M E M O R I A L
We are living in challenging times, between a pandemic yet to end, and the on-going fatigue and challenges that continue to arise related to conflict and to climate change. Between these losses, the inevitable change and new beginnings, artistic creation can help to weave a new relationship within loss and care, grief and nurture, between people and the planet.
It is with this idea in mind that I conceived Memorial, in 2020, as a tribute to Covid-19 victims. Memorial integrates individual and collective loss into the wider cycle of contemporary events, on which we can act. It aims to propose a space for grief, while creating a narrative that, even when faced with profound pain and disbelief, entails people as agents of change for a hopeful future.
Memorial is a project that focuses on the public sphere – eventually, on public spaces as well, and consists of planting an autochthonous tree for each fatal victim of Covid-19. The project invites public participation in two ways: people can choose to be part of the planting process, and they can also share a personal memory that celebrates those who are gone in a website built with this intention. With this, the planting action on the physical territory is disseminated virtually, publishing the memory and stories received, while sharing with the public knowledge and information on grief and loss, as well as the scientific data on climate change issues, and particularly, that associates it with this pandemic and with the individual and collective actions that we need to take in order to lessen its effects on our mental and physical health; now and in the future.
The project reflects on the psychological trauma resulting from the pandemic and works with the environment in a dual perspective: the much needed regeneration of green areas as part of a wider scheme within climate change efforts – namely, the United Nations considers that forests are essential to curb the rise in temperature above 1.5ºC, both for their ability to drastically reduce carbon emissions, their role in the water cycle and air quality, and for the carbon that can be sequestered through reforestation and proper management of forests, restoring landscapes and reducing emissions – beyond the basic issue of being essential for biodiversity. Supporting the regeneration of natural areas can be woven with a profound emotional implication, promoting a deeper layer of meaning in the bond between humans and nature. Following these questions, Memorial remains open to being adapted to social and cultural practices of mourning and loss, hoping to contribute to the discussion about art and ecology, inside and outside urbanity, as a practice, process and materiality.
Memorial addresses the process of loss, trauma and grief. In some cultures, trees have a strong symbolism and have been planted in celebration of different life cycles: marriages, births, deaths. In collective actions, during which support is offered to those who have lost a loved one, they can provide some comfort to the natural emotional distress resulting from the loss. These rituals endow actions with a purpose, connecting us with each other and with the symbolic; it aids the nurturing efforts, to make sense of losses and to the shared creation of a new meaning. The connection with nature and with each other, with the earth and plants, contribute to our physical and mental health, being powerful instruments in our recovery after a loss, facilitating a healthier grieving process. Planting a tree is also a gesture that helps to maintain the memory of a loved one alive, inserting this special person in a narrative of transformation and integration in the cycles of nature and of our own, on-going, lives. The gathering of trees within Memorial allows for a peaceful place to visit, for comfort and for a connection that goes into the future, fostering the relationship with the physical realities of nature creating a new life, in its inevitable practice.
During the period of the pandemic, funeral rituals were very limited, narrowing the social support that is traditionally given to people who have lost someone. A traumatic event like this leaves its mark on people. However, a traumatic event also offers the possibility of reintegration: of strengthening the bonds between people, in the community and with our landscapes, forests, natural habitats. As it is a collective trauma we just endured, it justifies the need to be faced and managed collectively.
Beyond its ecological intervention, Memorial is also an environmental awareness project. Scientific studies have shown a correlation between mortality from Covid-19 and pathologies of the respiratory system with the pollution of urban areas. Even though as so far (in 2022) the WHO considers the origin of SARS-CoV-2 virus to remain open, the risk for future pandemics remains a relevant topic as with deforestation and natural habitat loss, there’s a potential increase on the transmission of infectious diseases that jump from animals to humans. If the action of a small country like Portugal to preventing the emergence of new pandemics is very limited, we can nevertheless play a positive role in the long-term mitigation of deaths from pandemics, heart, respiratory and other diseases, derived from pollution and the increase of temperatures due to climate change.
In its physical implementation, Memorial proposes art to be as regenerative as possible. Starting from the premise that all work is landscape intervention – either directly, through building, constructing, implementing, or indirectly, through the acquisition of materials, transportation, mediums used with an impact on the planet -, Memorial simply aims this intervention to be regenerative for nature and for us, as much as possible; to seed, instead of extract, as is still currently the norm in our economic system across the globe.
With part of the project being carried out online, it allows reaching a significant number of people that transcends the possibilities offered by face-to-face public presentations and may contribute to the access to culture beyond regional asymmetries. However, the invitation to the public to participate in the planting of trees as a process integrated in the work of art reconfigures the artistic project while allowing it to be brought outside the urban centres where artistic production is mostly done, with the expectation of the endowment of this symbolic character of green spaces contributing to bringing people closer to nature, and to the indispensable enhancement and regeneration of these areas.
Following these questions, in Memorial I explore ways of doing beyond the established, rethinking where public art mostly takes place, in transferring it to the physical periphery. In this paradox of defining a project that is defined while remaining open to be adapted to the social and cultural diversity of demonstrations of mourning and loss is one of the transversal lines of this project; it remains undone. I also hope to contribute to bringing environmental issues as essential to the discussion about the different disciplines that integrate public spaces, inside and outside urbanity.
The climate crisis is a revealing symptom of the delicate, unbalanced societies we live in, where a predominantly dominating way of relating to each other and to life on the planet is reflected, perhaps not in its cause (we still don’t know that), but certainly in the disparities, conflicts and losses in human rights we are witnessing as a result. However, we also have the knowledge and the capacity to transform that relationship we have with each other, and to recover a much-needed balance that gives rise to individual and collective health, justice and wellbeing.
Memorial is an interdisciplinary project, physically materialized through the support of a pre-existing infrastructure/organization of forest regeneration with the use of autochthonous trees. This takes place through a collective action with volunteers, according to a pre-established calendar and conducive to this action. Participants are invited to develop a caring relationship with the tree their planting, throughout time; to visit and nurture it as a symbol of the deceased. The relationships we have keep on evolving, even after a loss; having that a loved one symbolised by a tree may provide comfort and a nurturing way of keeping that relationship alive, and honouring it. The communal, ritualistic aspect of the project aims to provide a safe space for the sharing of the difficult emotions that are part of grief. Hopefully, these losses may become protective symbols from our ancestors caring for our future, for our health, and for those of future generations. Despite the losses, not all is lost.
In parallel to the planting effort, Memorial proposes a website is to be developed, which presents information in three axes:
1. The tree plantation effort;
2. The personal stories that celebrate those who disappeared victims of Covid-19, sent by their relatives, friends;
3. Compilation of information on grief and climate change.
Memorial aims to be informed by science and its dissemination, exploring the development of systems and interconnecting disciplines in order to work on deep emotional issues such as the trauma caused by the pandemic and climate change, through a proposal that invites reflection on several levels: sensory, emotional, physical and intellectual aspects of the natural world and our fragile human condition. These characteristics seek to follow the path of artistic research and exploration for the collective benefit and an altruistic society, promoting the access to knowledge that allow progress in this direction. In this way, I aim that may work goes further than the traditional cultural audiences, into the bare human condition of transformation and loss from which we cannot escape - but can reconstruct their meaning into new, integrate ways.
Post-scriptum: The series Undeniable (2021) is a spin-off from this project.