In the last two years, the global COVID-19 pandemic has focused our attention on the fragility of human life. All over the world, death counts are published in daily news bulletins. Following the pandemic, Russia invaded its neighbour Ukraine and started a war that threatens to engulf the entire world population. The news bulletins are dominated by images of bombed-out cities and dead bodies lying in the streets.
Death is a phenomenon that forces us to realise that everything is impermanent. The fact that we are only alive for a limited time adds urgency to our situation. It motivates us to find meaning in our existence. Ultimately, death functions as the engine for our obsession with our search for meaning.
Heidegger supposes that even if death is unavoidable, we have to accept and embrace our finality in order to attain freedom towards death.
Death is a mystery. Nobody knows what happens when we leave our bodies. But when we encounter the dead, it appears that the life force has left, and we are confronted with an empty shell, the physical remains.
In Western Christian tradition, the figure of Christ raised from the dead is a powerful symbol that suggests that there is life after death, that there is a heaven, an eternal thereafter where we all meet again. This sentiment is often expressed on gravestones.
Most of the funerary effigies in the cemeteries depict angels, the figures of Christ or Mary and scenes of departure, loss and hope of resurrection. It appears that the arts of sculpture and poetry are appropriate expressions of our grief. They seem to console the bereaved and help them come to terms with the finality of life.
Cemeteries are like places that have fallen out of time. Here all worldly concerns drop away; the achievements of goals, the struggle for a livelihood, fulfilment of dreams all endeavours lose their importance. Here the eternal stillness of death is pre-eminent and artificial structures of stone and steel slowly decay over time and are subsumed by plants and mosses.
On their visits, relatives of the deceased often place ordinary objects, tokens of their affection, at the gravesite. Thus besides the idealised and classical symbols of redemption, we find flowers, candles, lanterns, plastic figurines of angels or ornamental animals that sometimes brighten the atmosphere of gloom and sadness.
These photographs were taken at Ohlsdorf Cemetery, the largest park-cemetery in the world, which I discovered in Hamburg, Germany.
I envision a wall of loosely spaced photographs, possibly printed on aluminium and interlaced with scarfs. These scarfs are the only remnants of my mother’s that I took along after she died late last year at the age of 98.
Alex Spremberg What Remains, 2022. Installation of photographic prints on metal and scarves, 20 x 30 x 0.3 cm or 30 x 20 x 0.3 cm (each).