REVIEW: Realm of the Dead

This Thursday, I attended Realm of the Dead, an installation at the School of Social Work. Comprised of more than 30 suitcases, Realm of the Dead is a reflection on tragedy, grief, and identity by Rogerio M. Pinto, a professor of Social Work at UofM.

The walk into the building was supplemented by a drumline performance, waking me up and welcoming me into a lobby where videos of the Rio Carnival played. I was handed a small, white, rectangular box with a letter and number denoting where I would be located once we moved downstairs. A suitcase full of wish ribbons lay open: curious, I peeked inside, and an usher offered to help me tie one around my wrist. The ribbons read “Realm of the Dead.”

When the performance was set to begin, the audience descended a set of stairs to the lower floor. The ritualistic feeling of moving down the stairs, down to the Realm of the Dead, accompanied by the drumline’s beat, felt sacred in a way. Hushed, the audience made their way to the suitcases, laid out in a grid. The artist, Rogerio M. Pinto, sat next to a doll in a suitcase casket, holding a rosary, murmuring inaudible words. The drumline came to a halt, the suitcases were opened to reveal insides filled with art, and Pinto began to tell his story.

“Emotional baggage—” Pinto explains. Many people in the world can fit all their belongings into one suitcase. Could you carry everything with you in one bag? How about one small box?

Pinto tells the story, in pieces, of the death of his baby sister Marilia. She was 3 when she was killed in a tragic accident. Pinto unfolds the effect of this tragedy on his family and his identities growing up. Both his words and the suitcases weave a deep exploration of grief in relation to gender, body, ethnicity, immigration, and class. 

Throughout the exhibit, suitcases filled with small items asked each viewer to take the things that reminded them of someone or something they had lost. We would fill out boxes with these things, and at the end, there would be the option to keep it or to leave it in the Realm of the Dead, allowing it to become part of the exhibit. Moving through the exhibit, I felt my box grow slightly more full with the notes and items I had collected, but I also felt myself grow heavy. Listening to Pinto’s story of grief, remembering my own.

We keep the dead with us, in us. My mother passed away 2 years ago, leaving me feeling helpless and crushed. I am still grieving her. While this performance left me remembering this loss with a heavy heart, I found myself comforted by the reminder that a part of her is in me and always will be. I choose to carry her with me. I grieve. “My sweet sister, no longer here, no longer on Earth.” Pinto holds his hands to his chest. She lives on, he says, in him—”Can you see her?” 

This exploration of grief through art and performance was so beautifully touching to me. I am thankful to Pinto for sharing his story, and in this way giving the audience a space to search their own losses. To honor the Realm of the Dead.

REVIEW: Hometown Hero (Chink): An American Interior

As I stepped with socked feet onto the fabric-covered flooring of installation piece Hometown Hero (Chink), I was struck with an eerie and unshakable sense of familiarity. No, not from the hand-upholstered, Confederate flag recliner, or the country karaoke sounding from the plush TV – save for the artist’s face in the video recording, the 3-part installation itself was essentially free of any immediately recognizable, East-Asian motifs. So why did my experience feel closer to a revisit rather than a shocking introduction? I told myself that it must have been the culturally ingrained, practiced motion of taking one’s shoes off before entering a living space, or maybe the intimately homey experience of padding around a carpeted floor with the TV streaming white noise.  

The fact that the entire space is hand-sewn jumps out at me; under artist Valery Jung Estabrook’s skillful hands, everyday “soft” objects turn steely, while “hard” objects are revealed to have soft and sagging underbellies. The “lazy boy” recliner decorated with the image of a Confederate flag displays these juxtapositions most prominently; though the surface is composed of velvety chenille, soft-to-touch and associated with comfort, the repellent flag imagery strongly dissuades the viewer from touching the furniture.

Even so, the recliner dominates the space, sending chilly tones throughout the warmly lit interior. Other striking plush components include the ‘pillow guns’, a set of three flaccid rifles mounted to the wall, and the ‘Born & Bred Beer’ beer cans casually littered on the recliner’s side-table. Chenille fabric, what the majority of the installation consists of, is immediately distinguishable through its tufted, caterpillar-like texture and iridescent appearance. These characteristics make the textile a popular choice for sofas, baby blankets, and other items that make direct contact with the skin. Needless to say, I was fascinated with the artist’s approach to materiality and her manipulation of sensory elements with chenille that served to contradict and even amplify the viewer’s psychological responses to derogatory imagery.

In a reflection about the title, Hometown Hero (Chink), Estabrook refers to the painful addition of the racial slur as a necessary component “… in order to have an honest discussion about the America that I know.” Her statement propelled me towards a question that I, and likely many others, have faced constantly while navigating ‘the Asian-American experience’: why the America that we know appears so dependent on the home that we say we know. I do not share Estabrook’s experience growing up in rural southwestern Virginia; what I do share are similar feelings of alienation upon being subjected to the white gaze – even at home, we are foreign spectacles singing along to the jaunty tunes of assimilation, while America reclines in a chenille chair, crushing ‘Born & Bred Beer’ beer cans in silent assent.



PREVIEW: Bookmarks

If your ever wandering around the “big three” Michigan libraries this coming month, you might come across an interesting new set of artistic additions. The Penny Stamps School of Art and Design is hosting an exhibition curated by Dean Guna Nadarajan displayed across the Shapiro Undergraduate Library, Hatcher Graduate Library, and the Art, Architecture & Engineering Library in the Duderstadt.  The exhibition will feature a number of site-specific installations, performances, interventions, and events done by Stamps students and staff.


All of the related events are completely free. For more information and the event specifics please check out the link here  The vast majority of events are still on the horizon.  Of particular note the opening reception will be Wednesday, March 27, 5:30-7:30 PM.


The pieces will on display March 26th to May 26th. As the pieces are completely open and free to the public make sure to spice up your next study break by visiting one, or several of the installations.