Sculpture, Language of the Dead

by Choghakate Kazarian.

“Poetry, music, architecture, like ancient languages, have been translated into new idioms, by clinging to life. Only sculpture has remained immobile across the centuries, a courtly language, the language of the liturgy, a symbolic writing, incapable of making its mark on daily acts” and “sculpture has remained what it is, a dead language which has not found the vernacular, and it will never be the natural speech between men,” wrote Arturo Martini (1889–1947) at the end of his life. In this essay, entitled Scultura Lingua Morta (Sculpture Dead Language), the Italian artist questioned the purpose and evolution of sculpture compared to painting and other art forms. He feared that sculpture has failed to connect with contemporary life because sculpture, from its origins, is assigned to a commemorative and monumental practice, disconnected from everyday life: “Nothing justifies the survival of sculpture in the modern world. The only time one has use for it is in solemn occasions and in commemorations, just as one uses Latin for epigraphs and the mass.”

All photos at Brompton Cemetery by Choghakate Kazarian

Whether sculpture is a dead language or not, it is certainly the favorite language of the dead through the art of funerary monuments, which are commemorative and public art par excellence. Through the abstract shape of a simple headstone or through a more explicitly figurative monument, funerary sculpture carries the tradition of the portrait, which Martini considered “a foretaste of the cemetery.” By its function as a marker, a visible sign of the invisible and disappearing, it is intended to recall and commemorate the body to which it is physically connected. Beyond the value of the individual grave, funerary monuments are engaging as a collective environment. Indeed, the funerary monument is rarely an isolated sculpture but takes part in the crowd of a cemetery. As a growing organism, most old cemeteries have various zones: the historic center filled with old graves and the peripheral zones for newcomers. The Brompton Cemetery, opened in 1840 in West London, is today one of the city’s oldest garden cemeteries, a type that became popular in the Western world during the mid-nineteenth century. Its curated natural landscape makes it an enjoyable place for flâneurs such as myself in search of fresh air in the overcrowded city. A sort of sculpture garden. It is no surprise that many of the famous botanists of the time, such as John Loudon (1783-1843), designed gardens as well as cemeteries. The hustle and bustle of unkept herbage and other weeds are fully part of the romantic cemetery experience, as is the burial hunt. (I have been surprised more than once by the modest size of a graveyard of a celebrity, especially compared to the massive mausoleums and obelisks dedicated to “nobodies.” This is one of the things you learn in cemeteries: the stars of yesterday are not necessarily those of today.) As corpses of various times and at various stages of decomposition feed the ground, stones of different periods offer a variety of styles despite the conservative standards of the genre. (Official occasions naturally carry a rigid conservatism. The same applies to the visual codes of weddings.)

Despite the inherent conservatism of funerary art, a closer look at graves reveals their disarming eclecticism (which some would rightly qualify as funerary kitsch), aggravated by the uncurated character of the ensemble due to various additions over a long period of time. It could easily turn into a bric-a-brac of styles were it not for the unifying power of the natural elements. The presence of nature is invasive, literally attacking tombs, correcting and smoothing the vulgarity of freshly carved stones. (During a cemetery walk, there always comes this moment, when quitting the romantic, messy part of the old burial grounds, we end up in the zone of new burials, with their polished marble abruptly shining on freshly cut grass, with no leafage or careless weeds to act as modesty coverage.) The vulgarity and rawness of the tombs suddenly reminds us that the cemetery is alive. Ironically, a dead cemetery is one that has ceased to welcome death, becoming a monument or a garden left to nature. To the kitsch of the marble, you may add the kitsch of flower bouquets (a sign of a “living” cemetery). Besides bouquets and pebbles, other curious objects, outside the traditional scope of sculpture, may be deposited on burials. Children’s graves may be adorned by colorful pinwheels that spin on windy days, making a soothing sound. The plastic and the color disrupt the more sober colors of the surrounding stones. It is precisely by their liveliness and capacity to bring movement that they convey death better than the more generic and stationary stone.

The most individual detail of a headstone is certainly its epitaph, identifying the dead by name, life dates, and perhaps a few other words (either a prayer from the mourners or some characteristics of the deceased)—as if wall labels, commentaries, and commissioners were part of the sculpture. Epitaphs represent a double function of identifying and glorifying those who are not anymore. They reveal more about the survivors than about the one lying six feet underground. Anyone who takes the time to read the few words scattered under the names may notice that they are similar to the ones spoken during the official funerary ceremony, which consist mostly of praise. An inhabitant of another planet trying to get a glimpse of our personalities would have the feeling that only virtuous men and women lived on Earth, as if death, being the ultimate punishment, was enough to absolve us of all misdeeds. We are all good fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, and children . . . once dead. Whether incised in the stone, or spoken in words, the dead cannot be guilty or wrong.

As a frequent wanderer of cemeteries, I have experienced diverse feelings, including the soothing tranquility and silence of such places. The disconnection with the city and its consequent feeling of peace is a necessary preparatory stage for the cemetery to act as a memento mori. And yet, the feeling that death may come, for all, for them, for you, for me, somehow blends with an opposite feeling of relief, relief to be alive. It can be argued that this is a timely discussion. There is no such thing as a good time when it comes to death. Its timeliness is only when “they” becomes “us.” D’ailleurs c’est toujours les autres qui meurent . . . this meditative and thus contemplative mood created by cemeteries is particularly favorable for enjoying sculpture, especially compared to crowded museums and the expectations they embody (as places of curated and mediated discourses for targeted audiences). Uncrowded, free, and open to all, cemeteries might be the place of meditation that museums are not anymore.

Video by Choghakate Kazarian in Brompton Cemetery, west London, UK

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