Sharon Alward

Witnessing Grief

Affect paper presented at: Working With Feelings: Affect and the Practice of Everyday Life: "Feelings on Display: Video, Installation, Images" Department of English, Film and Theatre, The Faculty of Arts, The Faculty of Graduate Studies, The Centre for Creative Writing and Oral Culture Sponsored symposium, March

I have always been interested in art as a healing agent and believe through performance ritual and witnessing we are able to share our collective pain and initiate healing. Performing rituals allows individuals to transcend suffering and dehumanizing experiences, open up spiritually for healing and begin a journey towards wholeness.

In the Jesuit Richard Rohr's book Hope Against Darkness: The Transforming Vision of St. Francis in an Age of Anxiety, Rohr states: "The ritual symbol is an enacted symbol...whose meaning is not so much conceptualized and then expressed in gesture, as something that dawns upon those who carry it out. For that reason ritual will always be more than doctrine- in- action, as encounter will always be more than its description."

To be fully alive, humans must engage creatively in ritual performance including rites of passage, rituals of grief and ceremonies to heal.

I see Performance art-ritual as art in the service of humanity.

This idea is not without precedent.

Rachael Rosenthal described her performance art as sucking the disease from society. Suzanne Lacy is an artist who like me worked in criminal justice system and with the disenfranchised such as I did at POWER (1991-96) as a Senior Volunteer Outreach worker, community support worker and volunteer art teacher, P.O.W.E.R. (Prostitutes and Other Women for Equal Rights) and TERF (Training and Employment Resources for Females) 1997-98 as an Artist-in-Residence, mentor and Volunteer teacher/ for 15-17 year old females who have made the decision to move away from life on the streets and prostitution. TERF is safe supportive learning environment with counseling support and advocacy, providing life skills training and work experience.

In Suzanne Lacey’s Hillside Strangler Performance “In Mourning and In Rage” from 1977--nine women mourners, dressed in black and each towering over seven feet tall, emerged from a hearse at the steps of L.A. City Hall where they spoke, one at a time, in memory of the victims of violence wreaked upon women: "I am here for the rage of all women, I am here for women fighting back."

Rituals are essential components of life and power(Victor Turner). Performed to assist in maintaining and reordering the universe, they are conceived as forming a link between the spiritual and material worlds -the past and the present -the old and the new.

The evolution of performance as art fulfills a spiritual function; through the mind and body of practitioners it can be communion with the infinite.

For example in August --From early times, to cover oneself with ashes or to roll about in them has been an expression of grief, penitence, or sorrow. During rites of passage in primitive societies, the candidates may be covered or painted with ashes to show that they have died to their old selves. Holy men in India sometimes cover themselves with ashes to show that they have renounced earthly desires.

And as in Zuma--The topics I often address related to mourning are called "ambiguous losses," those "frozen in their grief" because there are no social rituals to comfort people and allow them to mourn the losses they encounter.

Melanie Klein, in her psychoanalytic approach to aesthetics claims

“In tragedy the artist expresses his depressive fantasies and anxieties and does work similar to the work of mourning”. The audience relives its own early depressive anxieties.

Grieving requires validation from others of our losses. In my installations I always try to provide a safe space to be heard and validated

My projects explore ritual as a way to transcend suffering, provide opportunities for wholeness and as a process for healing. Zuma is about dehumanizing experiences, witnessing and grief.

My 25 years of paintings, performances, videos and installations all contain essential elements of narrative, autobiography, ritual, community and witnessing. They are an integral part of my creative work.