New York

Karen Finley

Amy Lipton Gallery

Karen Finley’s installation, Written in Sand, 1992, adopted a subtle and dark strategy which eschewed the emphasis on the sheer number of deaths characteristic of the most publicized tributes to the victims of AIDS. Emblematic of those works, Gran Fury’s 1987-88 LED installation stated “One AIDS death every ten minutes”; its latest incarnation reflects the continual increase in those statistics. The AIDS quilt, stitched together from the contributions of thousands who have lost friends and relatives, has grown so large that it can no longer be displayed in one place and is presented in fragments across the country. Designed by AIDS activists to make a graphic political point, the quilt, like Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial, mitigates the loneliness of grieving while creating a lasting, tangible memorial to each person.

Unlike the AIDS quilt or the Vietnam Memorial, Finley’s piece was structured not around presence (engraved names, pieces of fabric) but around absence—names dissolving at the brush of a hand. Her installation covered the floor of the gallery’s gold-painted basement room with sand. Votive candles ringed the space. Printed on the wall was the handwritten request: “In the sand write the names of those you’ve loved and lost to Aids [sic]. When finished please smooth the names back into the sand.” This private act of inscription and erasure ensured that we would never know what other names had been momentarily recorded. Emphasis was on each mourner’s solitary grief, not on the consolation afforded by accumulated testimonies. Finley confronted us with a harder truth: though these people linger in our memories, they are gone, irretrievable. And as one traced and erased name after name, one realized that it is impossible for so many people to always live on in one’s thoughts.

Best known for stunning audiences with ground-breaking performances in which her resonant, incantatory chants seep right through one’s skin, Finley’s previous, more complicated installations relied on long narratives inscribed on walls and overly literal mises-en-scène. Miraculously, here, with only a bed of sand, a few candles, and almost no text, Finley transformed the basement of a commercial gallery into a spiritual realm. Padding across the sand in bare feet was like trod-ding on a fresh grave.

Though Finley’s work, were it to be permanently installed, could serve as a chapel of loss, the delicate, excruciating gesture the artist requests from us could really be enacted anywhere, on any patch of open ground.

Lois Nesbitt