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Art Culture

Art and Grief

Artworks of the week: Wind Telephone (2010) by Itaru Sasaki and 1800HappyBirthday by Mohammad Gorjestani

CW: suicide, police brutality, racism

Grief is an emotion that everyone will experience at one point in their life yet people respond to it in various ways. It is one of the most confusing and heart-breaking emotions that humans will encounter and there is no written guide on how to deal with it. A common response to grief is art, as it offers freedom of expression and can be created as a means to find closure. Wind Telephone (2010) and 1800HappyBirthday are both public installations that seek to connect people who are suffering from grief.

Image: Wind Telephone by Itaru Sasaki (2010)

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Wind Telephone by Itaru Sasaki consists of a telephone booth in the artists’ garden, which is located outside of Otsuchi, Japan. Inside there is a disconnected phone, a notebook, a calendar and a candle. Originally created so Sasaki could communicate with his late cousin, the booth has now become a place of security and peace for the public. This transition from a private to public installation came swiftly after the 2011 tsunami hit Otsuchi, claiming a tenth of its population. Wind Telephone provided closure for people who lost friends and family members suddenly. The telephone booth is mundane, relatable and creates a welcoming space that the artist believed was a comfortable way to deal with grief. As time has gone on, the booth has expanded its audience not only to people who have lost loved ones to the tsunami but also to suicide and accidents – causes of death that are unexpected and sudden to most. Although people cannot contact their loved ones anymore, they are able to express their feelings to the departed through these phone calls. A beautifully sad image is created in one’s mind of these messages being delicately carried through the wind. 

Image: 1800HappyBirthday by Mohammad Gorjestani

Another public installation that deals with processing grief and loss is 1800HappyBirthday, a project that compiles voicemails for people of colour who have been killed by the police. Mohammad Gorjestani created a space where intimate emotions are made public through an activity that is universally practiced: phone calls. Anyone can participate by calling 612-842-1254 and leaving a birthday message. For instance, Oscar Grant III was killed on New Year’s Day in 2009 in Oakland, California when he was 22 years old. However, through 1800HappyBirtday, Oscar is remembered every year through a collection of voicemails from friends, family and even strangers. It is heart-wrenching to hear Rev Wanda Johnson, Oscar’s mother, say “I still now have to get up and turn off my light because you’re not here to turn off my light for me”. Over ten years after her son’s brutal murder, Johnson is still able to celebrate Oscar’s birthday; perhaps slowly giving her a sense of closure. However, in this voicemail, as well as in others, the pain in the callers’ voices is still noticeable. Pairing the celebration of birthdays with death creates an eerie dichotomy, and as these voicemails accumulate, they demonstrate how pressing the issue of police brutality among people of colour continues to be. 

Although these artistic responses to grief stem from different sources it is interesting to see their similarity in the use of the telephone as a way of allowing the artists and spectators to communicate, grieve and gain closure. Everyone can relate to leaving or receiving a voicemail, or looking back on shared memories with someone who has passed away. Perhaps connecting communication and public art creates a community in which grief can slowly disappear and turn into closure. It is not a new phenomenon that artists are expressing their grief, anger and loss creatively on a public scale – be it an environmental, social or medical crisis. For example, the AIDS crisis, which was at its height during the 1980s and 1990s, saw the art world churn out emotionally fuelled responses to the crisis as they witnessed the shocking lack of attention from the government and the FDA. Similar to the installations discussed above, they wanted to find an appropriate way of coming to terms with the societal change and thought artistic responses would be a plausible starting point for expression. The intertwining of grief and phone calls in Wind Telephone and 1800HappyBirthday are well-known to us today given the COVID-19 pandemic which has claimed over 126,000 lives in the UK, during which time we have spent countless hours on the phone or on Zoom talking to our loved ones. It has been a time of mourning and I think in the near future we will see a lot of artistic responses that relate to grief, loss and hope as we slowly ease back into the new normal.  

Image credits: Wind telephone courtesy of Kootenay Mountain Culture Magazine

Image Credits: 1800HappyBirthday courtesy of 1800HappyBirthday Instagram page