Take a walk through Pere Lachaise, Paris' most prestigious cemetery,
and you'll see more than the graves of artists and celebrities.
As you approach the burial site of rock star Jim Morrison, you'll
notice that all the surrounding tombstones are literally covered with
graffiti. Ardent fans scribble slogans such as "Long Live the Lizard King"
across 200-year-old works of funerary sculpture as if they were
cinder-block walls in the back of a Kmart.
More genteel tributes can be seen at the nearby grave of Oscar Wilde,
where bouquets of flowers accompany poems lovingly scribed on small scraps
New York artist Joyce Burstein investigates this desire to offer words
of wisdom and foolishness at grave sites, and nothing gets destroyed in
Burstein's installation "The Epitaph Project," on view at Spaces
Gallery through June 14, is an ongoing work in which a tombstone made of
slate is installed in a public place along with a supply of chalk. With no
instructions of any kind, viewers are invited not only to write or draw
what they please, but to take a stab at coining a fictional epitaph.
A video and several dozen black-and-white photos document the many ways
in which people have responded to Burstein's proposition. And it's
surprising to find among them a good amount of humor, along with some
genuinely touching sentiments.
"Earth was nice" is a personal favorite, with "You are the weakest
link, G'bye" coming in a close second. Others of note are "Case closed"
and "You're standing on me."
Burstein's project will be familiar to anyone who visited the yearlong
sculpture show "Celebration of the Spirit" at Lake View Cemetery last
year, where the artist set up a slate gravestone along with a bronze box
full of chalk.
She also has installed a long-term version of the piece at Hollywood
Cemetery in California.
The disappointing part of the Spaces show is that Burstein's
installation is tucked away in the back of the gallery. Her indoor version
of a cemetery plot, complete with a grass-green rug, feels like a corny
substitute for a cemetery setting. And while viewers can write on a small
slate tombstone in the gallery, the results are not nearly as interesting
as those from the outside world.
Still, Burstein has tapped into a phenomenon that's well worth
exploring. Where else can people discreetly offer passing thoughts on
death and mortality without desecrating graveyards?
Like a social scientist, Burstein is building a collection of ideas.
Now she just has to find an effective way to present them to the world.