“When someone dies, that person is dead. The word ‘dead’ is not a hard word, like the word ‘hippopotamus’. But for some of us, words like ‘die’ and ‘dead’ are hard to say because they mean something has happened to someone you liked a lot…”
Finn Schult and I are standing in the gallery at Sulfur Studios, both (coincidentally) dressed all in black. We’ve just watched the first part of her video installation, a piece comprised of found footage narrated by a 1976 8-track tape of Dr. Earl Grollman explaining death to children. POV footage of car crashes blends into autopsy videos blends into bodies under sheets blends into glitched-out data-bent explosions of color.
When it’s over we stand silently until one of us nervously laughs. Even under the hot white gallery lights I can’t stop looking for a shadow to hide in – I never had an Earl Grollman to soothe my discomfort about death; I never know what to say.
Viewers should prepare themselves for Schult’s In Loving Memory. It’s not easily digested – it’s emotional, sometimes uncomfortable and always unflinching in its dialogue about death, mourning and the fear of dying.
A grid of glitched GIFs projected on the wall were selected from the 1,000+ pages of obituaries Schult pored over. The flowers placed inside the funerary installation are actual funeral arrangements. The photo of a memorial hall was taken the day after Austin Robertson’s memorial service, an acquaintance of Schult’s.
It’s an unexpected turn for her, an artist primarily known for her explicit nudes, specifically a sexually-charged series of polaroids (“At Night“) set to appear in next week’s American Vices show at Non-Fiction Gallery.
But while Schult might be making totally different work, she’s still demonstrating her usual degree of fearlessness. Her original concept for the show was to photograph those who had just recently passed away. “Obviously, though, that’s hard to do,” she says.
When I ask if she ever felt intrusive while working on this project she doesn’t hesitate: “Absolutely.” It doesn’t get much more personal than photographing the tomb of a stranger’s loved one or re-appropriating obituary photos.
In choosing the images for the obituary installation, Schult paid homage to her friend X’avier Arnold (“X”), a twenty-one-year-old former SCAD student who was shot in the head and killed by fourteen-year-old Zion Wainwright during a robbery in 2013. It was an unspeakable tragedy. Recently, Schult was struck with the disturbing realization that X’s memory was beginning to fade.
“I don’t remember all these details about him,” she says. “I know he had tattoos but I don’t remember what his tattoos were or where they were. Just stupid things like that that don’t really matter in the long run – those are the things that make somebody who they are. So, when you start forgetting all of that it’s like… well, who is this person that I think I remember? Do I actually remember them or do I remember some person that I’ve kind of created?”
As X’s face appears on the wall, Schult’s glitch causes his image to flicker, his face to blur, the color of his uniform to change. All of the faces around him become distorted and broken, their visual imprint fading from this world just as their bodies did and, eventually, the memory of them as well.
In Loving Memory acknowledges that there are really two kinds of death: first, a person’s body dies and then the memory of them dies. Both are agony.
Perhaps the most challenging piece in the show is the second part to Schult’s video installation. Three months after John F. Kennedy was assassinated beside her, Jacqueline Kennedy gave an interview to historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. under the agreement that it would not be released until after her death. In it, she relates a conversation she had with her husband at the height of the Cuban missile crisis. She told him:
“Please don’t send me away to Camp David. If anything happens, we’re all going to stay right here with you. Even if there’s not room in the bomb shelter in the White House, then I want to be on the lawn when it happens. I just want to be with you, and I want to die with you, and the children do too – rather than live without you.”
Schult has edited the audio, slowed down portions of it, chopped it up and arranged pieces of it to repeat, echoing as if spoken by Jackie from just beyond our reach. “I just want to be with you. I just want to be with you. I want to die with you. I want to die, I want to die, I want to die with you…” Her voice pleads with him as if he were still alive, her pain so raw I felt ashamed to have intruded upon it even after fifty-two years.
It is indescribably haunting – honestly chilling, and deeply emotional. Schult communicates with us through the pain in this recording, as if to say, “There is nothing more real than this.” Its inclusion, if uncomfortable, emphasizes the exhibition’s sincerity and Schult’s commitment to the seriousness of her subject matter. Where In Loving Memory could’ve very easily felt exploitive or kitschy, Schult leans into the emotional intensity and harnesses it to create a truly moving experience.
In Loving Memory is on display at Sulfur Studios March 10 – 12. The opening reception is on Friday, March 11 from 6 – 9pm. You can see more of Schult’s work at http://www.finnschult.com/.