There is no greater cause for crying
than not being able to cry
Marcus Annaeus Seneca (Controversiae I. Vol. IV)
This exhibition by Antonio Briceño addresses the topic of weepers or professional mourners, the groups of women whose ritual crying has been a dramatic vehicle to express our grief at death since ancient times. Today, the tradition has almost totally disappeared from funerals, but some small communities continue to exist, such as in Bajo Piura, Peru, where Briceño made his photographs. However, while the topic of the weepers is the evident premise in the exhibition, the artist’s intention goes beyond it and subtly examines the way our society represses emotions.
The show explores grief and condolence, which are fundamental experiences for the human psyche today, especially in the context of sprawling cities where physical and psychological loss are part of everyday life. As Rafael López Pedraza writes: … they are possibly the human soul’s most profound emotions and the ones that enrich our emotional memory to the greatest extent. That is what grief is: an emotion at the core of our being where our soul resonates most intensely. (López, 2008: 75). It is probably that intensity that López Pedraza refers to and its impact on us, which mean emotional repression is so relevant here.
As often occurs in his work, Briceño uses landscape as a way to express emotions or moods. In this sense, the images of water are not only metaphors of contained emotions and everything that simmers within us, but also the degrees to which these emotions are disquieted. Nevertheless, the works printed onto methacrylate blocks reinforce the impression that these emotions have been contained and, as a result, are frozen and static.
Grief is an alchemic process: it distills and decants emotions that are unsettled by loss, takes us from death and puts us back together in a new set of circumstances within our lives. Once in this new situation, we come to accept loss and ultimately come to forget.
This expulsion of memory is present in the show in the lacrimatorios (lachrymatories), which are part of the ancient tributes that were made to the dead. They contained the tears shed by mourners that were made as offerings posited as heartfelt displays of grief. In Briceño’s works, we can see how the now dried-out containers, covered in crusts and strewn across an eroded landscape, are reminiscent of how we forget the deceased as time passes, when the period of grieving draws to a close. But, with regards to repressed emotions, we are also faced with forgetting the crying itself and the expression of our own emotions. Ultimately the works reveal our inability to irrigate the world we live in with our inner waters. They are thus suggestive of the blockages produced by violent cities, where death becomes a normal everyday occurrence, leaving us emotionally spent and thus unable to really feel pain in response to tragedy.
Professional weepers always played a vital role in relation to emotional blockages. These women, who are normally hired, are not only a vehicle to heighten the pain of grief and the ritual staging of the importance of the deceased, but also to channel relatives’ pain. Their sobbing encourages others to let their pain out by providing them with a mirror in which to see themselves.
Contrary to what some might imagine, the weepers do not fake pain, nor do they con people with crocodile tears. Their role is closer to that of tragic actors from Ancient Greece, when tragedy was a ritual representation to pay tribute to Dionysus, who was an important god for women. Dionysus was linked to the idea of resurrection and sacred madness. In a sense, the weepers’ violent staging of pain and weeping fits with what Aristotle identified as the key elements of tragedy: mimesis (imitation) and catharsis (purification). Their empathy works as a genuine incarnation of Pathos (emotion) that they experience as their own pain, thus affecting mourners in a real sense and stimulating their grief. These women, who invariably wear black mantillas (the works magnify them on long and tremulous black shrouds), dramatize loss, turn it into something transcendental, cut through time and reveal the unalterable change that has occurred in our lives.
In this sense, the videos in the group Plañideras: ¡Ay, mamita! and ¡Compadre Florencio! are vivid expressions of these women’s capabilities. Their intensity is poignant and shows the physical and psychological effort that such a display demands of them. These works, which are looped, are also an offering that the artist and these women make to us as viewers. They cry because of us and for us, they accompany us in our feelings.
It is worth asking why this catalyst for grief, which has existed since the beginning of time, has since disappeared from our customs? There might not be easy or direct answers but we could venture that it is not considered fashionable to make a show of emotions, which is often interpreted as a lack of control. Once again, we can return to Greek tradition to suggest that the Apollonian elements within us have imposed themselves on our society, to the point where even certain regions that once belonged to emotions –art included- have succumbed to the prevailing power of reason.
This is the dialogue that the images in the exhibition invite us to participate in and which demand we address two distinct discourses that run parallel through the works and that claim urgent attention.
Tomás Rodríguez Soto
López Pedraza, Rafael (2008): Emociones: una lista. Caracas: Festina Lente