At the Museumsquartier: Days of the Dead

Dias Muertes

A photo from the exhibition, depicting a child celebrating the festival of Dias Muertes | Photo: Courtesy of Kunsthalle Wien

Death is not thought of as a happy event to be celebrated, at least not the way birth is. But what if we could invert the meaning of nothingness, endings, and fear that is attached to dying? The artists of Viva la Muerte! at the Museumsquartier Kunsthalle have tried to do just that. Picking up the thread of some Latin American traditions on death, they have re-invented them in the socio-political context of organized crime and young democracies today.

Violence remains a constant theme in Latin American history – from the Spanish conquest, to the war of independence, from revolutions and military dictatorships to organized crime.

Filmmaker Francis Alys recorded an experiment of walking by Mexico City’s busy downtown streets holding a gun, approaching people with a menacing attitude, and timed the response of the police. Many stare startled at his gun, but others simply walk by without noticing him. He walks for about 12 minutes from the street of 15 de Septiembre down to the sidewalk covered with junkies, lonely mariachis looking for customers, and brothels by Garibaldi square, and further down, until the police arrest him.

So far, it is not all that normal to walk with a gun in broad daylight, not even in the most dangerous parts of the city.

The exhibit shows not only the present of Latin America, overwhelmed by newscasts showing the latest gunfights between rivaling drug cartels, or tabloids publishing beheaded hired killers or sicarios.

Death in Latin America is also marked by its roots, as violence seems to linger over the pre-Hispanic monuments raped by the conquerors, and the Holy Inquisition, used against those reluctant to abandon pagan ways during conquest colonization.

Perhaps one of the most stunning art objects at this exhibit is “Missao,” a deeply political statement that denounces the missionaries who forced indigenous people to build churches by reversing the artistic canons to build them. Like an inverted Gothic church, “Missao” is a room-size square of bones hanging down from the ceiling. The floating pile of bones seems to be held together in balance by a slim pole in the center of the square. Underneath the bones, an equally large pile of coins reminds the viewer of the ridiculous wealth earned by the missionaries, while they enslaved the local populations to build Churches to indoctrinate them.

Instead of slim towers stretching towards Heaven, the bones of “Missao” stretch downwards. The beautiful towers wouldn’t have existed without the bones of the slaves. So now, the remains of the workers replace the tower, and they look at its perpetrators down into hell.

Some of the pieces in the exhibit have a very direct meaning. Ana Mendieta plays with the process of cremation by displaying a video of the burning silhouette of a body. When cremated, the body disappears but it is thought that the soul, the content of the body, outlives it.

But in Mendieta’s “Anima,” the silhouette of the body remains while the content never even existed.  The mind-trick for the viewer is that, usually one sees a human figure burning, but there is no body where the soul could be subtracted from.

However, the reversal of the meaning of death as a tragedy is a recurrent theme in the exhibit. Instead of being a tragic event of loss, death becomes a satire. In Mexico, censorship is fought back through a sort of cartoons called calaveritas. They are published on the Day of All Saints and also portray a satirical epitaph for the living, especially for politicians. Calaveritas have been a common, powerful and indirect way to denounce corruption without getting killed.

This type of mockery of death could be considered the essence of the cult of death in Latin America. As artist Vik Muniz explained:

“One develops a good sense for metaphors – or the ability to develop a language inside a language – in order to express oneself and be understood in spite of all. I think of this phenomenon as a semiotic black market.”

Pedro Reyes, in “Makeover of the Santa Muerte,”  merged the figure of prehispanic queen of the underworld, Mictecacihuatl with today’s saint venerated by drug dealers, hired killers, prostitutes and other outsiders of Mexican society. Ironically, La Santa Muerte, is also supposed to be the saint for kidnapped people and stolen items.

The rationale for creating this hybrid is that artist wanted to “make the fiction more credible” by designing La Santa, according to the forms of an excavated relic of the Mictecacihuatl. It is, in his words, a “pirated” ancestry for the cult of today.

Syncretization of the pre-Hispanic rituals with Catholic traditions is a mark of Latin American culture. According to Bernardino de Sagahún, a Franciscan missionary who compiled the history of the Aztecs, many cultures have celebrated the dead in August, but after the conquest, they kept most of their rituals, except for human sacrifice, and adapted them to the Day of All Saints, or el Dia de Muertos.

Photographer Bastienne Schmidt shows the celebration of  Día de Muertos in the mythical lake-island of Pátzcuaro, in Michoacan state, where families sleep over tombs waiting for their lost ones to come back from the land of the dead and eat their favorite food after their exhausting journey from the “other world.”

The tombs are furnished with the long and bright orange petals from cempasuchitl flowers, sugar skulls, pan de muerto, tequila, and pictures of the deceased.

“Nobel Prize winning author Octavio Paz maintains that dying is suppressed in Europe and the USA, while Latin Americans take pleasure in their familiarity with the horrible and have an inclination towards self-extinction,” write the curators of Viva la Muerte!

While the culture of Halloween tries to provoke fear through ghost stories, witches and legends of beheaded riders like the Headless Horseman in The Legend of  Sleepy Hollow, the Day of the Death, like the state of Chiapas, is observed in some regions of Mexico as a day to be spent with the family at the cemetery.

The attitude behind these rituals was explained by Paz in Labyrinth of Solitude:

“Our cult of death is a cult of life, as all love thirsty for life longs for death.”

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