Mourning and Loss in the Land of Consumption
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Mourning and Loss in the Land of Consumption

Presence of Absence video billboard on the Toronto Eaton Centre.

In the heart of the city’s shopping district, heartfelt tributes to loved ones lost are being spoken in the language of this consumer venue, the video billboard. Overlooking Yonge-Dundas Square, personal messages of mourning, paired with artworks on the subject of loss, are appearing every five minutes until Sunday.
The project, called The Presence of Absence, mingles the typically private with the intensely public. Bringing the deeply personal and generally avoided topic of mourning into the realm of shopping, tourism, and entertainment was the idea of Toronto artist Robin Pacific.
Working as the artist-in-residence for Bereaved Families of Ontario-Toronto, Pacific created The Presence of Absence with the help of 103 participants who created the visual artworks and hundreds of on-line contributors who wrote their personal messages to be broadcast.

Broadcast they certainly will be, appearing on the Clear Channel video billboard on Dundas Street overlooking Yonge Street, as well as several other video billboards around Toronto. The memorial in its entirety will be projected nightly through the window of the Bereaved Families of Ontario-Toronto offices at 28 Madison Avenue from 8:30 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. until April 20.

Video billboard above the entrance to One Richmond.

Pacific conducted workshops with members of Bereaved Families of Ontario-Toronto and residents of the Jane and Finch neighbourhood to create visual memorials to people they have lost using the words love, remember, or RIP. Their artworks were posted on an interactive website, where visitors were invited to attach personal messages of mourning, or even just a name, to a work of their choice. The results are the subject of an intervention of the deep and lasting impact of death into an urban environment that tends to avoid the topic at every opportunity.
Robin Pacific spoke to Torontoist about her motivations and experiences in creating The Presence of Absence.

A message of love appears among cellular phone ads

Torontoist: Why did you choose such a public broadcast venue? Is there something about the very public, large scale nature of this form of bereavement that helps with the healing process?
Pacific: Video billboards are the new town square, and in my effort to create a communal ritual I thought that we should make it as public as possible. I also wanted to make an artist’s intervention into relentlessly commercial space. The spots ended up on seven video billboards around the city.
Why did you choose the Jane and Finch neighbourhood to participate in this project?
Why Jane and Finch. The people at Jane and Finch are suffering bereavement as a community. There is really a war going on up there, and as with all wars, it is the young men who are cannon fodder. I felt that the workshops would help somewhat to ease people’s pain. Also, Bereaved Families has been doing outreach there, building capacity with their peer support model of bereavement counselling. Of the 103 participants in my project, twenty-four were from Jane and Finch.
The description of this project states that it “aims to re-invent the social mourning that our culture has relinquished.” Why do you think we have relinquished this aspect of our emotional lives?
I think we have lost our communal mourning rituals because in late global capitalism we have hived off our emotional lives to the private realm of women and children. There is a sense of shame about expressing deep feeling in public or in the workplace. My own experience and that of so many people I’ve supported in bereavement groups at BFO is that grief is a private and isolating experience.
Although experts now say that surviving the loss of a spouse, close relative, or child is a lifetime endeavour, that one doesn’t ever “get over it,” there is an expectation that we are supposed to buck up and carry on as if everything’s normal. Part of it also is that people don’t know what to say to the grieving person; they feel self conscious. We need to educate people about how to be with people who are bereaved.
Throughout your body of work, the burden of memory, experience, and the past often weighs heavy. Why does participation in a project such as this, as a contributor or a viewer, offer some liberty from this burden?
I’m not sure that I would call grief a burden exactly; indeed, it can be a regenerative and profoundly spiritual experience. And it is a process, a journey. Participation in this project can, I think, be a step, however small, on one’s spiritual path of healing. By making it a communal, public experience it underscores the idea that we are not alone in our suffering.
Photos by Michael Chrisman/Torontoist.