In Case it Rains in Heaven (2021)
Can You Take it With You?
You Can’t Take it With You, a Frank Capra directed 1938 Hollywood romcom starring James Stewart is an endearing parable emphasising the triumph of true love over the short-term obsessions of material culture and says much about the fleeting and temporary nature of wealth and possessions.
Most would agree that, while we may strive to secure comfort and security in life, nothing we own is of any use to us after we’ve gone – we can’t take it with us. Or can we? As we emerge from a devastating pandemic trying to make sense of a world in which so much has changed, a world from which many who until recently had long and promising lives to look forward to are suddenly, permanently absent, Kurt Tong’s exhibition In Case it Rains in Heaven (2021) at Departure Lounge in Luton offers a whimsical take, from the artist’s native Hong Kong, on what the living, might want to provide for our loved ones to ease their passage into the next life.
Kurt’s remarkable new series of photographs In Case it Rains in Heaven (2021) building upon an earlier series In Case it Rains in Heaven (Kehrer Verlag, 2010) presents us with a dizzying array of consumer goods all rendered in Joss paper – designed and manufactured specifically for cremation.
Offering Apple I-phones complete with chargers, slick new laptops, fully functioning sets of hand tools, children’s romper suits, a delicious array of dim sum, espresso machines, and enough cash to see us through the immediate disruptions of moving to a new place, Hong Kong’s industrious Joss paper manufacturers seem to have thought of everything we might need in the afterlife. Notably – because the tradition is uniquely responsive to fashion and the ebb and flow of opinion – also including full sets of personal protective equipment. Clearly the need to protect ourselves from infection carries over into the next world.
As well as a remarkable, bespoke, exotic and entirely non-western approach to the celebration of those we have lost Kurt’s exhibition poses enduring questions about the functions and purpose of photography, its status as a contemporary art form, its ability to recast, redefine and reinterpret ancient traditions of visual communication – like portraiture – and to reflect, and perhaps also to draw strength from, the some of the lively, joyous approaches to the memory of the departed observed around the world.
As a British contemporary art gallery with a photographic specialism Departure Lounge has long featured significant projects with some of the most promising photographic portraitists working internationally. Many pose searching questions about the dynamics and purpose of portraiture; Why do we seek the memorialise the living and the departed? What are the visual tropes used to establish status and position in portraiture? Where Kurt’s work is concerned a significant question is: can we create a portrait of someone who doesn’t in fact appear in the image (a ‘post-photographic’ query that cuts to the heart of the debate about the medium’s ability to reference narratives outside the immediate frame of the image).
In this new series Kurt joins a number of esteemed practitioners who have engaged with death, dying and memory and the ceremonies and rituals of saying goodbye.
These include Sarajevo based photographer Ziyah Gafic, whose project Quest for Identity, attempts to restore the identities of the victims of the Bosnian Genocide of the early 1990s, by forensically documenting their surviving personal effects including photographs, ID Cards, keys, spectacles and wristwatches – offering a collective, but generic identity an impression of live(s) lived and erased.
Less documentary and more activist, Argentinian artist and photographer Fernando Traverso was part of the resistance to Argentina’s military Junta. With his series 350 Intervención Urbana 2001-04) Traverso built an entire career stencilling bicycles on city walls and photographing the results. An abandoned bicycle was a signal that someone had been abducted in Argentina’s ‘dirty war’, and in Traverso’s work represents both quiet defiance and a celebration of lives lost and identities erased.
Returning to Bosnia and a consideration of funereal observances that are at once familiar representing a final, almost theatrical acknowledgment of the status and profile of the departed on her final journey, and at the same time profoundly exotic, Margareta Kern’s project Clothes for Death presents a series of images of elderly women who have devoted substantial time and energy to creating a suit of clothes – effectively a ‘Sunday best’ – in which to be buried.
What unites these different perspectives on the ever present cycle of life and death is their unfamiliarity. They pull sharply away from the dark clothes and hushed conversation of Anglo-American funerals, and yet while Kurt’s project may evoke a carnival atmosphere comparable with Mexico’s Day of the Dead – as with all these traditions, their purpose is to cement the memory, status and position of the departed in the lives and experiences of the living.
Joss paper, like a medieval coat of arms represents a Palimpsest, all elements of a life well lived and a marker of status. Can we create an image of someone, can a portrait exist if the person depicted is not present? The work of contemporary photographers suggests that we can, and Kurt’s new series suggests a great way to do this is to photograph the chattels of life that we might assemble for a loved one’s final journey.
You can’t take it with you, can you?
Perhaps you can.
Matthew Shaul, London April 2021