers. In my view, people more often repress, rather than resist, ‘darkness’. It is omnipresent, and by pushing it away or denying it in excess, a much darker undercurrent forms — and many are left with an inability to recognize an integral part of themselves.”
For Dancing with the Dead, Australian-Chinese artist Lindy Lee invites thinking on death and impermanence that has always haunted her in Stream-and-Cloud Life (2019) — using melted bronze to construct her sculptures: delicate fragmented pieces of metal that echo the fragility of life and death. “Many of the materials I use are volatile and engage with the elemental as a way of incorporating time,” Lee says.
Lee explores her Buddhist faith through the interconnectivity of time, and our shared perspective of it. She muses on darkness in her artwork literally through the color black, but also in the natural progression of death. “Encountering the dark is the path of being human. We can embrace it and grow wisdom or create alternative narcissistic avatars (personas) to deflect away from that emotional pain,” Lee maintains. “But if we don’t enter the darkness, we won’t find illumination. It’s always worth the journey.”
“Everything changes and that is a fundamental law of the universe,” she reflects. “For me, the important thing is that each individual life is, in reality, an enactment or embodiment of time — our bodies are constantly changing.”
In the advent of Covid-19 and the postponement of the exhibition, Partridge wants Dancing with the Dead — and the philosophies within it — to continue to inspire beyond a physical exhibition. As she says: “The world is changing, and at warp speed. How are we going to navigate all this without resorting to the worst of human qualities — denial, cruelty, derision, violence?”
This article is joined with the exhibition images, and, without a physical exhibition, they are a point of consideration — reaching to a global audience while we are all placed in a time of togetherness in lockdown. “I would like it to be out in the world for people to begin a dialogue,” Partridge shares. “If it raises more questions than answers, I welcome that. I believe what we need more than anything right now are spaces for activation, discussion and support for one another’s struggles, and for many, our grief during a time of unprecedented isolation and distress.” This pandemic brings us together as a global community, and an online art offering connects us in deeper thinking beyond just living.
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