Many artists have made work about death, but few have been as close to their subject matter as Every Ocean Hughes. The American artist tackles the subject with humor, sensitivity, and knowledge mined from her training as a death doula. “Alive Side,” Hughes’s new exhibition at the Whitney in New York (on view through April 2), features a trilogy of video and performance works about dying. They are shown alongside a photo series dedicated to Manhattan’s redeveloped west side piers, which have themselves become a metaphor for the death, legacy, and rebirth of the neighborhood surrounding the museum.
I first encountered Hughes in 2021, when she showed One Big Bag at Studio Voltaire in London. The second in her death trilogy, the single-channel film installation follows performer Lindsay Rico taking the role of doula and talking through her “mobile corpse kit,” with practical tools including water bowls and cotton swabs alongside more creative items such as ceremonial bells.
Rico’s delivery is captivating, speaking beyond the mechanics of death care to its murky politics, racism within medical practice, and the lack of agency that many face at the end of their life. “I wanted to make sure it wasn’t just about a ‘good death’,” Hughes told Artnet News. “There can be so much stress and violence. I have always wanted to make sure I am keeping that in the picture.”
The artist decided to learn more about death care after the passing of her grandmother in 2016. She has since taken part in numerous death doula workshops, which teach students about everything from washing dead bodies to caring for the bereaved.
“I had some friends die when I was a kid and I always knew that I would have to take care of that at some point as an adult,” she said. “It’s the thing that has impacted me the most as a person. Then my grandmother died. She was my sister, my mother, my best friend. It was the first time I was able to be present. My mum and her friend are nurses and had also been hospice volunteers. They had the physical skills; I kind of slotted into spiritual care.”
Her works stand as an encouragement to be more open to death. “It changes your life when you slow down and turn towards death,” she said. “The aim of the writing in these projects is to make it something people want to stay with. When people encounter this knowledge in a performative way, with a creative aesthetic, they are given multiple access points. It’s less scary, more attractive.”
Help the Dead is a 60-minute 2019 performance. It’s the first in the trilogy that Hughes describes as speaking to the social side of death, where One Big Bag focuses on its material aspects. The two-person performance discusses horrors such as the unofficial “death tax” imposed in funeral homes across the United States for those dying with AIDS at the beginning of the crisis, and the fact that some bodies were buried deeper than usual for fear of contamination. The work balances painful conversation with upbeat melodies and lively performance.
“Especially with Help the Dead, I didn’t know which parts viewers would find funny and which they would find hopelessly sad,” she said. “Something disgustingly tragic might be a moment where someone needs to laugh. The choreography in One Big Bag is also to give some relief to the performer. She’s talking about a dead baby: what’s her body doing in that moment? She’s channeling the intensity for the viewer. It’s a very embodied, physical thing we’re talking about.”
Both works are shown at the Whitney alongside River, a new commission which completes the trilogy, with a focus on the mythic side of death. “I say myth instead of religion, but it’s about the stories we tell,” she says. “Death is the basis of religion and culture.” The performance features a character who can pass between realms.
“Are we talking about crossing into the underworld, like the Odyssey? Or the first time you go to a gay bar?” she said. “That’s a whole other world too. I’ve always loved that underground, underworld meeting. The character’s defining trait is their exuberance. It’s like when you first come out. Of course, there is anxiety, but you’re also excited about all this stuff you didn’t know about and how much you feel your life will change.”
Hughes’ photographic series on Manhattan’s west side piers will line the entrance to the show. She started working on the images fourteen years ago and much has changed since for communities who inhabited the area.
“I did not have my future gentrification glasses on when I started photographing that place,” she says. “I had been going there from the time that I moved to New York. I then understood that it was important culturally and politically. It’s unrecognisable now. My favourite set of pilings are underneath Little Island, this new development. One of the reasons they keep the pilings there is to protect the decades of polluting sediment that would be stirred up if they were removed. For this show I was thinking about dying, legacy and transitions; you can map those themes onto the gentrification of the Whitney’s neighborhood.”
Many of Hughes’s works lead back to fear and the resulting barriers that are put up between bodies. This can be felt in her references to AIDS victims buried deep within the ground; in the pilings that hold down sediment while being crushed by new developments; and in the trepidation that many have for touching their loved ones’ dead bodies. Her work is an invitation to look at these things that are kept at arm’s length.
“When I attended my first workshop, I knew why I was there, but I still felt shocked when she said we were going to wash the body,” she said. “I had the sense it would be toxic, that there’s something bad about the body after death. But where has that come from? Our elders and the generations before them would stay with the body. If you love somebody in life, what does it mean to wash and care for their body after death?”
“Every Ocean Hughes: Alive Side” is on view through April 2 at the Whitney Museum of Art in New York.
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