What If Less Were More: “Deathpower” at Law Warshaw Gallery

Christina Schmid

Erin Robideaux Gleeson’s exhibition Deathpower brings together the work of twenty-seven artists from around the globe in a far-ranging meditation on grief, care, and rituals as portals and protocols for the passage between the living and the dead. The show unfolds in six chapters that flow into each other as the assembled works circle a central columnar sculpture by Cameron Patricia Downey. According to Gleeson, the exhibition’s circular organization mimics people’s movement through a Buddhist temple hall. From “placemaking for ongoing communion between the living and the dead,” the exhibition’s themes shift to explore the role of “language and orality in acts of witness, grieving and mourning; transformation and regeneration; survivance, and the role of haunting for justice-to-come.” 

Installation view: DEATHPOWER. Foreground: Mikołaj Sobczak, “Upiór” (2022), single-channel video installation. Courtesy the artist and Capitain Petzel (Installation with ceramic sculpture by Henry Tyson). Background left: Rajyashri Goody, “Did you open the door or did you find it open for you?” (2023–ongoing). Paper pulp wall work. Courtesy the artist and Gallery SKE. Background right: Cameron Patricia Downey, “36th and Penn: Alt(e)r IV” (2023). Courtesy the artist and Hair and Nails. 

From Palestine to Poland, Guatemala to Canada to North Minneapolis, Deathpower offers a multifaceted look at how humans grapple with mortality: “Death orders life,” Gleeson says and, quoting Erik Davis, author of the eponymous study of Cambodian Buddhism, “death multiplies life.” Taken literally, yes, decaying bodies feed life: a rotting tree becomes a nurse log that feeds an abundance of organisms. A bucket full of worms from Macalester College’s sustainability office emphasizes this potential for organic transformation. But death also amplifies life in other ways: it reminds the living of the terminus that lies in store, a threshold that calls forth occasions to gather, mourn and memorialize; to celebrate life, resilience, and survivance against all odds. 

The public program that accompanies the exhibition proper puts into practice this impulse to join and gather, to relate – whether it is to watch a screening of Bo Wang’s An Asian Ghost Story (2023), listen to a musical performance of Raven Chacon’s American Ledger no. 1 (2018), participate in a workshop on herbs for death and grief by Stephanie A. Lindquist, or attend a lecture by Erik Davis, whose work holds a special place in the exhibition. 

Worm Factory: Worms, soil, compost, water. Courtesy Macalester Sustainability Office.

When Gleeson, who lived in Cambodia for fifteen years, began curating Deathpower, she reached out to Davis to ask permission for using the title of his 2015 book, a work that had moved her deeply and provided a frame for her experiences in Cambodia. Imagine her surprise when she found out that Davis was right there, teaching at Macalester College. This rare moment of serendipity not only makes a memorable anecdote; it stands with many moments of relationality – of relating to others, dead or alive, animate and inanimate – that syncopate the show.

Jim Denomie (Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Ojibwe) b. 1955, “Family Affair” (2020) acrylic on canvas.

Anita Suwichakornpong’s Jai (2006) is a case in point. A mother and daughter walk in a park. They chat about each other’s lives. The rub: One of them has passed, the other is alive. And yet there is nothing strange about their conversation and ongoing relationship. Jim Denomie’s Family Affair (2020) similarly engages with genealogical connections, as does Calvin Stalvig’s Ancestor (2023). But the sense of relatedness expands from the register of the familial and ancestral to relationships with the dead: Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook’s Reading to One Female Corpse (1997) stages a tending to the dead, an attempt to reach across the divide between the living and the dead. Reading registers as an act of care here, but it also breaks with Buddhist protocol that demands that only monks, never nuns, symbolically guide the recently deceasedwith their voices. The artist defies such protocol. Thus, small acts of care become profoundly political, even iconoclastic. 

Deathpower is conceptually sophisticated and so very timely, as interest in death cafes, death doulas, eco-friendly funerals, and new rituals of grief proliferate in contemporary culture. It is also deeply informed by Buddhism: fourteen of the twenty-seven artists in the show hail from South-East Asia and, without conflating geography with belief system, it seems safe to say that they have probably been touched by the Buddhist imagination in one way or another.

Installation view, DEATHPOWER. Left margin: Cameron Patricia Downey, “36th and Penn: Alt(e)r IV” (2023) (detail). Courtesy the artist and Hair and Nails. / Raven Chacon, “American Ledger no. 1” (2018) Graphic score on vinyl. Courtesy the artist. / Pao Houa Her, “Kuo eco koi, rob cab los (I miss you, come back)” (2024). Two-channel sound installation. Courtesy the artist and Bockley Gallery/ Marylin Boror For, “List of 440 Names” (2018) (detail), Digital printing on paper. Courtesy the artist.

At a remarkable talk earlier this month, Erik Davis introduced one of the more baffling paradoxes of Buddhism that could not be more relevant to the exhibition: if the self is understood as one more illusion to be shed and left behind on the road to seeking enlightenment, then what exactly is being reborn in each cycle of reincarnation? The answer: “We are born into each other’s lives as the result of some mysterious karmic affinity” —the latter is a term Davis borrows from Trent Wagner, another scholar of religious studies. Davis elaborated that “there is no self before our relationships, which are based on the acts we take towards each other.” In Cambodia, people say, “We have a destiny together.” In other words, he concludes, “We are each other’s destiny.” 

This profoundly relational way of understanding the self – that odd conglomerate of mind-body-ecology – could not be more at odds with the neoliberal subject of the western world; a subject ideally contained (if not controlled), autonomous, separate, independent, and fully individuated; a subject made in subjection to the ideology of individualism. Teresa Brennan has called this single self “one of the final bastions of Eurocentric thinking.” Rather than find a true essence of self by turning ever inward, what if we truly become in relationship? What if the self is not a given, some authentic-inevitable core we have to realize, but part of an ever-evolving process, fluid, lively, shaped anew by each encounter, thought, and action? Deeply ethical, such a sense of self echoes Indigenous ways of knowing. In the language of the Dakota people whose land holds the exhibition, we are all relatives: mitakuye owas'iƞ.

Deathpower bristles with longing for such connectedness, communion, and communication – even across the passage where living, breathing bodies turn to less animate organic matter. Pao Houa Her’s sound installation Kuv nco koj, rov qab los (I miss you, come back) (2024) most immediately voices longing. Pratchaya Phinthong’s A whole from a different half (Mother’s Womb Cave) (2016), a charcoal drawing made for the show by Annalise Record, conveys the desire to be whole, held by the earth. This longing is of course not limited to the Buddhist ritual imagination or Indigenous life ways. 

Marilyn Boror Bor (Maya-Kaqchikel) “List of 440 Names” (2018). Digital printing on paper.

Biblical scholar Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, for instance, writes that “the background hum of life – desolate, excessive, neither language nor silence – is what links us to one another. What can be shared, for example, with the dying?” This hum of life, the murmuring of the deep (so the title of one of Zornberg’s books), is a soundscape that envelopes us, precedes us, and maybe outlasts us. The hum of life, the murmur of the deep, connects us. Sound matters. Hence the many sonic pieces in “Deathpower” – from Raven Chacon’s to Pao Houa Her’s works, Noor Abed’s haunting film our songs were ready for all wars to come (2022) to Tanat Teeradakorn’s Procession of Ghost Voice (2023). Sound is what carries across. So, when engaged in ceremony, in ritual, we raise our voices. We read. We sing. We drum. We chant. Sound breaches barriers.

And lest these ideas seem too esoteric, note that Karen Barad, whose academic background includes a doctorate in particle physics, prominently engages Zornberg’s work, in particular the idea that “the ultimate communion between people rests on the capacity to draw on elemental life that is experienced as inhuman.” In other words, this elemental life that vibrates in us may be experienced as inhuman – but, quantum-field-theory truth be told, it’s never outside, elsewhere, or somehow irreconcilable with the human. It is already threaded through us. It hums in our bones. It pulses in our flesh. We are never without it. And it may well outlast, well, “us.” In Deathpower, Maggie Thompson’s wall-hung work Quantum Entanglement (2022) holds space for this elemental, particulate otherness that connects, communicates, and continues: threaded glass beads shimmer between two photo transfers of human hearts. 

These are exciting ideas. And without doubt, Deathpower is an ambitious show that somehow manages to entertain them all. 

Put together on a shoestring budget and involving students in the re-creation of some of the artworks, the curation activated many relationships: a whole group of students made the paper pulp for Rajyashri Goody’s wall drawing/stupa, Did you open the door, or did you find it open for you? (2023). Deathpower expanded spatial relations, too: In front of the gallery’s main entrance, wrap-around skirts whose colors and patterns read as female in Burmese culture hang from a clothesline. This work by Sawangwongse Yawnghwe, titled 22022021, Yawngwe Office in Exile (2021-), references complex resistance tactics, highly gendered and steeped in local Burmese beliefs. Wall-mounted mirror shrines by Cambodian Vuth Lyno, mounted inside and outside the gallery, also compromise the threshold between inside and outside – another nod to the passage at the heart of Deathpower.

Installation view, DEATHPOWER. Foreground: Calvin Stalvig, “Ancestor” (2023) and “Candestix” (2024). Background clockwise: Than Sok, Jim Denomie, Rajyashri Goody, Douglas R. Ewart, Tcheu Siong.

The intricacy and nuance in the exhibition, the gentle and truly care-ful curation cannot be overstated. And yet. After visiting the show several times, once with students, talking with Gleeson, taking in several of the public programs, talking with colleagues and friends – I have this to say: The show’s ambition is commendable. The topic is timely. The range of participating artists eclectic, fresh, and exciting. But something feels a little off.

Consider Than Sok’s Srie Bun (2016): The textile sculpture is a nod to the robes worn by Buddhist monks. Such robes, Eric Davis explains, used to be taken from corpses. Along with the monks’ shaved heads and eyebrows, this attire was a way of doing “death drag,” a way of emphasizing the monks’ authority over the liminal space between life to death. Patterned to reference the rectilinear beauty of rice fields, the robes in Deathpower are hung to correspond to two different color systems, each associated with a different Buddhist sect. They are also splayed open in a gesture that reads, Gleeson explains, as heretic, blasphemous even. The display questions the monks’ power. My point: There is an abundance of intricate, culturally specific meanings here that begs the question – would less be more? 

Foreground: Mikołaj Sobczak, “Upiór” (2022), single-channel video installation. Courtesy the artist and Capitain Petzel (Installation with ceramic sculpture by Henry Tyson). Background: Than Sok, “Srie Bun” (2016), Cotton blend textiles. Courtesy the artist.

Allow me a moment of speculative critique: What if the entire show had been devoted to Buddhist death rites, or to the ways artists challenge the hierarchies and power relations of Buddhism, or how Buddhist beliefs challenge western notions of the self-as-subject? What if the show had committed to making felt the many layers and tensions in local Buddhisms that stand in contrast to the reception of Buddhism in the West, specifically in the US? Or, what if the center of Deathpower had been relationality, reaching from South-East Asian artists’ work all the way to Indigenous understandings of related-ness? 

As is, the show neither explains its range – nor its omissions. 

Between the preponderance of Buddhist-adjacent work, Indigenous makings, and contributions from a smattering of local artists, a few works stand out as not exactly homeless but as question marks: Mikolaj Sobczak’s Upior (2021), for instance, brings dramatic vampire-themed, German-Expressionist filmmaking into the mix. There is an evil Tsarist army, too, and a corrupt Catholic-looking cleric – so a link to empire and the hypocrisy of some organized religion is quite obvious. And yes, the undead are another way to complicate the divide between the living and the dead. But my point, my question, really is this: Does the show need this addition? Maybe it is another portal into folklore, pop culture and more; and maybe it is a distraction. 

Then, there is the question of how, in the age of ongoing genocide, an exhibition titled Deathpower can go without mentioning the daily brutality, the loss of life, the military power on full display? Institutional policies and anxieties aside, the only works that hint at the horrors of military warfare in the 21st century are Jane Jin Kaisen’s video Sweeping the Forest Floor (2020), which follows a detection wand for landmines in the Korean Demilitarized Zone, and Palestinian Noor Abed’s our songs were ready for all wars to come (2022). The anticipation for “all wars” complements the aftermath of colonial violence elsewhere: Marilyn Boror Bor’s List of 440 Names (2018) offers an archive of name changes inspired by the pressure to conform and assimilate – by shedding Indigenous names. Some violence operates on the sly. 

From Buddhism to colonialism, haunting and heresy, from worms to quantum entanglement, Deathpower moves in many directions all at once. In its present size, in this incarnation, the exhibition leaves me with a pervasive sense of “less might have been more.” And it is entirely possible that my longing for depth and focus betrays a sensibility forged in the days that predate the advent of social media. And I also wonder about what remains unsaid – as if it was unsayable, taboo – in the context of this thought-provoking art exhibition: Where is the Christian perspective on death and dying? How do Muslim death rites negotiate authority and deathpower? If the show has no focus other than how we as humans imagine and orchestrate the rituals of mortality, why these gaps? “Deathpower” has an angle, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. The question I am left with is why not own it? 

Christina Schmid is a writer who thinks with art and experiments with prose. She is interested in the materiality of text, haptic criticism, and the ways art generates ideas. Her essays and reviews have been published online and in print, in anthologies, journals, zines, artist books, and exhibition catalogs. She works at the University of Minnesota’s Department of Art in Minneapolis where she teaches contemporary art, critical practice, process, and theory. She is a recipient of a MN State Arts Board Artist Initiative Grant for Creative Prose. References:

  • Karen Barad, “On Touching – The Inhuman that Therefore I am.” Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies. Vol. 23, No. 3 2012, 206-223.
  • Teresa Brennan, The Transmission of Affect. Cornell University Press, 2004. 
  • Erik Davis, Deathpower. Buddhism’s Ritual Imagination in Cambodia. Columbia University press, 2015.
  • Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Murmuring Deep. Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious. Schocken Books, 2009.