Air Becomes Breath, Santa Ana College Main Art Gallery, 2017
On May 25, 2016 at 4:00 pm my wife Sylvia died. That afternoon I experienced the terrible moment When Breath Becomes Air, the title of Paul Kalanithi’s memoir about his struggle with stage IV metastatic lung cancer. Now, just over a year since Sylvia’s death, air (driven by the fans in the gallery) becomes the breath that animates the images of her clothing printed on silk banners.
Several months after I began working on this project, I remembered that I had done one of my first installations in the very gallery where Breath Becomes Air will be shown. The Book of the Disappeared (1984) was a memorial to the victims of the Cambodian genocide and the “disappeared” of Argentina. This memory, which unaccountably took me by surprise, compelled me to acknowledge that, in point of fact, much of my studio work has been commemorative in nature. Immolation Maze (1981), Reliquaries (1982), Hotel for Wandering Ghosts (1987), Wanderer’s Rest (1986, See Angkor and Die (2009) – the names alone indicate the nature of the pieces. Several of my public works are memorials as well. Bridge to Angel Island (1986), Memory’s Vault (1988), Weaverville Joss House (1989), Anaheim Veterans Memorial (1999), Rogers Holocaust Memorial (2004) and most recently, the Japanese American Farmers Memorial (2015).
But the lives and deaths of others are not the same as the passing of one’s beloved. Much as I would like to be able to say, with the poet John Donne, that “any man’s death diminishes me”, I cannot. My history of involvement with memorials did not prepare me for Sylvia’s death, but, as I belatedly realized some months afterwards, my practice as an artist provided me with a unique set of tools for coping with my grieving.