Funeral Garden turns a Quebec gallery into a space for mourning victims of police violence
Eve Tagny's new show confronts the trauma of systemic racism by honouring the dead
Stepping out of a winter storm and into Eve Tagny's Funeral Garden, a solo exhibition at Montreal's Plein sud, the chaos of heavy snowfall is swapped for stillness. Snowbanks are replaced by dried flora, plant beds made of soil, and gallery walls covered in rolls of unfurled kraft paper. The space is serene.
For nearly 40 years, the artist-run centre Plein sud has been a beacon of experimental contemporary art in Quebec. Just south of Montreal, in the city of Longueuil, the gallery is situated inside Cégep Édouard-Montpetit, a college known for its visual arts program. Tagny was granted the Bourse Plein sud in 2020, an award given to a local emerging artist with less than 10 years of professional practice, but her exhibition was delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The wait, though, has been worthwhile.
"I took into account that the gallery is located in a college," says Tagny over a video call. "This is a big stage of life. You're coming from a sheltered environment, where you're not making your own decisions, and going into adulthood where you're learning how to navigate society independently. You experience structural racism and marginalization on your own. How do you contend with those realities?"
Tagny, who also recently closed the solo exhibition Unadorned Landscapes at Cooper Cole in Toronto, is known for her moving reflections on gardens as places of mourning. Using a careful combination of photography, print, video, performance, and installation, the Montreal-based artist asks audiences to enter immersive environments that embody the poetry of living and passing in nature. With rich imagery that balances the beauty and devastation of death and dying, the harmony and senselessness of human loss, Tagny's work is unequivocal in its emotional charge.
Inside Funeral Garden, the space usually reserved for an explanatory wall text has been replaced with a large paper banner containing a series of quotes, poetic reflections, and other fragments of information. Citing the French philosopher Elsa Dorlin ("Violence traverses us all as subjects") and the Jamaican poet Jason Allen-Paisant ("Black people in the diaspora live in this after/life of property"), Tagny points to legacies of violence inflicted upon Black, racialized, and Indigenous people in Canada and Quebec.
"The implicitness of safety," she says during our call, "is assumed by many people, but for a lot of people of colour, you're never quite safe. Your body can put you in danger. There is deep grief in that."
Designed by House9, a local graphic studio who have worked on other socially conscious projects, the opening banner serves as an epitaph for the exhibition — a delicate and striking collection of Tagny's inspirations, intentions, and dedications. "The exhibition Funeral Garden is interested in these after/lives," Tagny writes poignantly. "Concrete is no sepulchre, asphalt streets are unfit to receive our dead."
Turning toward the rest of the gallery, the viewer is confronted by the backs of 16 custom-made wooden chairs lined up in rows of four, equidistant from each other. Some of them have pieces of fabric wrapped around their limbs. This layout, facing toward the other end of the gallery, evokes the spatial arrangement of a funeral parlour or the aisles of a place of worship. Front and centre across from these chairs, a small, coffin-like structure made of plywood, inlaid with terracotta handmade and engraved tiles and circled by rich black earth, rises one foot off the ground, reinforcing the memorial footprint.
"When I first visited Plein sud and saw the shape of the gallery and its ceiling, it reminded me of either a nail or funeral salon," says Tagny over the phone. "I immediately wanted to use the architecture of the space rather than work against it."
A custom, low-fi wallpaper of loosely hanging newsprint softens the harshness of the white gallery walls, fully plunging the audience into the experience. Throughout this frieze, which partially encircles the space, and along the walls of the rest of the gallery, Tagny inserts various objects — dried dates and their pits, handmade wax candles with petals, ceramic bowls, dehydrated flowers, palm-sized stones, pieces of dyed fabric, photographs, and much more. Like small shrines, traces of the natural world and the passing of time, these sculptural markers carry immense energy and meaning despite their simple composition.
Take, for example, a large-sized photograph of two boys playing in the dirt on a warm summer's day in Montreal's Jarry Park. This archival image encapsulates "the romantic ideal of Black men growing up without the weight of violence, having access to nature, being one with the earth," says Tagny over the phone. "It refers to the colonial separation of body and nature that happens for people of colour who have been segregated in urban centres, away from green spaces."
Fastened with bull clips, floating off the wall, there is an air of impermanence to the photograph. To the left, there is another image of poppies in a field — used traditionally for healing purposes — printed on yellowish paper. Pinned atop a blank sheet of paper, the placement is deliberate. At the foot of both images, cautiously nestled in the loose rolls of wallpaper, are a few blades of feathered reed grass.
The street is not an appropriate place to die, yet it becomes marked by our death. We need to transfer these tombstones to a place where we can grieve.- Eve Tagny
"Two big inspirations for the project were western funeral parlours and an Egyptian funeral garden discovered in a recent archeological dig," says Tagny over the phone, citing the unearthing of a 4,000-year-old grid of plant beds used to honour the dead. "Creating borders was important," she continues, "because I'm invested in thinking about what it means to be a Black, Indigenous, or racialized person in Canada, navigating public and private spaces."
"The street is not an appropriate place to die, yet it becomes marked by our death. We need to transfer these tombstones to a place where we can grieve."
These numerous assemblages and totems in Funeral Garden encourage a certain type of proximity, a getting close to the work that is warm, intimate, and filled with care. Paired with the title of the exhibition, they recall mortuary relics and effigies.
Tagny's choice of symbols are especially salient considering the COVID-19 pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the ongoing open wound of missing Indigenous children and unmarked graves from Canadian residential schools. While nearly the whole world had their rituals of death obstructed by COVID-19, Black, Indigenous, and other non-white communities in Quebec and Canada have long been denied the right to bury their loved ones under their own power or using their own traditions.
These communities have also been subject to violence and death more frequently at the hands of the state and the police, grieving regularly as a result of ingrained systemic racism. "Despite occasionally making the news, there is no way to encapsulate the profound scars these events leave on somebody," Tagny explains.
Located at the back of the gallery, opposite the small coffin-like structure, another banner reinforces this notion. At the top, it states: "More than 500 reported deaths of people killed by police use of force since 1987 across so-called Canada." Below, obstructed by a semi-transparent sheet of paper that has been placed atop to hinder the view, Tagny lists those who have been largely over-represented in these killings — those with mental health issues, Indigenous people, Black people, and so-called "visible minority" people — along with another inventory of effects the official statistics do not account for: trauma, degradation of sense of self, injustice, unreported deaths, etc. The banner is sobering, a reminder of the long reaches of systemic racism and its continued denial by many including Quebec's head of state.
Plein sud is also known for their publishing house, which boasts an impressive number of artist monographs, pamphlets, and exhibition catalogues printed throughout the decades. For Funeral Garden, the centre has produced a stunning publication which is midway between an artist book and exhibition catalogue. Held together by bull clips that mirror those from the installation, with original photographic prints by Tagny and an essay by Philippe Néméh-Nombré, a local geographer and scholar at Concordia University, the printed object contributes to the afterlife of the project.
"It is necessary to speak the violence, not to repeat it but to stay with it," Néméh-Nombré writes. "Stay with the violence because in it lies the point of reference, the point of departure, for emancipatory practices and radical imaginations."
Over the phone, Ariane De Blois, artistic director at Plein sud, echoes this call for audiences to sit with the work, even when the subject matter is difficult.
"It's important, art brings another point of view," says De Blois. "Eve's work is not frontal; it generates a space of reflection and contemplation. Ritual is important in her practice. In this project, it's as if the ritual comes through the presence of the spectator. There have been organized readings during Funeral Garden, by Néméh-Nombré and the author Marilou Craft, and the installation is activated through their presence and that of the spectators."
Just days after findings that the Quebec Ministry of Public Security advised Longueil police to deny a court order to address racial profiling, Funeral Garden is both hyperlocal and nationwide in its relevance and urgency. As devastating as Tagny's practice can be, provocative and intense, it is also soothing — a balm for the soul and an important space of communal gathering. The empty chairs from the installation are meant to be filled with the presence of mourners, in this case the audience, bearing witness to this incessant and premature loss of life.
"Opacity was important in this project — to find the fine line, to talk about this difficult topic within a contemporary art space," says Tagny. "My practice is poetic. I work with fragments, accumulations, and clues that provide different points to navigate and enter these topics. I try to avoid being too didactic. Yes, it's about violence, but my aim is that it's also a space of healing."
Eve Tagny's Funeral Garden is at Plein sud in Longueuil, Quebec until January 28, 2023.