Among the Unburied

by Liz Park

The heroine of Sophocles’ tragedy Antigone, first performed in Athens in the 5th century BCE, is sentenced to live entombment because she has performed funeral rites for a brother who was declared an enemy of the state. This fearless woman cannot accept the decree that of her two brothers, who have killed one another in a bitter war, one will get a hero’s burial while the other is left to be devoured by birds and dogs. From Hegel to Judith Butler, from Jean Anouilh and Bertolt Brecht to Athol Fugard, writers have interpreted and adapted the complex story of Antigone to speak to struggles between individual freedom and state oppression, between the interests of the family and the interests of the state, and between personal ethics and the imperatives engendered by political strife.

We can read reports of the many dead and missing in present and past conflicts, but we are rarely told what burial, if any, has been granted to them. Still, there are Antigones among us who are living reminders of the need to attend to the dead as a matter of ethics and politics in the severest of conditions. This project is a collection of stories told by three artists — Mauricio Arango, Marianne Nicolson, and Park Chan-kyong — who, in the spirit of Antigone, invite us to consider those who remain unburied in the world of the living.

Forms of worship and funerary rites vary greatly from the ancient Greece of Sophocles’ time to contemporary Latin America, the Pacific Northwest, and Asia — the respective homes of the three artists. Yet the importance of kinship and the need to provide a resting place for the dead remain constant in the diverse cultural and political imaginations that are manifest in their work. And as in Antigone, the grievances of the dead and their stories as conveyed by the artists are firmly planted in the conditions of trauma and violence that haunt the world of the living.

In his films, Mauricio Arango attempts to capture and share a sense of life in Colombia, a country so ravaged by violence and mass murders that he declares, “I do not know what to tell you … I do not know where to begin.”[1] Arango’s 12-minute film The Night of the Moon Has Many Hours (2010) opens with a man who wakes up in the middle of the night to retrieve the bodies carelessly tossed in the river. Equipped with nothing more than a lantern, the protagonist of this short film rows his raft down a glassy black river and slowly and methodically pulls out bodies of young men, one after another. At one point, he looks up at the riverbank where the bodies lie neatly, and sees a group of people who have come to claim their loved ones.

This film was inspired by a newspaper article Arango read about a man who took it upon himself to bury under the cover of the night the bodies that were floating down a river in rural Colombia. Honoring the victims in public would have marked him as the enemy of the right-wing paramilitary. Claiming neutrality was not an option, but neither was resignation for this real-life Antigone; the raftsman risked his life to give due respect to the dead, many of whom were innocents caught in the crossfire.

As inspiring as this report was for Arango, his films are neither illustrations nor reenactments. Poetry, in particular the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges’s Poems of the Night, has left a deep imprint in many of Arango’s works. Borges lost his eyesight over the span of his writing career, and many of his poems describe the darkness as both terrifying and comforting, the night as a time when the visible world as we know it in the light of day takes on different resonances. Borges’s poem “The Young Night” (which provided the title for Arango’s 2013 film, Everything Near Becomes Far), begins with the words “And now the lustral waters of the night absolve me/from the many colors and the many forms.”

In The Night of the Moon Has Many Hours, too, the few sources of light cast a fantastical quality over the setting, and the river takes on lustral powers. Instead of seeing the horror of the mass murders or hearing the weeping families, we encounter the calming sounds of insects and the gentle flow of the river; they are like a Greek chorus that speaks a non-human language, bearing witness to the acts of the murderers. The man would also appear otherworldly were it not for the visible strain of his muscles when fishing out the dead from the water. As he lifts up the bodies onto the raft, he physically cradles, in an act of care and consolation, the young men who have lost their lives too soon.

Arango’s story does not end in death; death prompts the protagonist to action, and watching the protagonist prompts us to reflect on the chains of events that have led to present and past conflicts in Colombia. Similarly, artist and filmmaker Park Chan-kyong’s feature-length Manshin (2013) portrays how a shaman, whose work begins at the moment of death, acknowledges and assuages the collective anguish of a nation-state under duress. Part documentary, part re-enactment, part performance, Manshin unspools the life story of Korea’s most respected shaman, Kim Keum-hwa, born to a poverty-stricken family in 1931 in a part of the country now controlled by North Korea.

Having become a shaman at age 17 after being possessed by spirits, Kim lived through Japanese colonial rule in Korea, the Korean War, the armistice, and the division of the nation-state into North and South. Seen as mere superstition, shamanism was heavily suppressed, initially by Japanese colonialists who sought to eradicate all vernacular Korean culture, then later by the heads of state whose mission was to modernize the country after independence. In the film, Kim sings, prays, dances, drums, yells, and cries in shamanic rituals that range from a performance in a yard to a spectacle nationally broadcast from the demilitarized zone that divides North and South Korea. She gives interviews, lectures, and teaches publicly about the highly esoteric world of spirits, but rather than illustrate or expound, the film moves us through the different worlds of the living and the dead via ceremonies called gut.[2]

Manshin is Park’s magnum opus, but his other work has led up to the making of this feature-length film. Anyang, Paradise City (2011) is a short film that similarly documents a shamanic ritual performed by a disciple of Kim, who is asked to appease the ghosts of young women factory workers who died in a dormitory fire. Night Fishing (2011), produced in collaboration with his filmmaker brother Park Chan-wook, is a short film in the genre of horror. While out on a night fishing trip, a man catches the dead body of a woman and pulls it out of the river. A series of slapstick moves results in a tangled fishing line that binds the corpse to the horrified man. When the dead woman awakes and begins to speak, we realize that in fact the man has drowned in the river, and this woman is the shaman hired by the victim’s family to guide his spirit. The river in the film is a purgatory from which the shaman saves the fisherman’s soul, recalling the work of the raftsman in Arango’s The Night of the Moon Has Many Hours, but it is also the point of confluence for the dead and the living.

Park’s films focus on such points of conjunction and perform evocations of many ghosts in Korea, a country that was savagely thrust into modernity, first by Japanese occupation, then by a civil war that divided the country in half, and most recently by rapid industrialization and Americanization, changes that brought economic bounty but entrenched precarious conditions for the working class. Those who have fallen victim to the turbulent events of the latter part of the twentieth century wander as ghosts, and Park, with the shamans he consults and works with, attends to their often-forgotten stories.

In suggesting that the unburied dead become ghosts who haunt the living, Park’s films imagine a world of ghostly grievances and unrest. Rather than work with the narrative form or film as a medium to allude to a world of ghosts, Marianne Nicolson uses light in a primal way to create environments that accommodate both us, the living, and the spirits of the dead. Best described as a light-based installation, Bax’wana’tsi: The Container for Souls (2006) comprises a glass box etched with indigenous Pacific Northwest Coast design elements called formlines. Sitting on a pedestal in the center of a gallery, the box contains a single bulb that illuminates and projects various images of animals, such as a raven and an owl, as shadows onto the walls. More poignantly, the panes also carry photographic images of Nicolson’s mother and aunt as girls at a residential school.

It is only in recent years that the Canadian government has begun to confront and apologize for the long-standing practice (between 1876 and 1996) of forcibly taking indigenous children from their families and placing them in residential schools, church-run but funded by the government.[3] Cut off from their families, language, and culture, children were often physically and sexually abused, with no recourse. This history of cultural genocide, still fresh and raw, informs all of Nicolson’s works, including The House of the Ghosts (2008), an installation on the façade of the Vancouver Art Gallery, which is housed in a historic courthouse building that was at one point the seat of British colonial power in the province. By day this installation appeared as a banner with an image of a human figure flanked by a text in English and the artist’s native language, Kwak’wala. By night, a powerful projection of Nicolson’s formline designs along the crossbeams and columns of the existing architecture created the appearance of a ceremonial house in the tradition of Nicolson’s native Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw culture. This dramatic transformation of the building acknowledged the presence of those who suffered and perished under the imposed laws of the British crown, including the potlatch ban that denied the Pacific Northwest Coast indigenous communities their right to traditional ceremonies, even for weddings and funerals. More powerfully, however, Nicolson’s installation was also a generous invitation to jointly inhabit the space of the museum, reconceived as a place for the living and the dead, and for both indigenous and settler communities.

Nicolson’s current interests and research take her to the rivers of her traditional territory, where salmon, eulachon, and other marine life serve as an accurate gauge for the health of the place and the community. Using a revolving light source that casts shadowy images in slow cycles, her recent installations are time-based projections that ebb and flow like a river. The perpetual cycle of the river is what ensures its health, and the confluence of various streams ensures the health of the larger ecosystem. Nicolson uses gears and motors to create her installation of moving light, and does not attempt to hide these mechanical devices; their visibility acknowledges that her work grows out of life in an industrialized landscape where exploitation of natural resources is the primary generator of revenue.[4]

Nicolson’s interest, however, extends beyond industry’s dependence on nature and the paramount importance of fresh water to all life and into the symbolic realm of the river as the element that connects the different generations past, present and, hopefully, yet to come.[5] The river, understood in this way, is a long-standing witness to events of the past (for instance, different stewardship of the land under colonial rule), much as the river bears witness to the deaths of characters in Arango’s and Park’s films. Powerful, transmutative, purificatory, and lustral (to borrow Borges’s word again) is the river that runs through all three artists’ work like a refrain. From the depths of the riverbed, they bring to the surface the lost and the unburied so that, like Antigone, they can perform, however symbolically, the last rites.

In the work of the three artists, we see the many convergences in the different ways that death is imagined as part of life, and in how these imaginings are affected by histories of war, civil strife, and political and cultural upheaval. Honoring the dead, giving them a proper burial, is a reflection of how life was lived and how else it could be lived — alternative visions and hopes. The burial performed by Antigone and by others like her is thus as much for us, the living, as it is for the dead.

  1. This is taken from the artist’s wall text that accompanies his film The Night
    of the Moon Has Many Hours in the exhibition Among the Unburied at Cantor
    Fitzgerald Gallery.
  2. See Hank Glassman’s essay on gut in this publication.
  3. Mali Ilse Paquin, “Canada confronts its dark history of abuse in residential
    schools,” The Guardian, 6 June 2015, accessed October 27, 2015,
  4. All over the world, in the name of modernization and in pursuit of capital, people have stopped the flow of water by damming rivers that once teemed with life. The Four Major Rivers Project in South Korea, completed in 2011, was heavily criticized as an unnecessary artificialization of natural waterways despite its professed environmental aims. Ituango Dam, which is poised to be the largest power station in Colombia upon completion, will also displace human and non-human inhabitants along the Cauca River, and is causing
    armed clashes between the army and the rebel group that has long controlled the region for cocaine trafficking.
  5. See the conversation between the artist and the curator in this publication.