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Joyce Bursein's "The Epitaph Project" view detail
Any Last Words?
By Dan Tranberg
The Plain Dealer, 05/31/02

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 of paper.

New York artist Joyce Burstein investigates this desire to offer words of wisdom and foolishness at grave sites, and nothing gets destroyed in the process.

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.