Conference Review: Trauma, Grief, Loss
Reviewer Lynda Woodroffe
This day conference invited contributors to describe losses and grief through an art form. These forms included textiles, feathers, photographs, social media, paper, poems and other writing and fruit.
Death affects us all in different and irrational ways. Beverly Ayling-Smith (University for the Creative Arts) made reference to C S Lewis who said his grief ‘felt like fear’ and that Joan Didion, who wrote A Year of Magical Thinking (2005), had found it impossible to give away her husband’s shoes because he would need them when he returned. Ayling-Smith pointed out the necessity that human beings have to build memorials to the dead and reminded us of those that exist in London – the Charing Cross memorial, Prince Albert’s memorial and the Cenotaph. She stated that memorials help to connect mourners and, in response to this, a speaker from the audience remembered how the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997 united mourners in national grieving. I
In other countries, Ayling-Smith noted, there are memorials to deaths everywhere, death-cafes where songs, poems and prayers are said, Buddhist prayer flags to the dead and not forgetting the Taj Mahal, in Agra, India, the most famous funerary mosque ever to be built. Ayling-Smith, herself an artist and PhD student, displayed her work in textiles designed to evoke grief and feelings of loss in the viewer.
Rose Petal Shroud (2013)- with detail
Of those that I saw and heard, my attention was taken by the work of Jane Wildgoose, Brian Dillon (Royal College of Arts) and Myna Trustram (Manchester Metropolitan University) for their depiction of the enormity of their losses from deaths and the corresponding art forms which served to help them accept the losses as well as aiding an expression of their pain to the world. It is these three contributors, plus one other, Charles Lambert, that I will report on.
Of the physical forms, one stood out for me. It was by Jane Wildgoose, artist and writer. She had built a large, dramatic wreath, entitled Lost But Not Forgotten, using a circular mirror surrounded by black turkey feathers. Hanging from it, much like labels on a dress or pendulums, were messages from those who cared about the deceased person. Other items connected to this wreath were human hair, beads and Victorian mourning pins. This created an icon for many occasions – funerals, Christmas, remembrance, while at the same time mirroring the mourner and their grief.
Lost But Not Forgotten (2014)
wreath, with details of the feather and hanging messages
Brian Dillon (writer, critic and tutor) described the deaths of his parents. His mother died when he was fifteen years old and his father when he was twenty. He spoke like a storyteller and punctuated his story with fading, blurred photographs of them. He had watched his mother deteriorate from an autoimmune disease during her last five years, a time when she forbade any photographs to be taken. He mentioned how her hands became useless, inflamed and painful and made references to the art work of Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) whose drawing of hands, subjects which often confound artists, is so famous.
Albrecht Durer (1508)
I was led to think about hands and touch, organs and a sense that occupy a large part of the brain and have the power to bring together lost feelings and catharsis. I thought Dillon was telling us that he must have missed his mother’s touch. Although touch can have a healing effect it is not always welcome. It has to be invited. Contrary to that image is one that he brought into his talk…that in a Catholic funeral in Ireland, the coffin is always left open giving the mourner the opportunity to touch or kiss the deceased should they so wish. Although this created a moving picture in my mind, it is a sad one because there is no reward from this action – the deceased cannot feel it and the mourner receives no reaction from it.
The last half of Dillon’s presentation was the story he had written about the death of his aunt, the details of which are presented in a book entitled In the Dark Room (Penguin, 2005). Dillon read passages from this book.
During his aunt’s lifetime, she had had a lung removed, altering the balance of her weight and she stood off-centre as a result. When she died, Dillon helped to clear her house and found a cache of photographs that his aunt had taken. They were invariably slanting to the left in line with her imbalance. He described his aunt as a wary, isolated and cautious woman who lived alone and who was unable to have relationships with the neighbours on either side of her and was, in fact, frightened that they would burst through the fences around her garden. Photographs showed how she had blocked off gaps in the garden fence with ugly corrugated iron. She had built herself a prison. Others showed collections of crockery, the unused and locked up garden shed and an unflowering rosebush, which, to me, depicted the depths of the sadness in her empty body and empty life.
Myna Trustram also described a very personal experience, the death of her daughter. Her presentation was funereal, ritualistic. She delivered her story like a dirge, slow, contemplative and heavy. She described the ritual she imposed upon herself as a way to integrate the horror of her experience into her everyday life – each day for a year she picked a flower and described it in a diary. Each flower was different. It was, she said, the repetition that enabled her to survive. Freud speaks of the ‘repetition compulsion’, which he noticed occurred in traumatised people and in their dreams. The outcome of mentally repeating a trauma was, Freud believed, an attempt to overcome the trauma, to diffuse it and in another way repeat it to ensure it is not forgotten. Trustram spoke of needing to go over the same territory to enable her to go on in the face of unimaginable pain from loss. In my view the delivery of this desperate story was more impacting than the practice that she had adopted to help her through it. Her visual diary did not impress me as much as the tale she had to tell and the sadness she expressed telling it.
A talk by Charles Lambert (UCA) did not mention a personal loss. He introduced us to the art of writing obituaries. Their origins are not long standing, the first obituaries having been published in 1841. They were usually written by acquaintances and there were rules; they were to be objective not personal, they were to prohibit grief (the Irish as well as the English chose not to put on public displays of grief in the 19th century) and they were to be a brief account of the deceased’s life. Moreover, they were to be written about in a straightforward style and always in a good light.
Today, an obituary is often written by a friend or colleague, the writing style is freer, informal and is an end piece that can be and is shared via social media, broadcast across the world in a matter of hours. Modern obituaries are often a record about how the author knew the deceased, how they had been touched by them in life and how they have been affected by the loss. The end paragraphs of obituaries usually list those left behind – the survivors.
For interest and amusement, Lambert included a copy of the survivors list for Frank Zappa (07 December, 1993).
He leaves a wife, Adelaide Gail Zappa, and four children, Moon Unit, Dweezil, Ahmet and Diva.
While the topic of the conference was delicate, frightening and sensitive, it did not deal with losses and traumas other than from deaths. Death, for instance, looked at coldly, is cut and dried. It is not as messy as, say, a sense of loss from a divorce or theft or illhealth. Although I found the talks well researched and delivered, I cannot say I felt the same for the physical art forms displayed in the gallery. Apart from the wreath, there was little, for me, that represented the utter emptiness and helplessness that a death can bring.
Lynda Woodroffe works privately as an Integrative Psychotherapist in NW London. www.lyndawoodroffe.co.uk
Didion, J (2005) The Year of Magical Thinking London: 4th Estate
Dillon, B (2005) In the Dark Room London: Penguin
Durer, A (1508) URL: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albrecht_D%C3%BCrer (1508), accessed on 18 May 2015
Information about Freud’s repetition compulsion
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Repetition_compulsion accessed 18 May 2015
Information about Frank Zappa’s obituary
http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/obituary-frank-zappa-1465925.html accessed 18 May 2015.