Six Rituals of 'Deathpower' at Law Warschaw

Six Rituals of 'Deathpower' at Law Warschaw

Published March 6th, 2024 by Juleana Enright

An international group show presents artists unpacking mortality and what lies beyond from a variety of cultural vantage points


One moves around the room as if in a temple, clockwise, clutching a request to a ritual, an invitation to convene with the things unseen, essences felt but temporal. There's an immediacy — a feeling that nothing is precious and yet it's all precious. Or maybe the feeling is that it is accessible or immediate to us, unguarded, a reminder to turn the inner eye to see not obstruction but a path to a little-death of self.

Curated by Erin Robideaux Gleeson in six overlapping themes, DEATHPOWER invites the visitor into relation with ways that death multiplies with life. 27 artists from widely differing geographical and cultural contexts unite to share personal and entangled vitalities across human and more-than-human registers: elemental relatives and spiritual relatives as well as animal, land, and human relatives. 

Inspired by Erik W. Davis’ book of the same title, Deathpower: Buddhism’s Ritual Imagination in Cambodia, the exhibit entices the viewer to ponder death through six agential rituals of care: placemaking for on-going communion between the living and the dead; language and orality in acts of witness; grieving and mourning; transformation and regeneration; the role of haunting for justice-to-come; and survivance. 

Much like Davis’ writings — which move through an understanding of the rituals of death via chapters exploring “rumor and witchcraft,” “gifts and hungry ghosts,” “binding the mighty death,” and “the rituals of sovereignty” — the artists’ works and curatorial design in DEATHPOWER layer materiality in the acts or chapters of caring for the dead. 


DEATHPOWER installation view (detail). Foreground: Mikołaj Sobczak, Upiór, 2022. Single-channel HD video, color, sound, 16 minutes, looped. Courtesy the artist and Captain Petzel, Berlin. Installation with pallet, plaster fragment from Macalester collection, and ceramic sculpture by Henry Tyson. Background, left to right: work by Rajyashri Goody, Douglas R. Ewart, Jane Jin Kaisen (on floor), Tcheu Siong, and Cameron Patricia Downey. All images courtesy of Erin Gleeson.


Placemaking for ongoing relations between the living and the dead. 

A spiritual object; an emblem. Examples of these exist in the works of Jim Denomie’s subversive, totem-activated painting Family Affair in honor of the Dakota 38+2, Cameron Patricia Downey’s towering altar 36th and Penn:Alt(e)r IV combining site-specific ornaments of mourning with celebratory adornments, and Douglas R. Ewart’s Rasta-inspired homage to bamboo — another totem — and ghost-vanquishing mask. 

Vuth Lyno’s Mirror Shrine evokes the Cambodian practice of placing a shrine known as chumneang pteah, eliciting the care of a house spirit. As an interface of communication between the spirit realm, the golden mirror produces transitional reflections of light and imagery, allowing the chance for an otherworldly communion between the viewer and the gallery's house spirit.


Vuth Lyno, Mirror Shrine, 2022. Reflective plexiglass or stainless steel, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist. In reflection: Mikołaj Sobczak, Upiór (foreground, detail) and Than Sok, Srie Bun (detail), 2016. Cotton blend textiles. Courtesy the artist.


Language, orality, and acts of witness. 

Interlacing narratives from various geographies and languages of Cambodia's highland borders, Arin Rungjang’s textile (woven by Vek Tounh) and printed material in Remembrance (Ratanaikiri) invites the participant into a woven tradition of oral history. Through ancestrally inherited language, color, and tapestry, we are infiltrated into a diary-like lexicon tracing the survivance within Indigenous lives targeted during the United States bombing of Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge genocide, and today's market economy.


Arin Rungjang, Remembrance (Ratanaikiri), 2017. Hand dyed and woven cotton, book. Courtesy the artist, Hard Hat, and Gallery Ver.


A transcription of a life and many deaths, Marilyn Boror Bor’s List of 440 Names documents the phenomenon of individuals performing legal de-naming and re-naming procedures across Guatemala in an attempt to colonize Indigenous names to Spanish ones. Over the course of one year of research the artist discovered 440 such occurrences printed in her local newspaper; the list of 440 names documents an “archive of death.”


Grieving and mourning.

Orality communes with mourning in Noor Abed’s our songs were ready for all wars to come. An exploration of folklore "through choreography and a sonic score based on documented Palestinian oral stories," this piece evokes an ode to representation and emancipation. The looped cadence draws connections between ancestral stories "and communal rituals associated with disappearance, mourning, and death."


Noor Abed, our songs were ready for all wars to come, 2022. Single-channel HD video, color, sound, 22 minutes, looped, Arabic language, no subtitles, courtesy the artist.


Referencing the nang rong hai, or crying women, the Mon female mourners of the royal court, Tanat Teeradakorn’s Procession of Ghost Voice auditory work considers how a now-banned practice relates to cultural coding and power imbalances that extend across time.

Transformation and regeneration. 

Thinking of these concepts of transformation and regeneration as an inclusion of gendered theory, trans activism, and queering, Mikolaj Sobczak's Upiór is a queering of orthodox Catholicism in the style of expressionist cinematography. The film follows Upiór — "a mythological, vampiric figure from the periphery of Polish-Ukrainian culture" — as he meets a Polish official visiting an Orthodox church slated to be demolished as part of the Recovery Action of 1938, which witnessed brutal property expropriation and eviction. A suspension between life and death, the work entices viewers to enter a disruption of the contingencies of time and space and highlights the profound personification of oppression that can become a tool for liberation. The artist implores, “Society needs a monster in order to unite in fear. Upiór lets us break this persecuting loop.” 


Pratchaya Phinthong, A whole from a different half (Mother’s Womb Cave), 2016. Charcoal, dimensions variable, courtesy the artist and GB Agency. Spite-specific drawing by Annalise Record.


Exploring the elements of rebirth and regeneration, Pratchaya Phinthong’s A whole from a different half (Mother’s Womb Cave) is a charcoal wall drawing which depicts the entrance to the cave rooted in a journey the artist made to Tövkhön Monastery, one of the oldest Buddhist pilgrimage sites in Mongolia. Inside the monastery resides Ekhiin Agui (Mother’s Womb Cave) – "a place known to support spiritual rebirth." Visitors to this monastery crawl through a narrow cavity to an inner chamber where they must roll their body clockwise one time before crawling out. It is believed that anyone who performs this ritual of gestation and (re)birth will have fecundity.

In Anocha Suwichakornpong’s video installation, Jit, a chance meeting reunites a dead mother and her living child as they stroll through the park in an exchange about the afterlife, examining the pragmatism in death and the tenderness of ongoing dialogue with those who have passed. A reminder of energetic transformation and the continuities of life, Maggie Thompson Quantum Entanglement explores the molecular and spiritual physics of heart-soul connections. Binding two hearts through the use of fabric, beadwork, and thread, Thompson’s work is a symbolic display of the unbreakable ties that connect us all. 


Maggie Thompson, Quantum Entanglement, 2022. Photo transfer on fabric, beads, and thread, approximately 41 x 58.5 x .75". Collection of Minnesota Museum of American Art.


The haunting for justice-to-come. 

If we consider a haunting as the ongoing “ghost stories” of the oppressed, the lingering trace of the trajectory of history — as theorist Avery Gordon does in her text Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination, this act of haunting becomes less about a single aberrant sighting and more about the concept of a haunting of society itself. In Saodat Ismailova’s video The Haunted, the artist focuses on the disappearing ecosystems in Uzbekistan "composed as a love letter to the extinct Turan tiger." Kablusiak’s Qiniqtuaq fills the exterior window with ghost-like draped curtains that welcome a haunting through the whole exhibition and invoke questions around observer and the observed. A reference again to Gordon’s text, Kablusiak examines the haunting ghost demands that we look for “the things behind the things,” drawing us towards “transformative recognition.”

A commentary on U.S. imperialism at play, the central area of the gallery demands attention to the land. Displayed on the floor Jane Jin Kaisen’s video Sweeping the Forest Floor implores us to think of land as witness. Filmed at the Korean Demilitarized Zone, the piece explores the impact of landmines in the no-contact buffer between North and South Korea where humans cannot set foot therefore other kinds of vitality — plant and animal life — are thriving. 

Land and colonial aftermath are also displayed in Andrea Carlson’s multiperspectival work Last Out which is a confrontation of "the historical and present colonial practices" of Native erasure and the prevailing resistance to Indigenous extinction through a vivid dreamlike landscape of real and imagined places.


Andrea Carlson, Last Out, 2023. Ink, gouache, oil on paper, courtesy the artist and Bockley Gallery.



Highlighting a term coined by Anishinaabe theorist Gerald Vizenor, this final section speaks to the Indigenous artists from vast parts of the world represented throughout the gallery. In essence these pieces speak to survivance, resilience without claiming victimry – the utilization of what has survived – language, identity, cultural tools, patterns, what is alive – to represent oneself. I am again reminded of Noor Abed’s our songs were ready for all wars to come, or Andrea Carlson’s Last Out as well as Raven Chacon’s American Ledger no. 1. Chacon’s graphic score narrates the creation story of the founding of the United States of America "in chronological descending order: moments of contact, enactment of laws, events of violence, the building of cities, and erasure of land and worldview." Through this telling of genocide, there is also an attempt of an anti-colonial gesture, of repetition to survive and to continue. The flag honors the land and relatives who existed before any of the score’s violences and attributes that notion to the agential ritual of care, which each work in DEATHPOWER references. 

In Erik Davis’ Deathpower, he states: “Death is the decomposition of the self. The rituals of death therefore provide an excellent location through which to examine the things of which society imagines the self to be composed.”

I am struck again by the exhibition statement, the first invitation for the viewer to think of the ways “death multiplies life.” The sovereign responsibility of the living to manifest merit-making on behalf of the spirits of the dead. These agential rituals of care become innately an examination not simply of the dead but of the haunting examination of society as a whole. ◼︎ 


DEATHPOWER installation view. Foreground: Sawangwongse Yawnghwe, 22022021, Yawngwe Office in Exile, (2021- ). Various cotton and cotton blend textiles, wire, variable dimensions. Courtesy the artist.


DEATHPOWER is on view at Law Warschaw Gallery through March 20. There will be a closing community reception on Tuesday, March 19, 6 – 8pm with a curator's walkthrough from 4:30 – 5:30pm.

Editor's note: unattributed quotations in the text are quoting the curatorial statements in the exhibition's extended didactics.

Banner image: Jane Jin Kaisen, Sweeping the Forest Floor (still), 2020. Single-channel HD video, color, sound, 25 minutes 5 seconds, looped. Courtesy the artist and Martin Asbæk Gallery.

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