Vol. 24, No. 7, pp. 69-70
Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia
Plaintive bluegrass hymns began the ceremony, which was conducted by a Catholic priest. Clad in purple satin jackets, mourners keened, while the sculptor nailed the coffin shut and white-gloved pallbearers carried it out of the museum to the “hearse,” the artist’s modified horse trailer, decorated inside with black satin drapery. A pivotal event during the exhibition “Accelerating Sequence: Artists Observe Time and Aging,” Michael Aurbach’s The Burial thus laid to rest his Final Self-Portrait (1984), with appropriate, mock-serious hoopla. Even as the ritualized performance elicited snickers and barely suppressed guffaws, Aurbach’s parodic obsequies highlighted real problems confronting today’s artists.
The Nashvillians, a quartet including an agreeably plangent dobro, opened the service with an emotion-jerking rendition of “Amazing Grace.” The “Pronouncement of Death” summarized the checkered “life” of the “award-winning sculpture”—“vandalism, curatorial abuse, and theft”—thus proclaiming that the ravages of age precluded its further exhibition. Hence the need “to withhold those forms of support that keep it alive.” Signed by museum officials, the priest, and the artist, the document recorded the time and date of “death”: 6:52 p.m., February 17, 2005. With calculated bathos, the mourners plucked at their lavender wigs, howled, and, from time to time, jangled Mardi Gras baubles.
The grave humor continued outside the museum. Poker-faced policemen on motorcycles, somewhat like inflatable Michelin men, led the funeral cortege through congested Atlanta traffic to a private estate for the interment, followed by guests in a yellow school bus. At the canopy-covered gravesite, the eulogy committed the work to God and sought His blessing with the “confident hope that a new creation will come of its spirit.” To strains of “Happy Trails,” Final Self-Portrait was then lowered into its resting place. Against a backdrop of renewed wailing and “I’ll Fly Away,” everybody was invited to toss a shovelful of dirt over the coffin. Finally, guests retired inside the home for the gala funerary “banquet.”
A life-sized wooden “casket” with a smaller trailer “in tow,” Final Self-Portrait was actually a miniature art gallery with white walls and hardwood floors. Reserving the floor for his own use, Aurbach offered the walls to the masters, hanging tiny copies of well-known masterpieces: American Gothic, Mona Lisa, The Scream . But because their very celebrity has, in Aurbach’s words, “sucked the life out of them,” he displayed the undersized copies in black and white. Emphatic black arrows pointing upward confirmed the direction of the journey, and the trailer behind seemed to say that you can take it with you after all.
“Comedy,” as Benjamin Lehmann has observed, “is a serious work.” Accordingly, Aurbach has employed humor in the service of an earnest protest against the paradoxical attitudes held by many in the contemporary art world: on the one hand, a fixation on permanence and, on the other, a demand to see only new work. Inverting the time-honored cliché, The Burial declares that these days, art is short and life longer.
Dorothy Joiner, Lovick P. Corn Professor of Art History LaGrange College
Final Self-Portrait, 1984, Mixed Media, 5′ x 2′ x 12′Final Self-Portrait (detail), 1984, Mixed Media, 5′ x 2′ x 12′