March 14, 2011

Collection Rotation: Adrienne Skye Roberts

Our regular feature, Collection Rotation. Every month or so I invite someone to organize a mini-“exhibition” from our collection works online. Today, please welcome writer, curator, and former Open Space columnist ADRIENNE SKYE ROBERTS

Each day my father conducts conversations in anticipation of death. In August of last year he began working as the Pre-Needs Counselor at Mount Sinai Chapel, a Jewish funeral home located on the corner of Divisadero and Geary Street in San Francisco. His job is to counsel individuals who are prearranging their funerals, as well as the family members of people for whom death is imminent. From the details of memorial services to which casket to choose to the location of available burial plots, these conversations attempt to make order of an impending and unknowable future.

In Jewish tradition a person is not to be left unattended from the time of their death until their burial. In the immediacy before grief settles in the lives of the bereaved, it is the duty of a shomer–traditionally a family member—to stay with the body of the deceased. At Mount Sinai Chapel one may choose to hire a shomer to sit with their loved one after death. I often wonder about these strange and tenuous hours. What transpires between the bodies of these two people—one still sentient, capable of motion and the other, unreadable and abandoned of that which gave it life? What is required to stay present with the stasis of death? The shomer, who may or may not have a connection to the person who has passed and my father, who greets these people during the hours preceding death—however many or few there may be—act as witnesses to a period of time that is perhaps, our best kept secret. In a culture in which death is so often removed from the public’s view and mourning is treated as a finite experience, this witnessing is a powerful act.

The images I selected represent the beginning of my investigation into how art itself functions as a witness in death and in mourning. The images range from photographs taken in the aftermath of death–at funeral processions, cemeteries, and war protests when physical presence is necessary for witnessing to collective mourning and the spectacle of mourning in the wake of the death of a cultural figure to the containment of memory through monuments to the quieter hours in which we meet the absence created by loss.

The audio, selected and arranged by Bay Area musician Eric Kuhn, is meant to accompany these images. Playlist is at the end of this post.

Left: John Gutmann, Funeral Procession for Killed Workers, General Strike, San Francisco, 1934, printed ca. 1974. Right: Judith Joy Ross, Patrick F. McCann, Protesting the U.S. War in Iraq, March on Washington, from the series Protest the War, 2007

Doris Salcedo, Unland: irreversible witness, 1995-1998

On Kawara, MAR. 16, 1993, from the “Today” Series, 1993

Kerry James Marshall, Memento, 1997

Cecil Stoughton, Lyndon Johnson, flanked by Lady Bird Johnson and Jacqueline Kennedy, aboard Air Force One, 1963

Richey Relatives,  Telegram from Richey Relatives to Rose and Marionne Richey, 1922

Left: Christian Boltanski, Monument, 1986. Right: Felix Gonzalez-Torres, “Untitled” (America #1), 1992

Left: Dr. William J. Pierce, Spirit Photographs, 1903. Right: Ana Mendieta, Untitled, from the series Silueta Works in Iowa, 1978

Pirkle Jones, Couple at the Cemetery, from the Back, Berryessa Valley from the series Death of a Valley, 1956, printed 1960

Adrienne Skye Roberts is a San Francisco based independent curator, writer and educator committed to engaging queer, anti-racist politics through the arts. She recently curated the queer photography exhibition “Suggestions of a Life Being Lived” at SFCamerawork. In addition to Open Space, her work has been published in Art Practical and Make/Shift: Feminisms in Motion. Adrienne currently teaches sculpture at UC Santa Cruz. Find her here:

Audio track clips: “Funeral Procession: Just a Closer Walk With Thee (Dirge),” The Magnificent Sevenths. Authentic New Orleans Jazz Funeral. Mardi Gras Records,1992; Teddy Kennedy’s Eulogy for Bobby Kennedy, 1968; “See That My Grave is Kept Clean,” Blind Lemon Jefferson. Anthology of American Folk Music. Smithsonian Folkways, 1997; “Amazing Grace,” The King’s Own Scottish Borderers Military Band. The Complete Scottish Bagpipe Collection. X5 Music Group, 2009; “When I’m Gone,” The Carter Family. Country and Folk Roots. Castle Music UK, 2005; “Amazing Grace,” The Dirty Dozen Brass Band. Funeral For a Friend, Indieblue Music, 2004

Comments (2)

  • Margaret Tedesco says:

    Dear Adrienne

    In reading your spare and thoughtful images and post, I am reminded of the last moments I spent in my
    father’s passing last May.

    What transpired—the privilege to be witness.

    Eric’s haunting score begs for more.

    Thank you.

  • Vance Maverick says:

    Thanks for this. The “Tina” in the Richey telegram, fwiw, is Tina Modotti — Roubaix (“Robo”) Richey was her husband.

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