Arts·Art 101

The past year has been a time of loss. What can art show us about processing grief?

We're not alone. Witnessing somebody else's pain can actually give you ideas about how to handle your own.

We're not alone. Witnessing somebody else's pain can actually give you ideas about how to handle your own

The past year has been a time of loss. What can art show us about processing grief?

CBC Arts

3 months ago
We're not alone. Witnessing somebody else’s pain can actually give you ideas about how to handle your own. 4:58

Let's face it: the past year has been a time of loss. There have been many things to grieve, from people who lost their lives to COVID, to the times with our friends we used to have.

Today on Art 101, we're going to look at some ways artists have processed loss to see if there are lessons in there we can use to ease our way through 2021 and back into our old (and new) lives.

It's a heavy one. If you've lost someone this past year, it may be a little hard to watch. But it may also help.

Act 1: Death

Grief can be stunning in the way it hits you — and in the places or sights that bring you back to a terrible moment.

In 1991, Cuban-American artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres memorialized his partner Ross Laycock in this image simply called Untitled.

(CBC Arts)

The image of a slept-in and rumpled empty bed can make a multitude of memories rush in: the idea of a life led next to a partner, the absence of that partner, and our impulse to hold on, from the fading smell of a loved one's sweater to our unwillingness to make the bed and smooth out the creases made by someone who's gone.

This next image is a bit more stark and graphic — take warning. In Felix Partz, June 5, 1994 (warning: graphic imagery), artist A.A. Bronson photographed his partner, only a few hours after his death.

It's both really difficult to look at and look away from Felix's gaze. But this is the truth of what death looks like. Both this photograph and the one by Gonzalez-Torres focus on loved ones lost to AIDS — an epidemic that in the 1990s was still laying waste to countless victims globally, and a generation of gay men more locally.

In a direct address to the losses we've felt over the past year from COVID-19, artist Ruth Cuthand created a series of masks painstakingly embroidered with the virus itself. Surviving: COVID-19 brings to mind not only the immense change that the virus has effected on our way of life, but it forces us to confront the virus, what it looks like, while we reflect on all we've lost over the past year.

Untitled by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, 1991 (Felix Gonzalez-Torres)

Act 2: Heartbreak

Not all loss is the result of death. As many people have felt particularly over the past year, the loss of a relationship provokes a feeling of grief that takes a lot of time to work through.

In 1988, Serbian artist Marina Abramovic created a work called The Walk with her then-partner Ulay. Though they had had the idea to walk the Great Wall of China from opposite ends years before, by the time they did the piece their relationship was almost over. Abramovic and Ulay walked the wall — 2,500 km total — and when they met at the centre, they officially ended their relationship, then walked past each other to the opposite end.

Second Wave: COVID-19 Mask No. 1, by Ruth Chuthand (Ruth Cuthand, 2021)

The first leg of the walk was filled with reflection and anticipation; the second, grief and the process of leaving someone behind.

A break-up, emotional trauma and illness were the generating forces behind Magdalene, the 2019 album by British artist FKA twigs. She took a relationship with actor Robert Pattinson that had left her with lasting intense sadness and turned it into this collection of songs that chronicles the pain she felt in the aftermath. And instead of a catharsis that ends in understanding, at the end of the album, Magdalene ends in a song called "cellophane" that continues to ask questions — about why the relationship ended, and what FKA twigs meant to her former partner.

Act 3: What can we learn?

Everybody experiences loss and everybody does it in a different way, but what can we learn from the way artists process it and the way they use it in their work?

Well, maybe the first lesson is: grieving is a process. Whether it's a death or a different sort of loss, we can't assimilate it and move on in a day.

Maybe the second major lesson is: these works show us that it's possible to make grief into something tangible. Each of these artists translated their sadness into something else, and perhaps that lets us know that giving our feelings a project can help us move from a state of loss into one of understanding.

And maybe the most important lesson might be: we're not alone. Witnessing somebody else's pain can actually give you ideas about how to handle your own.

I hope that these artworks have maybe given you an idea of how you might make sense of your own pain — or even nurture a little bit of hope for the future. I'll see you next time for another episode of Art 101.

Artworks featured in this video:

49s - Untitled by Felix Gonzalez-Torres (1991)

1m18s - Felix Parts, June 5th, 1994 by AA Bronson (1994/1999)

1m43s - COVID-19 Mask No. 1 by Ruth Cuthand (2020)

1m47s - COVID-19 Mask No. 8 by Ruth Cuthand (2020)

1m50s - Second Wave: COVID-19 Mask No. 1 (2021)

2m35s - "The Walk/The Lovers" by Marina Abramović (1988)

2m52s - "Magdalene" Album Artwork by Matthew Stone (2019)

3m23s - "Cellophane" by FKA twigs (2019)



Lise Hosein is a producer at CBC Arts. Before that, she was an arts reporter at JazzFM 91, an interview producer at George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight and a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto. When she's not at her CBC Arts desk she's sometimes an art history instructor and is always quite terrified of bees.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now