West Norwood Cemetery, in south London, recently invited artists to come into their archives, cemetery, and columbarium to create temporary installations throughout the park-like grounds. Titling the show “Curious,” the curators encouraged artists to engage their own curiosity as well as that of their visitors. Although there was a map provided, it was hard to follow, and I found myself clambering through overgrown paths and ducking under brambles in search of art that I only sometimes found. Surrounded by the art of gravestones, crypts, and mausolea, moreover, it wasn’t always clear what was permanent and what had been added.
The first piece I came across was in the Merrick Mausoleum, site of two overlapping installations by Jane Wildgoose and Rozanne Hawksley, titled A Question of Archival Authority and Un-named, un-titled, respectively. Both artists investigate the idea of the cemetery as archive. Wildgoose quotes Ken Worpole’s description of burial places as “quiet, catalogued and annotated” places—like libraries, she notes, although those of us in museums might suggest that the uniqueness of each object in a cemetery makes them more like museums. A modern and professional archivist’s desk is accompanied by objects from West Norwood Cemetery’s archives and the artist’s own collection. (As always, you can click on the photo for a larger version of the image.)
Hawksley has been collecting objects associated with death for some time. “I have done nothing with it,” she noted in the brochure accompanying “Curious,” “except hoard it somewhat jealously, but this occasion prompted me to reconsider. I have placed within [the Merrick Mausoleum] a minimal offering: minimal because the beautifully written orders [for grave markers] are enough without comment.” In my photograph of the interior of the Mausoleum, those orders are visible around the edges of a mourning wreath.
Not everyone who dies gets their own grave marker, but even those interred in unmarked burials in the Potter’s Field were recorded in cemetery ledgers. Carys Davies discovered two sisters, Sophi and Christine Zinopoulos, who died four months apart in 1941-42. “Like many in the Common Ground, the Potter’s Field, there’s no other monument,” Davies notes. “No way to trace their stories. … I’ve picked these two to formally stand in for all our lost graves, blown ashes, and unfinished mourning.” Combining small urns with vases, flowers, and a poem (Edith Sitwell’s “Still Falls the Rain,” 1940) inscribed on ceramic tiles, Davies borrows the monumentality of an existing sarcophagus as a pedestal for his quiet memorial to these unknown sisters.
Poetry also plays a part in Chris McCabe’s installation, Clotted Sun: An Anthology of West Norwood Poets. McCabe, a poet himself, investigated ten poets who were buried in the cemetery. “I found various amounts for each poet,” he observes, “and work of differing qualities: some of the poets were more successful in life than others, some had stronger gifts.” Nonetheless, “Even the weakest poem can contain a powerful two-word image,” and so McCabe selected two- or three-word fragments from the work of each poet (he described himself as an “editor” of this project). Engraving the phrases on smooth riverstones that were placed around the cemetery at each poet’s burial or cremation site, and reproducing photographs of each stone in a limited edition artist book, McCabe sought “a wider readership” for poets whose “lives spanned over two centuries and are only connected by where they are buried.” In the case of poet and folk musician Sydney Carter, cremated, McCabe chose “my cradle”—a fragment from the poem, “Child”—to rest in a niche in the Columbarium at West Norwood.
A caravan that simultaneously evokes gypsy or traveler caravans and traveling photographers and show people is parked in the Greek Cemetery, a fenced-off subsection of West Norwood reserved for members of the Greek Orthodox community. Jane Brockbank’s Flower Theatre offers those willing to venture inside a dramatic display of various flowers—whose symbolism would have been evidence to Victorian audiences. Brockbank, an artist-turned-garden-designer, combines the language of flowers with the quirky decorative instincts of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century gardeners who created so-called “Auricula Theatres” to display potted plants.
Pushing past the heavy curtains to see the show inside felt transgressive—as though I were invading someone’s personal space. The artist herself describes the experience as “a peep show,” and the interface of the Flower Theatre, which requires the visitor to push a button and then peer through small windows that light up, in sequence, to highlight each flower, emphasizes that voyeuristic quality.
“By using his custom made TELEX-666 and plugging the attached electrodes into the cemetery earth, you are able to listen to conversations and existential diatribes going on underground.” Artist Steven Ounanian’s satirical technology in West Norwood Cemetery is part of his ongoing collaboration with “unwitting participants”—in this case, the dead. “Through such collaborative experiments,” the artist has explained, “I try to unravel what it means for people to be human, together.”
Buried in the woods on the south side of the cemetery, Andrea Thoma’s installation over the doorway of the Pond Mausoleum is, in part, a pun on the family name (Christopher Pond, the most well-known of those entombed, built the Criterion Theatre). More seriously, however, it is a meditation of the nature of boundaries. “A doorway is a threshold,” observes the artist, hoping that the water suggests “movement between there and here, here and there.” Despite the unexpectedness of water in this setting, I found that the metaphor of travel made Thoma’s imagery feel like a natural gateway between the woods and the interior of the mausoleum.
Whether they approached the cemetery as an archive, a library, or a place of spiritual transition, artists seem to have welcomed the opportunity to work outside their traditional spaces of gallery, museum, and studio.