Trauerkunst by Pavel Radchenko
It’s a blisteringly hot morning in Berlin Bergmannkiez. Pavel and I balance our coffees on a low fence while we reposition 3 stools to a more shadowy spot outside the coffee shop, creating a makeshift table between us. I lay down my phone with the voice recorder switched on which is just as well, as we’re already begun excitedly babbling about his project despite that he’s several yards away retrieving our coffees. Each time I meet him I’m infected by his ardour. We don’t do smalltalk, we dive straight in. You see Pavel has thought a lot about death – I mean, he literally has a PhD in it. His doctorate in philosophy from Heidelberg explored the social suppression of death. This may sound inherently macabre but Pavel is a cheerful chap. He laughs a lot and is incredibly affable. This is our second face-to-face meeting and yet I feel like we’re old friends.
I’ve come to meet him to see how his latest project, Trauerkunst (‘Grieving Art’) is coming along. The project is about taking everyday objects from a departed loved one, to create a cathartic work of art. The project aims to accompany people through a creative grieving process to help them tackle their grief and deal with the loss by taking old and ordinary things and creating something new and remarkable with them.
Art has followed Pavel his whole life. A true product of both his parents – his mother was an artist and his father an academic – he felt he couldn’t just sit around and think, but needed to be making something. Back in 2012 while he was writing his doctorate he decided he wanted to become a screenplay writer. He created a love story where a man helps a young mother grieving for the loss of her child through art. She can’t bare to clear out the child’s bedroom and won’t let go of any of the child’s possessions. This man helps her to make art of remnants and helps her to find closure. The screenplay was never finished, but rather Pavel became his own main protagonist.
Transcription of video in English:
This is my Grandmother. who died when I was 20 and I never really had the time to say goodbye to her properly. What did she leave behind? Which memories do I have of her? A spool of pink thread – rosy-pink and purple, those were her colours. A box of buttons. A sewing machine. My Grandma loved to sew. I loved to watch her. Somehow the quiet rhythmical click-clack on the sewing machine calmed me. She stitched me a secure childhood, soothed and provided for me. And while my parents worked, she taught me to read. She taught me to write and to count. She sewed me a rosy childhood, free from cares or worries. When loved ones die they leave much behind them. Things, that we’ll always connect with them. Don’t throw them away, make them into art. I’ll help you.
Pavel lost his grandmother shortly after finishing school in 2000. It all happened quite quickly. He was 20, busy with his exams and didn’t take the time to say goodbye. As creative ideas often operate, loose strings from different times in life bind themselves together, and years later he came across an old sewing machine on the street.
“It made me think of her instantly and it made me want to finally make this project a reality. If I am to help others to make an art work, I need to first show them how it could work and what it could look like. Before I promise somebody something I need to show them how I would deal with it personally. So I started. I took the sewing machine apart and I experimented a lot and made a lot of variations. It was much more difficult that I thought it would be. Depending on how I arranged the elements there was a different interpretation of her.”
Pavel describes to me how in one of the early drafts he played around with thread and was quite horrified that the result seemed like he had bound his grandmother tightly away. Another draft involved a drawer where he felt that he was shutting her out.
“It didn’t sit well with me, but then I thought, maybe I’m representing something on a subconscious level. She was quite a reserved person and there were things she didn’t talk about. But it still wasn’t the lasting interpretation I wanted to have of her.”
Later, he found colourful magnetic alphabet letters in his son’s toys, and again found memories of her teaching him to read came flooding to his mind. He incorporated them into the piece and finally he felt that this version really represented the relationship he had with his grandmother.
Far from seeing these iterations as failed attempts he sees them as an integral part of the process – the creative process as well as the grieving process. Each iteration is a new dialogue where something new comes to light. In thinking about how to we want to represent and honour a person, we must reflect on our relationship with them. This fits well with Freud’s psychoanalysis of loss, in which he noted a phenomenon in the mourning process where we shuffle and reshuffle our loved one’s image, allowing us to review our feelings, both conscious and unconscious to gradually withdraw our invested energy from the person who has gone.
When I ask him how he imagines doing this with grieving strangers – he says they’ll need to be prepared for an experiment and to break things.
“It’s really not about combining precious objects together. The more every-day and used the objects, the better. A toothbrush, a shoe, a spoon, a favourite mug, something that really represents the person… And you have to be prepared to take them a part and break them. When we lose someone, something gets broken. This is about destruction and the genesis of something new…
Pavel sees his role as sounding out the boundaries and taking care of the creative side, so that the end result is aesthetic as well as representative. This allows his subjects to really sink in to the creative healing process. Lots of feelings will be triggered and it will surely go wrong along the on the way. That’s all part and parcel.
Different Ways to Grieve
The more Pavel talks about his ideas, hopes and aspirations for this project, the more I can see the real need for this in our mourn-less society. It almost seems common sense.
The most widely know model of grief is pioneer Elizabeth Kuebler Ross’s 5 stage Model (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance). Ross based her model on her extensive time spent with terminally ill patients, and the process of dying itself is arguably different from that of grieving. However, the model was highly influential in breaking the cultural denial of grieving and was widely accepted in the mainstream. For some, however, the popular stages have been less helpful – leading well-intentioned friends to anxiously quiz grieving friends if they’re ‘in denial or bargaining now?’. Ross later amended her theory to add that her stages of grief were not necessarily chronological and that she never meant, ‘to help tuck messy emotions into neat packages’. Grief can be gruelling and complex, especially in a society that has no room for grief.
The iterative process that Pavel proposes tied with the creative approach and tangible outcome fills me with joy, as I consider how therapeutic it might be to bring your hands into the grieving process. As Richard Sennet writes in his book The Craftsman, “Making is part of thinking and feeling”. This is something that artists have intuitively always known which the social sciences are slowly recognising – we think with our hands as much as with our brains. When an artist makes an artwork, they are giving life to their ideas. An artist doesn’t first think and then create, it is a call and echo, a symbiosis. That is why their ideas have such power. Pavel describes it thusly:
“People think that artists first think about what they want to do and then they make it. Art doesn’t work like that, not for me. There’s an idea and an impulse. There’s a visual form that speaks to be. It’s intuitive. I do something impulsively and interpret it afterwards. The picture speaks to me and I respond my reacting to it.”
In order to help people explore their mourning through art, Pavel offers the following advice:
Everybody can make art, so please, if this inspires you, go and find things and do it. But do have someone do it with you if you can. Doing it alone can be difficult and painful, another person can help you have this dialogue and explore new avenues. You need to be strong to do it alone.
I ask Pavel what’s his big mission behind this project.
“Our society is finally waking up to our environmental problems. In our catastrophically consumerist world we don’t live sustainably and this often most evident when we reach the end of our lives. We leave so much behind, old TVs, clothes and furniture that all end in a landfill.”
We’ve heard in past re.death interviews that one of the most difficult moments of losing someone can be being faced with the remnants of a life lived. It can be incredibly overwhelming sorting through the deceased’s home after they’re gone. Pavel would like that people start to think about how they dispose of their belonging towards the end of their lives – selling, donating or recycling their belongings. And for those mundane items, that might not seem of use to anyone but have incredible sentimental value to those left behind, well, I think he’s got a pretty cracking idea for those.
If you would like to reach out to Pavel to help you create a piece of Trauerkunst you can reach him on: firstname.lastname@example.org
Pavel Radchenko is a philosopher und video-artist. In his PhD he dealt with the social suppression of death. In his artworks he likes to combine documentary with video-art methods to create expressive and meaningful pictures. As co-founder of the film production “schatzfilm” he realises different film projects on social and political topics.