‘Less scary, more engaging:’ the artist is all around Hughes in her unrelenting work that gives people another view of death

Many artists have worked around death, but few have been as close to their subject matter as Every Ocean Hughes. The American artist approaches the subject matter with humor, sensitivity, and knowledge derived from her training as a dola death. “Alive Side,” Hughes’ new Whitney gallery in New York (on display through April 2), features a trio of video and performance works about dying. They are displayed alongside a photo series dedicated to the redeveloped West Sidewalks of Manhattan, which itself has become a metaphor for the death, legacy, and rebirth of the neighborhood surrounding the museum.

I first met Hughes in 2021, when she offered One big bag At the Voltaire Studio in London. The second in the Death Trilogy, the single-channel riveting film follows artist Lindsay Rico Take the role of Doula and talk through the “mobile corpse set”, with practical tools including water bowls and cotton swabs along with more creative items such as ceremonial bells.

Rico’s delivery is captivating, speaking outside the mechanics of death care to his murky politics, racism within medical practice, and the lack of agency that so many face at the end of their lives. “I wanted to make sure it wasn’t just ‘a good death,'” Hughes told Artnet News. “There can be a lot of tension and violence. I always wanted to make sure I kept that in the picture.”

The artist decided to learn more about death care after her grandmother died in 2016. She has since participated in several Doula workshops, which teach students everything from washing corpses to caring for the dead.

“Some friends died when I was a kid and I always knew I was going to have to take care of that at some point as an adult,” she said. “It’s the thing that affected me the most as a person. Then my grandmother died. My sister, my mother, was my best friend. It was the first time I was able to come. My mom and her friend are both nurses and they were also hospice volunteers. They had the physical skills. I’m kind What is engaged in spiritual care.

All Ocean Hughes, Still From One Big Bag (2021).  40-minute single channel video courtesy of the artist.

All Ocean Hughes, still from One big bag (2021). 40-minute single channel video courtesy of the artist.

Her works stand as encouragement to be more open about death. “It changes your life when you slow down and go toward death,” she said. “The point of writing on these projects is to make them something people want to stay with. When people experience this knowledge in a performative way, with a creative aesthetic, they are given multiple points of access. It’s less scary and more engaging.”

Help the dead is a 60-minute show for 2019. It is the first in a trilogy that Hughes describes as dealing with the social aspect of death, in which One big bag Focuses on its physical aspects. The two-person performance discusses horrors such as the unofficial “death tax” imposed at funeral homes across the United States for those who died of AIDS at the onset of the crisis, and the fact that some bodies were buried deeper than normal for fear of contamination. . The work balances haunting conversation with upbeat melodies and spirited performances.

Especially with Help the deadI didn’t know which parts viewers would find funny and which parts they would find hopelessly sad,” she said. “Something disgustingly tragic might be a moment when someone needs to laugh. choreography in One big bag It is also to give some relief to the performers. She talks about a stillborn baby: what is her body doing at that moment? It directs sharpness to the viewer. It’s a physical and physical thing we’re talking about.”

Both works are shown in the Whitney side by side riverA new commission completes the trilogy, focusing on the mythological aspect of death. “I say myth rather than religion,” she says, “but it’s more about the stories we tell.” “Death is the basis of religion and culture.” The performance features a character who can pass between worlds.

“Are we talking about crossing into the underworld, like the Odyssey? Or the first time you go to a gay bar?” she said. “That’s a whole other world, too. I’ve always loved that meeting of the underground and the underworld. The defining characteristic of character is exuberance. It’s like you’re going out for the first time. Of course, there’s anxiety, but you’re also excited about all these things you didn’t know about and how you feel.” that your life will change.”

All around Hughes, Sidewalks Untitled (2010-2023).  Courtesy of the artist.

all around Hughes, Sidewalks Untitled (2010-2023). Courtesy of the artist.

Hughes’ series of photographs on the sidewalks of Manhattan’s West Side will mark the gallery’s entrance. I began working on the images fourteen years ago and a lot has changed since then for the communities that inhabited the area.

“I wasn’t wearing my future enhancement glasses when I started photographing that place,” she says. “I’ve been going there since I moved to New York. Then I understood that it’s important culturally and politically. It’s unrecognizable now. My favorite collection of props is under Little Island, this new development. One of the reasons they keep the props there is to protect decades of polluting sediment.” which could be animated if removed. For this show, I was thinking about dying, legacy, metamorphoses; you could set those themes on restoration in Whitney’s neighborhood.”

Many of Hughes’ works lead to fear and the resulting barriers that are placed between bodies. This can be seen in its references to AIDS victims buried deep underground; in the props that hold the sediment as it is pulverized by the new developments; And in the state of fear many feel from touching the dead bodies of their loved ones. Her work is an invitation to look at these objects that are kept at arm’s length.

“When I attended the first workshop, I knew why I was there, but I was still shocked when she said we were going to wash the body,” she said. “I had a feeling that it would be poisonous, that there would be something bad in the body after death. But where did that come from? Our elders and the generations before them will remain with the body. If you love someone in life, what does it mean to wash and take care of the body after death?”

All Hughes Surroundings: A Living SideThrough April 2 at the Whitney Museum of Art in New York.

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