Death is an interesting topic. In all fairness, I am a twenty-something still trying to wrap my mind around what happens to our bodies and whether there is an afterlife to look forward to. Death always seemed to be a distant concept that was irrelevant to me, that is until my first funeral at age 12. While our beliefs may differ, death is a taboo subject deemed to be inappropriate or uncomfortable to discuss. Why? Simply put, we avoid it because we are afraid of it.
In SAY Sí’s annual exhibition Stories Seldom Told: More Than Life, student-artists collaboratively create multidisciplinary art installations exploring a social issue they feel isn’t being addressed in their everyday lives. This year, youth-artists have chosen to explore the many facets of death. In an effort to destigmatize the topic through this exhibition, young artists explore concepts like the process of grief, burial rituals in different cultures, eco-friendly burial processes, critical views of the funeral industry, the continuity of life after death and the significance of personal memorial celebrations.
Student Liaison, Mori Blanco-Sanchez shared with us that her passion to demystify the death-positive movement encouraged her to push for this topic throughout the selection process. What does this process look like? SAY Sí’s Communications Director, Stephen Garza-Guzman stated that the selection process is a truly democratic one, in which students spend months researching the topics and undergo a series of presentations and decision-making. Once students vote, they use art as an avenue to present data, historical information, as well as their own personal reflections and solutions.
With the guidance of the Children’s Bereavement Center and Clarity Childhood Guidance Center, SAY Sí had access to the necessary resources to appropriately approach this topic with their middle school and high school student-artists. Through multidisciplinary installations, the student-artists created immersive and experiential artwork that challenged the stereotypical notions of death.
Fusing all of SAY Sí’s studios (visual arts, media art studio, theater company, new media program), students were challenged to explore mediums they usually don’t work in. With a total of sixteen immersive installations, the viewer is able to experience an in-depth educational voyage on the many facets of death.
As you walk into the space, you first engage with an interactive digital game titled Mother Mary Leche that explores the five stages of grief, as the main character experiences the death of a matriarch in the family. A group of over ten middle school students designed and created different narratives to reflect your own decisions throughout the game. Considering the many facets of collaboration, Garza-Guzman shares that students had to study their different styles of draftsmanship and decide how to create a non-binary character that would be cohesive and recognizable throughout. What can I say? I am amazed by the technical skills demonstrated with this project. It is safe to say, these middle-school artists put my “tech-savviness” to shame.
Like many of us do in our day-to-day the student-artists that created the experiential installation titled Caskco Wholesale utilize humor to mask an uncomfortable topic: burial. Using a play on words with the nationwide wholesale chain and its infamous red and white aesthetic, the artists recreated a shopping experience that shows different burial practices and the costs associated with them. Displaying a variety of recognizable packaging, products range from Tree Pods to Traditional Burial and Sea Burial. Viewers are invited to engage with the printed products and familiarize themselves with the included ingredients that list a brief explanation of each burial practice. The artists hope the participants learn from and better prepare for death.
Continuing through the space, there is an immersive installation with white objects covering the walls from floor to ceiling titled The Loss of Sentiment. What at first seems like clutter is actually an intentional composition of memorabilia that is lit by beautiful bedside lamps on the floor. Arranged by eight students, some of the objects include empty picture frames, sweaters, glassware, parts of a vanity, kitchen appliances and suitcases among other things. The artists “wanted to capture the intimate, mournful feelings of loss felt when going to the estate sale of a person who has died.” In this particular installation, artists were challenged to look beyond the dark elements that are associated with death. The use of white represents that pure notion of rebirth and the continuity of life. As the viewer studies the objects, there are two overlapping voiceover recordings playing in the background. You can also read the transcript of these two interviews made available in both English and Spanish before entering the space.
Because SAY Sí’s student-artists’ are 11 to 18 year olds and interact with children more often than not, be it through siblings, peers, and family friends, it was important for them to create a child-friendly installation to discuss death. Child Friendly Funeral is a lifesize funeral set up made up entirely of blank coloring spaces. Inside the opened white cardboard casket, children can help themselves to different colored markers. A TV screen sits in the corner complementing this interactive space. The screen shows a series of child interviews about what they know about death. In one interview, the child responds “It’s when someone gets sick and dies or someone gets old and dies.” These children share a variety of answers and levels of understanding that is both innocent and eye opening. This installation reminds us to be cognizant of the difficult conversations one needs to have with loved ones.
For those who might need a moment to collect their thoughts, a group of ten students recreated a support group set-up titled Sunset Circle. With foldable chairs placed in a circular formation and a coffee maker with sweeteners resting on a corner table. A poster welcomes you into the space with the text “Sunset Circle, Thursdays @ 4pm, A safe place to discuss death anxiety.” The student-artists share “this project is an original musical about a support group with a focus on anxiety around death. Audience members are invited to participate as much as they are comfortable.” This interactive project invites you to sit, listen, and contemplate. It destigmatizes death. Garza-Guzman shared with us that it’s okay to take a step back, decompress, and come back. If you or anyone you know are experiencing death anxiety, I encourage you to speak with someone about it.
While this topic might not be comfortable for everyone, SAY Sí’s Stories Seldom Told: More Than Life pushes the boundaries of the notions surrounding death and create a holistic and educational experience for all ages. In the efforts to demystify this topic, this exhibition goes beyond the uncomfortable truth and provides a safe space that invites dialogue and allows for healthy coping mechanisms and practices. Impressed with the youth-artists’ emotional sophistication to create beautiful and thoughtful installations on such a heavy subject, I encourage you to add SAY Sí to your First Friday endeavours.
Stories Seldom Told: More Than Life
1518 S. Alamo
San Antonio, TX 78204