What is it to die? What is it to live? What is death if not just a reflection of life? In Every Ocean Hughes’s first major solo exhibition in the Nordic countries, death, or rather time, is the theme that holds the various elements together. For Hughes, life and death are on the same spectrum, not in a binary relationship. The transition between life and death is not sharp, but fluid – something that both the living and the dead need help to access and navigate.
At Moderna Museet, time is featured in the form of wave-shaped clocks in the museum foyer, and in a related sound work in which an essay is read in different parts of the building. A voice asks: “What is time, if not activism?” But more than that, the work asks how to bring a museum – which to its core is about preserving that which has already happened – to life. In such a context, everything living becomes queer, according to Hughes.
Several of the main works are performances, and evoking the years that have passed since they were first staged is another way in which the exhibition raises the question of time. The piece A Gay Bar Called Everywhere (With Costumes and No Practice) (2011/2022) was first staged at The Kitchen in New York over a decade ago. This reprise in Stockholm appears to be an endeavour to reflect the changed circumstances for gay bars, or the people who inhabit them.
For someone like me, who didn’t attend the original performance, it’s difficult to compare the two versions, even though quite a few people from the first version reappear in Stockholm. Nevertheless, it’s clear that the premise – what it would be like if Susan Sontag’s life took place in a gay bar? – is diffuse to say the least. Actually, it’s virtually impossible to pick up from the performance itself. A character called “Susan Wontag,” dressed in a wig with grey highlights and played by the artist Ming Wong, offers up a Swedish lesson with some quotes. Apart from that, Sontag’s role in the work is highly theoretical. But that doesn’t really matter because the performance itself is so rich, almost overloaded with dance, singing, and little monologues moving between burlesque joy, absurdity, and desire.
The critic Sofia Nyblom wrote in the newspaper Dagens Nyheter that the piece should have been set in a “homophobic country such as Russia, Hungary, or Uganda.” Perhaps unwittingly, Nyblom put her finger on the misconception that being gay is about suffering or trauma. According to that logic, gayness would vanish as soon as the world’s resistance disappears. To me, Hughes’s four-hour mammoth performance – in which a disparate crowd of artists, activists, and dancers combine their individual expressions into a whole – seems to evoke something completely different, albeit perhaps related: What happens when the gay bar disappears?
What we witness is the gay bar – not simply as a refuge from heteronormativity and violence, but a place in its own right, full of humour and beauty in its multifariousness and contradiction. Much of queer culture has indeed sprung from resistance, yet the notion that we would cease to exist when people stop wanting to murder us feels equal parts liberation and loss. Thus, a sense of melancholy permeated the evening, despite all the humour and indulgence in resistance culture. That melancholy was perhaps best summed up when the author Jeremy Atherton Lin read from his acclaimed debut Gay Bar: Why We Went Out (2021): “If the habitat – the gay bar – faces extinction, the possibility arises that gay identity is an endangered species. I’m talking about gay rimmed in lightbulbs, GAY shouted in all caps, G-A-Y spelled out like the namesake of the British nightclub chain. To many, that’s nothing worth preserving. But, confronted with the husks of gay bars on city streets, I found myself increasingly in support of gay – as in blatant, an embarrassment, a blight.”
In a way, by refusing to assimilate, the exhibition’s disparate parts, which are cacophonous at times, come together to form an act of resistance. The resistance can also be located in the exhibition’s physicality: instead of confining itself to a defined space, it seems to be leaking, or rather escaping, shifting, and contradicting confinements or clear boundaries.
The most successful work in the exhibition is Hughes’s video work One Big Bag (2021), which is impossible to escape once you’ve started watching it. It’s a 40-minute narrative based on interviews with death doulas – people who assist fellow human beings in the final stages of life – and the artist’s own education on the subject. One death doula is seen in an empty room in which objects hang from the ceiling by threads: jugs, soaps, bells, and make-up. Gradually, the objects are given a context: soap to wash the dead body, bells to restore energy in the room, makeup to make the dead look reasonably alive, and so on.
What makes One Big Bag so moving is its lack of sentimentality, its way of objectively describing the practical tasks which must be done when someone is dead, is going to die, or wants to die: How the skin changes in the coming days, how rigor mortis comes and goes, how much ice is needed to cool a body. What it’s like to prepare a body, what it means for families to have the dead with them for a few days. But also, how death can deprive someone of their chosen family, their partner, and force them into the oppressive heteronormativity that they devoted their life to escaping. In this situation, care reveals itself in the doula’s practical tasks: squeezing out faeces, dressing the body, and washing it with oils, allowing it to retain its dignity, its individuality.
The exhibition’s second performance, Help the Dead (2019/2022), which is staged in a former church, reiterates the theme from One Big Bag, but in a more developed and emotionally charged way. Hughes’s use of music’s ability to create immediate affect is sublime. But whereas music in A Gay Bar Called Everywhere moves in the universe of humour and camp, it comes back here as an emotional slap in the face. The music’s strength is also directly emphasised in the form of a suggestion on how a memorial service remembrance or funeral can be established with an emotional song that gives the participants space to mourn, to feel.
One of the most degrading conclusions about grief is that no matter how devastating it may be to the mourner, it is also the most trivial of experiences. Everyone has lost someone; everyone knows someone who has died or will soon die. Yet, we are often alone in our grief. Deftly led by artists Colin Self and Geo Wyeth, Help the Dead prepares a place where the audience can meet, exposed and sad. For a moment, individual grief is allowed to form the basis for a silent community. It’s among the most beautiful things I have ever seen.