Yes, Death: Rachel Stern on Cemeteries, Oscar Wilde, and How Death Can Be Cute

Posted on July 6, 2016

“Yes, death. Death must be so beautiful. To lie in the soft brown earth, with the grasses waving above one’s head, and listen to silence. To have no yesterday, and no tomorrow. To forget time, to forget life, to be at peace.” –Oscar Wilde

 

Yes, Death. opened on June 17th, and is New York-based artist Rachel Stern’s exploration of the garden-style cemeteries of the mid-nineteenth century. You can view the full artist statement here.  In Stern’s words, “Yes, death is grim, but it’s also kinda’ cute.”

And we can’t help but agree.

 

The opening of Yes, Death. at Black & White Gallery

The opening of Yes, Death. at Black & White Gallery

FF

Do you remember your first encounter with death?

RS

As a child I had pet mice named Matthias and Cornflower. I trained them to walk the tightrope and together we would put on great shows for audiences of siblings and other pets. Time has left me unsure if Matthias or Cornflower died first but I remember the scene of the death very well. I made a purple and black coffin out of construction paper and filled it with flowers and, most importantly, a beautifully penned poem facing down for the dead to read in their rest. My family accompanied me to the section of the back yard that my brother and I maintained as a National Park and together we dug a grave. I remember the pomp and circumstance more than I remember the grief, but I’m sure that real grief was there too.

 

The opening of Yes, Death. at Black & White Gallery

The opening of Yes, Death. at Black & White Gallery

FF

Attitudes about death have changed a lot since these garden-style cemeteries were built. It’s an “icky” subject to a lot of people. How would you explain death to a group of kids?

RS

My relationship with death is very flat, and though I work as a high school and middle school teacher I am not sure that I would be able to provide a very poetic or calming description of the circumstance. Bluntly, I would say that death is the state a body enters when it is no longer able to maintain the basic functions needed to sustain itself and shuts down. A turning point where the body stops growing and begins to decay.

My relationship with the ceremonies that surround death and memorial would be a much more compelling conversation to have with a group of children. We could imagine together what symbols and situations best describe what our lives have been like, or better yet how we wish them to be remembered regardless of how they’ve actually transpired. I think that death itself is of little importance, but the memory and memorializing of life is fascinating and invaluable.

Close-up from Yes, Death.

Close-up from Yes, Death.

FF

You’ve quoted Oscar Wilde’s work in reference to this project. Can you tell me more about your connection with Oscar Wilde’s writings?

RS

I read The Picture of Dorian Gray for Sophomore English Honors the summer before that year of high school. There is a chapter in the book which we had been instructed to skip because it was hefty and ‘not relevant to the plot’. Of course I read this passage with increased curiosity (tell a child not to read something, and they certainly will). It was in that chapter that Dorian’s home is described and his relationship with a little yellow book (Huysman’s Á Rebours) becomes all consuming in his life. Wilde shows us each aesthetic indulgence, each moral betrayal, every color and fabric and surface in Dorians world with such earnestness and abandon.

This decadent and dark Victorian descriptive tone completely captivated my imagination and left me at the will of Wilde and his special sect of dark and indigent poets. It has shaped much of the context of my practice as an artist and throughout my life I have used my copy of his collected writings and letters as my travel companion. With his words by my side I am able to use him as a sort of index for my experiences. The more I read and re-read Wilde the more I feel my positions in the world clarified, the more I see the dire stakes in the position of beauty.

The opening of Yes, Death. at Black & White Gallery

The opening of Yes, Death. at Black & White Gallery

FF

What will a cemetery in the year 3000 look like?

RS

I hope that many of the cemeteries in the year 3000 will stand unchanged from today (within the reasonable expectations of time and decay). For whatever new monuments arise I can express what I hope they will not be, but I do not have high hopes. I hope they will not include laser engravings, laser etched photos, embedded color photographs, symbols of colloquial life (golf clubs, guitars, and sports logos), or any kind of added color to the stone and metal. All that snobbery aside I hope they look the way that brings their attendants comfort or resolution. Honestly, I imagine they will be digital but I feel so tacky writing that down.

IMG_2710_edit

FF

Can we catch you hanging out in cemeteries from now on, or are you moving on to new projects?

RS

I have big plans to revisit many familiar cemeteries and to continue to seek more! This project originally started as #MsRSChurchNGrave on my Instagram, so most of the places I have visited (great cemeteries in Chicago, Cleveland, and even Greenwood here in NY) have been photographed almost exclusively through my phone. Now that I am working with my film camera I’d like to go back for a second look and continue to go seek more. I was just visiting my grandmother in Montana and though the cemeteries there are not of the same architectural designs as the ones I’ve photographed in Yes, Death. it was exciting to see such a different relationship with the landscape!

FF

Last but not least, what’s your “spirit headstone”? For reference, mine would probably be this:

headstone

The coolest headstone ever

RS

stern1stern2

Can I just take this entire Tiffany Chapel in Cleveland’s Lake View Cemetery? I have some renovations in mind – I actually don’t like the window and would swap it out for something more gothic, less pious. The feature that really sells the place (beyond the exquisite mosaics, tiled floors, oscillating arabesque and arts and crafts styles, and carved alabaster lamps) is the solid stone catafalque which incorporated an elevator system so that the casket could be raised up at a certain poetic moment discussing ascension during the funeral rites. I’ve always felt that I would need more than just a simple marker, but a real tomb and monument, so a this spacious spot seems to fit. Also, I must add, that location is very important and the dead seem always concerned with a good view – in that regard I would like to make sure that my monument stands in a thick hanging wood, around other dead, in an old place, and with a great view of water. Preferably in New England.


Be sure to check out Yes, Death. at Black & White Gallery through July 31st.