Last year, I attended two funerals: one for a family member, another for the family member of a close friend. Guests coughed and cried. We looked at photographs and listened to speeches. Afterwards, we told stories and splashed water on our faces at bathroom sinks. We were together in our grief.
But also, we were not. I was not having the same experience as other relatives of the deceased: his sister, or his college roommate, or her childhood playmate, or even her other grand-niece. Each was thinking of traits that had existed only in their presence, a style of humor or cadence. Each was running through memories only they had managed to store, although others in the room might have been there, too. “I don’t remember that.” “Really? When did that happen?”
Grief is lonely. Every instance can feel so unique as to be untranslatable, and in our desperation to be understood, we often fall back on clichés. We talk of the five stages; we describe emptiness and numbness; we say “sorry for your loss.” And still, nobody understands. Maybe the solution is to give up on language and create something physical instead: a common reference point that allows each mourner to cast their own interpretations, to share something without having to articulate anything.
That’s one premise at the heart of To Survive I Need You to Survive, an exhibition by sculptor and “social practice artist” Cara Levine currently on display at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. Visualized, quantified expressions of grief, read the show notes, might “offer opportunities for interconnectedness rather than isolation.”
“Grief to Fill a Room With” is one such visual expression, a scene staged in a section of the white-walled gallery. Everyday objects—a table, chairs, pants hanging in an armoire, a fiddle-leaf fig plant dropping its discolored leaves—are pushed against the edges of the gallery walls and floor by an inflated plastic dome. In this rendering, grief is odorless, colorless, filling an entire room, imperceptible to anyone but the bereaved. I’ve felt that, exactly, I thought, standing outside the bubble. By rendering isolation, Levine made me less isolated.
The same principle—communion through art—underlies the exhibit’s two performance pieces. In “DIG: A Hole to Put Your Grief In,” a group gathers in the Santa Monica Mountains to dig a hole; participants then refill it over a period of seven days. A video documents the process: shovels striking dirt, workers pouring water over their dusty hands, the sky changing colors. This project has concluded, but another one, “Carve; The Mystic is Nourished From This Sphere,” is ongoing. Museum-goers are provided pencils and paper and asked to deposit their responses to the prompt “Today, I’m grieving…” in a box nearby. Levine then carves the submissions into a concave wooden structure mounted on the wall. When I visited, some inscriptions had already been made: “Two sons I lost.” “Dad’s voice.”
Both of these works are acts of ritual, “DIG” explicitly so. Taking place over seven days to represent sitting shiva, it incorporates bundles of sage, a service from a cantor, and a ceremony by a Chumash tribal leader; the artist wears all white as she reads the words of Kabbalist rabbi Moses de León. “Carve” takes the latter part of its title from the description of chokmah (wisdom) found in the Zohar, a sacred Kabbalah text that de León is believed to have authored. In the repetitive motions of shoveling and carving, “DIG” and “Carve” excavate literal spaces for grief.
But in both instances, the power of these symbols is diminished by language. An eleven-minute documentary film recounting the making of “DIG” features not just haunting aerial shots of turned-over earth, but reflections from the diggers themselves, many of whom are artists. They use words like “systemic” and “parse” and “energy.” They are grieving the pandemic and violence against migrants and environmental devastation.