“We’ve got some extra time,” my friend Ocean Breeze said the day I arrived at her beach house. “I want to show you a sculpture. It’s currently set up in the artist’s backyard, but she allows people to visit.”
As we drove, she began telling me about the art installation. “The artist lost her son in a terrorist attack — when an airplane exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988.”
“Dark Elegy? That’s here?” I asked.
She looked surprised. “You know it?”
“I’ve seen it before,” I said. “I taught at Syracuse University in the 1980s. We lost 35 students on the flight. Including her son. I had a student on that flight.”
The work of art is unforgettable. After the 1988 terrorist attack, artist Suse Lowenstein did a sculpture of herself, posed in that first moment of grief. Then other mothers and widows came to her studio. She talked to each, then asked them to remember with their bodies the way they felt when they first heard the news the plane had crashed.
She made 75 figures altogether, all just a little bit bigger than life. Some are screaming, some are pleading, some are begging or praying or falling. Some are reaching out, some are pulling inward, one is curled up like a baby. The figures are real women, with real bodies – breasts and hips and tucks of belly fat – and stripped of their clothing, they could be from any background.
When Dark Elegy traveled to the Syracuse University campus in 1995, I spent an afternoon looking at the grieving figures, and I’d never forgotten them. The art seemed even more powerful now, perhaps because I brought with me more experiences with life and with death. I walked amongst the statues, looking at each woman, feeling overcome with the many shapes grief can take. I thought about the student I’d taught many years ago, only 21 years old when he was killed, and wondered if his mother had posed.
A few days later, we returned with our friends. Ocean Breeze sat quietly at the edge of the circle with her journal. Jaybird wiped tears away as she walked amongst the figures. Ecowoman kept touching the statues, putting her arms around first this one, then that, as if to comfort them. Yoga Woman stood perfectly still, holding her body carefully upright, as she gazed intently at each grieving woman.
Ecowoman spoke to me in an undertone, the way you would whisper in any sacred place.“I want to hug them,” she said. “They’re statues, but they’re real women too. I can’t help wanting to touch them.” I knew what she meant. By the time you are my age, you recognize the gestures of grief; they resonate. Ecowoman had arrived late at our gathering because she’d been sitting shiva for a beloved cousin.
When the artist came out to her back patio, we walked over to talk to her. When I said the first name of my student, she gave me back his full name, immediately. “Yes,” she said, before I even asked. “His Mom is in there.”
Dark Elegy was supposed to be installed in Washington DC as a monument to all victims of terrorism, an invitation to remember history and work for a peaceful future. The artist herself agreed to fund the project. But then the National Capital Memorials Advisory Commission turned the project down because they were afraid that statues of naked women might be “offensive.” That’s why this amazing piece of art is still in the artist’s backyard.
Ecowoman wanted to take her clothes off and walk naked among the grieving women, in solidarity. “That’s where my naked photo will be,” she said to me. She asked permission from the artist, who said, “Sure, go ahead.”
“This bright sunlight will be harsh,” I warned Ecowoman. She shrugged and stripped off her clothes. I think she forgot about my camera as she stepped up to first one statue, then the next. She touched them, comforted them, even lay down on the mulch to grieve with them. Free Woman, when she saw what we were doing, joined in.
We didn’t talk much. In the presence of such grief, there wasn’t much to say. The women’s bodies said it for us. When finally, it was time to gather our journals and leave, Yoga Woman turned to the sculpture and did some kind of yoga move that paid tribute to the artwork with her body. Then we drove back to the beach house in silence.