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One visit to the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, California, you will find endless ancient treasures.  The museum is 40,000 square feet of exhibit space housing over 6,000 years of art from all of Asia including India, Southeast Asia, Persia, China, Japan, Korea and the Himalayas.  The collection has sculptures, paintings, ceramics, furniture, basket arts and textiles.  Frequently, the museum promotes special programs, live performances, and festivities reflective of Asian culture and traditions.

On the day I visited a current modern solo artist Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook’s Visual Art was spotlighted in one exhibit I can simply state was unexpected and profoundly thought provoking.

Being in such beautiful surroundings one could easily spend an entire afternoon going from one exhibit to the next, and never truly see everything.  This is exactly what I did.  I went floor to floor end to end admiring artifacts, reading about the displays on the placards staged by each piece.

I turned the corner and pulled open the large glass entrance doors leading to the next exhibit when I discovered I had been firmly planted into a space unexpected.  It was dimly lit.  Not completely dark with a recording playing so I felt reassured I had not entered into a restricted zone.

The room was not large at all but more spacious length wise than it was in depth, and across the room is another set of large glass doors, essentially creating a narrow passage with which to pass through before the exit on the other side.  Not really enough time to gain one’s bearings; then you exit.  Immediately your whole focus centers upon a floor to ceiling projection screen with a black and white film playing.

My first thought was how novel and so unlike the antique sculptured reliefs I had spent several hours viewing.  My next thought was “let’s get comfortable” and I looked for a seat, but there wasn’t any.  There were only three high bench-like seats against one rear wall.  I guess the minimalistic exhibit was designed to grab one’s sense of awe one feels regarding the subject matter as well.

I could feel it right away.  You enter the room and immediately your sense of sight, orientation are put a bit off kilter, so you stop all movement to focus in the moment; just focus  on the screen and ponder what it all means.   “What does this exhibit mean?”  And, “why is it seemingly forcing the viewer to view what appears to be corpses just lying there on the floor?”   “What does this mean?”    Along the rear wall on either side of the bench seating are just a couple of panel signs describing the exhibit.  Even though the room was dark the lighting was precise as to allow only a couple at a time to stand there and read more about it.

I stood off to the side until a place on the slim bench opened.  People came and went as they pleased.  Some would enter, stop, look at the screen and exit, others would enter and walk to the center of the room, walk to the middle of the screen then just face the screen.  I sat there.  As the film cycled through its short film loop, I was able to view it from the beginning to the end.  Then one more loop around wishing I had my note pad, or at least my hand-held recorder I  use to always carry with me to capture the moment.   Camera and video devices are allowed in the museum, but just as well I did not have them because it forced me to  pay close attention.  So, I did.

In Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook’s film “The Class,” an instructor is in the front of the class introducing to those present the subject matter to be covered.  She then writes on the chalk board in large block letters the words D. E. A. T. H.

“What?  Are they dead?”

The female instructor walks up to one of the six individuals in the room lying on the floor atop what appears to be a hospital steel slab, and ask  “How do you feel about today’s topic?”  Naturally there is no response,  “You need more time to respond?” she says, and poses the same question to the next individual, and so on, and so on.

She then reads to them from a book, asks more questions and provides some comments and facts on Death and Dying.   It is, by all accounts, a one-way lecture, still her lecture content carefully chosen.

In other questions directed to the class she ask….. as best I can recall ….questions such as:

“How was your death?”

“How did you die?”

A couple sat next to me then left quietly.  Out the glass doors on the other side of the room they went.

A woman walks in alone from the exit door on the opposite side of the room and sits next to me.  “This is so morbid” she comments directly to me as she gets comfortable beside me.  A brief glance her way and I give her a smile.  “Yes,”  I replied and ask if she had read the panels on the wall.  “This is very interesting.  I have never seen anything like it” I said to her.   The woman comments back  ” No I didn’t.  My husband thinks this is so weird.  We left so quick the first time.”  We sat there side by side for what was now my third loop of the film.

I had absorbed as much in the moment and wished my day’s film companion an enjoyable rest to the day.  She smiled back at me and I exited.

FINAL AFFAIRS    What did I think of the exhibit?

I thought it was the most novel thing I had ever seen in quite some time.

I have a personal history of viewing Art and finding meaning in themes conveyed.  Art is always not only visually beautiful, but often also allows the viewer to see unique nuances found in daily living not so easily put into words.

This was no different.  “The Class” was successful in its ability to be thought provoking, and to inspire discussion about one’s own individual perspective regarding the present, Death and Dying, and perhaps even a spiritual discussion of individual beliefs.

Avoid

Death is something most would rather not entertain a discussion about until the time has arrived – for someone else.  Otherwise, not deal with it at all.  When “someone else” dies those loved ones left behind ultimately are left with the grief and bereavement to make sense of it all.  There is first the shocking news then ceremonies, and burial arrangements most do that are in keeping with the family’s customs and traditions.   Or worst, only the local County Morgue’s Staff will attend to an individual’s final affairs because there is no family, no one left behind to communicate the news to.   How morbid would that be?   I suppose the saddest thing in life is to be unremarkable in every sense even in death; unclaimed, forgotten and left alone.  I guess when one is dead they can’t appreciate the irony and sadness of it.  Can you image someone so alone in life even in death they remained unnoticed, unclaimed?

Awareness

Many are fearful to discuss the topic of Death and Dying.  It is only natural to have such fears.  It’s the fear of the unknown.  It must be an unknown factor for the human race and this is just the way the life cycle works.

Because death is final for [ all ] human beings we have yet to develop  a way to know otherwise.  After humans are dead they can no longer report verbally their most recent experience;  they are no longer able to physically dance, walk on their own free will, be among the living but maybe remain forever present in memory of those left behind.  In the Mental Health community we term this Grief & Bereavement, or Complicated Grief if severe sadness for a loved one lingers after a loved one has died.

My scientific measure of this is not technical I know but this is how only I can place it into perspective to make a point of how final it is.  And, yes it goes without saying many do believe there is life after death [ in some form ] rather it be because of a spiritual belief in reincarnation, Figurative Memory that becomes a belief in a real presence, or Religious beliefs.   All equally valid and acceptable beliefs to have for the individual if they believe in them.  Beliefs are powerful and real because we as individuals believe in them.  Beliefs are important to have as they help us make sense of our individual lives, and with which to cope in this vast incredible place we call Earth.

My core belief has evolved into acceptance regarding there being many unknown factors to living and this has eased a few fears.  It is far more important and a more noble a life to live by simply enjoying that which is occurring around you every day, than to live in a state of sadistic fear of the unknown which cannot always be fully understood, or controlled, in one’s lifetime.

ONLINE SUMMARY:   As one of the leading video artists in Southeast Asia, Thailand-based Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook speaks to an audience of shrouded corpses about subjects on the different meanings of death, their expectations of the afterlife, and how living people speak of death in her short film “The Class.”   The New York Times says of her work,  …“Some viewers have taken the work to be Buddhist; Ms. Rasdjarmrearnsook has spoken of sources in personal loss.  Whatever their inspiration, they are unforgettable.”  “The Class” invites viewers to contemplate their own ideas on these subjects.

Confronting the diversity of cultural and religious attitudes toward mortality, the work also satirizes academic convention, the living professor teaching death to an audience already well versed in the subject.

Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook lives and works in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where she lectures living students at the Faculty of Fine Arts, Chiang Mai University.

Guggenheim Museum   Summary of Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook’s presentations internationally.

::::   Until Next Time:   à donf   :::

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