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Let’s get back to talking about New York City’s enormous sad potter’s field at Hart Island (hey, why are all of  my readers leaving?) Well anyway, when we left off, we had explained that the island is rich in poignant, important-to-remember narratives.  For example, the island’s history strongly contextualizes mistakes made early in the 1980s HIV crisis (not that we’ll ever have another viral pandemic hideously mismanaged by pro-big business apparatchiks in national government).  How can we draw attention to this history and properly memorialize the souls whose mortal remains are interred there?

As an artistic exercise, I thought about what sort of memorial would fit a small coastal island next to one of the world’s busiest ports.  Despite advocacy by the Hart Island Project, a nonprofit organization (which also helps family members locate graves and works to beautify the site) , it is still difficult to visit the island, so the monument needs to be visible from the water or the coast. However, New York is already a chaotic place! We don’t need any more giant light beacons or 100 meter tall green ladies (although if you know of a friend for Lady Liberty, maybe let me know in the comments).

There is a sort of building from the past which fits all of these criteria perfectly: a lighthouse! Most of New York’s original lighthouses have been retired or are now cultural sites/tourist spots instead of working maritime devices.  I am sure we could fit a memorial sculpture in (in fact my favorite New York memorial is exactly such a thing), but how would we make it obvious that it is a monument to victims of HIV?

As a preliminary attempt, I designed this lighthouse  in the shape of a virus.  I painted it a cheerful pink to make it pop-out from the muted coastline colors of Hart Island, and of course to call attention to the unhappy stigmatization of queer communities which made the ravages of AIDS so much worse than what should have been.

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Model for Hart Island AIDS Cemetery Memorial (Wayne Ferrebee, 2019)

Let me back up slightly and explain this somewhat peculiar model. The base is largely irrelevant (it is meant to illustrate that the lighthouse/sculpture needs to be landscaped into an appropriate vantage point on the old AIDS cemetery on Hart Island).  There is, however, one important landscape feature which doesn’t read very well in this little diorama: I hoped that the pathway from the main path over to the memorial plaque at the base of the lighthouse/sculpture might be a site where mourners and interested entities could place mementos.  I thought if these were all the same color (a chromatic convergence easily accomplished with an inexpensive vat of enamel) it would make the overall presentation more powerful and emotional. I chose pink since it is a sacred color to the LGBTQ community (I also thought the light beacon might be pink as well), however there are other virtues to pink.  It is visually bold and highly visual, however it conveys renewal, joy, and beauty. It is an unusual memorial color for an unusual memorial. But it is just an idea (pink is also one of my favorite colors). Black, white, or rainbow would all work too and each of those options also have many strong supporting reasons.

A virologist might point out that this actually a bacteriophage (or actually an abstracted  symbolic likeness of one).  That is entirely correct.  I wanted this to be a symbolic likeness so as to not have people’s final resting place overshadowed by an overly realistic version of the disease which killed them.  in the past, such a memorial would probably have had robed allegorical deities and subdued personifications of Death and suchlike figures (in the manner of the extremely beautiful USS Maine monument at Columbus Circle), however in the modern world I don’t think we have many (or any) sculptors capable of such exquisite figurative work, plus such a sculpture would fail to feature the component of hard-won medical knowledge which needs to be central to this monument.

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Speaking of which, why have a monument at all? I am sure there are readers thinking this is all “too much” or something we don’t need in a world of monetary woes and immediate problems.  I am more sympathetic with such a point of view than you might expect from someone designing abstruse neoteric memorials! However I think we really DO need pandemic memorials.  Consider the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. We swept it under the rug and moved on with jazz age excess as fast as possible.  In doing so we forgot about the critical lessons of the Spanish Flu (to say nothing of its victims and its stringent hardships), and that was obviously a terrible mistake.  There are, of course, even more victims of Spanish flu than there are AIDS victims right there at Hart Island.  Maybe we actually need a comprehensive viral pandemic monument to honor them and the AIDS victims, and the souls who have suffered and perished in the continuing coronavirus pandemic.  That final post of this three-part series will have to wait though (since I need to get back to my studio).

In the mean time, please take care of yourself. Be safe and be of stout heart.  Hart Island reminds us that these terrible times have happened before (how could we have forgotten??) but it also reminds us that the pain and loss and suffering have all been endured before and that we grieved and kept moving forward.  Perhaps that is the real secret to navigating treacherous passages which are memorialized in funeral monuments.

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Oh, one more thing. Please leave your comments and opinions below.  The more points of view presented, the better that memorials are able to represent all sorts of different viewpoints!

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Do you know about Hart Island?  It is a small island, approximately 100-130 acres in size, which lies just off the coast of the Bronx (or actually just off the coast of the larger City Island, which is just off of the coast of Pelham Bay Park).  Since the late 1860s, New York City has utilized Hart Island as a potter’s field (and sometime plague burial site). There are (probably) more than a million people buried on the island, most of them nameless and forgotten indigents whose pursuit of New York dreams ultimately led them to this place of oblivion.  Comprehensive burial records were destroyed by arson in 1977, so the exact number of bodies on the island is now beyond human ken.

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As you might imagine, the history of Hart Island is a cold, sad mirror of the history of New York City (although there are some strange diversions–for example there were underground silos of surface-to-air missiles there during the early Cold War).  The public cemetery started out as a small part of the island but, during times of particular crisis or illness, the grave-trenches grew and the other functions receded til ultimately the whole island became a cemetery.  At present the island is jointly managed by some unfathomable partnership between the Department of Corrections (whose inmates conduct burials and tend the island) and the Department of Parks which was saddled with administrative control of Hart Island by recent legislation (but which lacks the funds & inclination to make it a proper “park”).

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In the island’s recent history, it was utilized as a cemetery for AIDS victims during the first phases of that crisis. In the early eighties, people were afraid and unsure of HIV’s nature and so these AIDS graves are said to be twice as deep as normal.

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The inmates who tend Hart Island are solicitous of their solemn charge (a friend of mine who works as a mouthpiece for the Department of Corrections told me that only the most dependable and responsible prisoners are chosen–and they are actually paid for gravedigging and site maintenance).  To mark the AIDS cemetery the inmates erected a tiny albeit touchingly earnest peace monument, however they have opined that something more fitting should go there.

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That was meant to be the  introduction to my idea, however it took me longer to describe New York’s secret “borough of the dead” than I expected (and I never even got to the part about how the island is slowly eroding away leaving a coastline of human bones).  Thus, come back next time for part two, where we talk about Hart Island’s future.

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Ghosts do not seem to care about cultural appropriation.  That is one of the many eye-popping crazy lessons of An Bang Cemetery, an up-to-the minute ultra-necropolis in Phu Vang district of Thua Thien Hue province, Vietnam.  The graves in the cemetery are a mixture of Vietnamese, Chinese, French, Indian, Thai, and American styles.  The monuments reflect religious traditions of Buddhism, Taoism, Catholicism, Confucianism, Đạo Mẫu, Cao Đài, and probably other more esoteric faiths and sects.

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The fishing village of An Bang is on a beautiful white shore in Hue.    In 1975, the reunification of Vietnam caused a diaspora which swept away many of the “boat people” who lived in An Bang.  In the 80s and 90s cash began to flow back into the community from all around the world.

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An Bang Village is not very far from the vaunted imperial tombs of Vietnam’s Nguyen dynasty which lie along the Perfume River (the ancient imperial tombs are a UNESCO heritage site).  The contemporary villagers took some of their inspiration from the majesty, size, and beauty of the classical imperial graves, but they took the rest of their inspiration from…everywhere.  At first blush the American influence may seem to be lacking…but look at the ostentation, the gaudiness, the competitive one-upmanship among the dead (plus where do you think that International money came from?)

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There is a riot of styles and color and meanings, but yet I am not sure I have ever seen anything more distinctly Vietnamese.  I don’t think there are many sculptural installations anywhere that could compare with the utter Baroque riot of An Bang…and that is to say nothing of the corpses, mourners, phantasms, spirits, and what not!  Most of the intelligent people whom I know believe that there is nothing after death, and cemeteries are pointless.  My rejoinder would be that cemeteries are not for the dead, they are for the living.  Plus just look at this color, art, and form!  Of course Vietnam is a developing country, and it could be argued that this money could be spent better elsewhere, but in America we spent 6.5 billion dollars on the 2016 election (to say nothing of the corporate money that went into buying influence) and look what we wound up with.  Maybe the dead are better off with the money after all. They sure know how to live it up in style at least!

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Today, through the magic of the internet, Ferrebeekeeper is visiting a graveyard halfway around the world in Armenia (alas, I am visiting through words and images only; as always, my body remains stubbornly in New York City shackled to an office chair and a bunch of elusive dreams).  This exquisite spot is Noratus Cemetery, beside Lake Sevan, in eastern Armenia, not far from the Azerbaijan border.  This region has been a crossroads for people for millennia.  Although Noratus is today a small village, during the Middle Ages it was a large prosperous town.  A bronze-aged hillfort stands nearby. Prehistoric travelers passed through this region on humankind’s great migrations, and the region is not far from the first palace civilizations of the ancient world. Persians, Greeks, Romans, mysterious steppe peoples of all sorts, Turks, Mongols, Russians, caravan folk from east and west, Chinese, Soviets, and contemporary world travelers have all passed through the region.  However, this post is not a history of Armenia (thank goodness: I could never begin to explain the beautiful tangled chronicle of that crossroad nation): we are talking about Noratus Cemetery.  The oldest stones in the complex date back to the 10th century, but the cemetery has been utilized off-and-on right up to the present.

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The most famous stones of Noratus are the khachkars—the cross stones.  These are intricately carved stele with Christian crosses carved upon them in syncretic Asian styles.   Once upon a time (by which I mean, in the nineteen nineties), the greatest concentration of ancient khachkars was in the Armenian cemetery in Julfa (in Azerbaijan), but the Azerbaijan government destroyed these beautiful ancient works in order to further some self-aggrandizing lie or another, so today, the largest concentration of medieval khachkars is in…Noratus cemetery.

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You can see here how the maelstrom of cultures has influenced khachkar makers from over the centuries.  The mysterious gravestones look, by turns, Scythian, Romanesque, Persian, Indian, and even Jewish: yet they are none of these styles (although they are influenced by each)—they are Armenian.  But beyond the ancient exquisite graves, and the Romanesque chapels, look at the mountains and the lake beyond.  I have stolen these pictures from around the internet so I don’t really know what is in each (apparently the cemetery is easy to visit (if you are in the hinterlands of eastern Armenia) but badly labeled so it might take some specialists in Eastern medieval art to unravel the meanings and eras of these stones anyway, but their artistic excellence and spiritual splendor is readily evident.

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Spider Gate to Hoveton Hall Gardens

Spider Gate to Hoveton Hall Gardens

There are few images as powerful and straightforward as a door.  Doors represent change and transition —when one steps across the threshold one has literally moved on from one place to another.  This apparently simple purpose of doors has a deeper metaphorical aspect as well: a pauper daily walks by the gates of the palace but they do not open for him; a baby is carried out of the hospital into the world; an inmate is dragged into a prison and is held there by the portcullis.  The most dramatic doors are huge operatic gates which represent significant transition.  These magnificent structures tend to be found outside palaces, parks, insane asylums, and cemeteries, but sometimes they seem to have no purpose at all…

An ornate gate outside St. Petersburg, Russia

An ornate gate outside St. Petersburg, Russia

As we approach Halloween—the one night of the year when the doors between this world and the next are thrown open (well, according to myth anyway), it is appropriate to celebrate the  foreboding gates in our world. Below is a gallery of magnificent gates–not all are truly gothic (a few images of non-gothic gates were too good to pass up) but they are all affecting and impressive.

University of Chicago: Cobb Gate

University of Chicago: Cobb Gate

Town Gate at Suakin (Anthony Ham)

Town Gate at Suakin (Anthony Ham)

Gatehouse at Ballysaggartmore

Gatehouse at Ballysaggartmore

Gate to Chirk Castle, Wales

Gate to Chirk Castle, Wales

Crown Hill Cemetery Gate

Crown Hill Cemetery Gate

Forest Hill Cemetery, Boston

Forest Hill Cemetery, Boston

Unknown Gate

Unknown Gate

Private Modern Gate

Private Modern Gate

Gothic gate in old park in Taitsy

Gothic gate in old park in Taitsy

Gate Lodge to Annesgrove Gardens

Gate Lodge to Annesgrove Gardens

Gate to Fort Canning Green, Singapore

Gate to Fort Canning Green, Singapore

Gate to Greenwood Cemetery, Brooklyn

Gate to Greenwood Cemetery, Brooklyn

Gate to Hood Cemetery, Philadelphia

Gate to Hood Cemetery, Philadelphia

Neubrandenburg Town Gate

Neubrandenburg Town Gate

A rich person's iron gate

A rich person’s iron gate

Mount Royal Cemetery , Montreal

Mount Royal Cemetery , Montreal

Unknown Abandoned Gate

Unknown Abandoned Gate

Gate at Oxford University

Gate at Oxford University

Gate to Walled City of Rothenburg

Gate to Walled City of Rothenburg

Steven King standing at the gate of his house in Bangor Maine

Stephen King standing at the gate of his house in Bangor Maine

Traverse City Insane Asylum, Michigan

Traverse City Insane Asylum, Michigan

Manhattan glimpsed from Greenwood Cemetery

Manhattan glimpsed from Greenwood Cemetery

The trees are changing color, Halloween is fast approaching, and the day was beautiful—which means today was the perfect time for the annual autumn trip to Greenwood Cemetery, the immense Victorian graveyard at the center of Brooklyn.  As always, I was enthralled by the towering specimen trees, 19th century mausoleums, and the rolling moraine landscape, but, also I was decidedly shocked to find the cemetery was different!  There was a new addition, and for once, it did not require a pile of fresh dug earth, a crowd of mourners, and a diminution of the human family.

The triumph of Civic Virtue (Frederick William MacMonnies, 1922, Marble) In Greenwood Cemetery in 2013

The triumph of Civic Virtue (Frederick William MacMonnies, 1922, Marble) In Greenwood Cemetery in 2013

Instead of a new grave, there was a huge beautiful bright white marble allegorical statue of a nude man standing on top of two writhing mermaids!  What happened to bring this twenty foot Greco-Roman hand-carved titan to the quiet midst of my favorite necropolis?  Well, I looked up the story (i.e. read the extensive plaque), and discovered that the statue was moved because women obtained the right to vote in the United State. Fans of the constitution will note that the nineteenth amendment was ratified in 1920, two years before “The Triumph of Civic Virtue” was finished by the Piccirilli Brothers (Ferrucio, Attilio, Furio, Horatio, Masanielo and Getulio).  What happened?

The Triumph of Civic Virtue (In front of City Hall in1923)

The Triumph of Civic Virtue (In front of City Hall in 1923)

As it turns out, “The Triumph of Civic Virtue” is probably the most controversial work of art in New York City’s history (certainly it is the most scandalous to be bought with public money). The statue’s bizarre history involves the way power shifts in a democracy, the changing meaning of symbols, and the greatest constant in art—the artist’s eternal inability to cope with deadlines.  At the beginning of the twentieth century, the allegorical work was designed by Frederick MacMonnies to stand in front of City Hall in Manhattan and to represent American politics.  The handsome and robust figure of Civic Virtue stands triumphantly astride two snaky sea goddesses who represent the two great public temptresses of vice and corruption.  However, since the actual marble carvers, the Piccirilli Brothers, were very busy (and artistic creation does not always obey the schedule of small-minded foot-tapping bureaucrats) the statue took a very long time to finish and was delivered years late.

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The Triumph of Civic Virtue (in Kew Gardens beside Queens Borough Park in 2002)

The statue was finally completed and installed in front of City Hall in 1922, but by then its era had already passed.  Newly empowered women voters hated it for depicting women as semi-human beings who are subordinate, naked, and prostrate at the foot of an armed man (an allegory which seemed all too familiar to them).  Not only was it decried as sexist:  the classical Greco-Roman aesthetic was at odds with the modern new styles of the roaring twenties. Additionally the manly (but diminutive and lumpy) mayor, Figueroa de Laguardia, did not like looking up at the statue’s muscular backside as he (the mayor) stared out over his city from his office.  Together the mayor and the suffragettes exiled the statue to Kew Gardens Park beside Queens Borough Hall where it languished at the center of a fountain for long decades.  However even that was not enough to placate the artwork’s detractors who still demanded that it be moved far away from the center of political power in Queens.  The great women’s rights crusader Anthony Weiner even suggested that it be sold online on Craigslist!  Finally Greenwood cemetery stepped in with a protected public (but not very accessible) space for the statue and with funds for a renovation.  The “Triumph of Civic Virtue” was surreptitiously moved to the cemetery in December of 2012.

A side view of the statue shows the nude allegorical figure of vice (or maybe corruption)

A side view of the statue shows the nude allegorical figure of vice (or possibly corruption)

I can’t help but feel like the suffragettes might have had a point.  Why isn’t civic virtue a lovely & mighty lady like Justice, Temperance, or even Columbia herself.  The statue is magnificently carved and executed, but it also looks like a dark fantasy of mermaid abuse.  Yet its weird history says more than it does about who we are (and who we were). Queens’ loss is Brooklyn’s gain, and I am happy the statue found a pretty home where my fellow statue lovers and I can regard it up close. “The Triumph of Civic Virtue” is both great, troubling, and hilarious , however, considering the statue’s provenance—from city hall, to a tertiary borough, to an empty cemetery–perhaps it can also be considered empowering.

Virtue is removed from Queens (December, 2012)

Virtue is removed from Queens (December, 2012)

This past weekend was Open House New York.  For a weekend the whole city was an elementary school field trip as cultural, architectural, and industrial institutions throughout the burroughs opened their doors to the public for a sneak peek behind the scenes.  There were a lot of tempting choices, but, in keeping with ferrebeekeeper’s long obsession with all things gothic, some friends and I visited Brooklyn’s Green-Wood cemetery to look inside the catacombs and palatial mausoleums of nineteenth century elite. Green-Wood cemetery consists of 478 acres of lovingly tended forests and gardens where more than 600,000 individuals are buried. The cemetery is sprawled over the terminal moraine left by the Wisconsin ice sheet when it retreated back to Canada about 18,000 years ago.  As the thousand foot tall wall of ice melted it dropped its burden of pebbles, boulders, and topsoil into rolling hills which now form the bulk of Long Island.  The tallest hill on Brooklyn is Battle Hill in Green-Wood where one can stand in the middle of a field of obelisks and look down at the harbor, the Narrows, and lower Manhattan.

 

The Main Gate of Green-Wood Cemetery

A Monk Parakeet at Greenwood

The main gates of Greenwood are a gothic revival masterpiece created by Richard M. Upjohn in 1861 (the cemetery itself dates back to 1838).  Back in the 1960s a shipment of monk parakeets (Myiopsitta monachus) being flown from Argentina to Idlewild somehow escaped and the renegade birds set up nesting sites first in the cemetery gate.  Later, as the colony expanded, the birds also occupied the coEdison transformer station next to the cemetery.  So, as you walk into the park, you are greeted by raucous screeches and streaks of chartreuse among the trees.  And what trees!  Since the cemetery is old and is protected by a spiked fence, armed guards, and fierce dogs (along with who knows what sort of malevolent chthonic agencies), the trees have grown to maturity unmolested and the grounds feature numerous huge field oaks, mighty beeches, giant metasequoias and every other ornamental or native specimen which grows in these parts.

It is difficult to convey the scope of the cemetery. Visitors wander through different landscapes going up and down hills, into dark forests, across garden glades, and beside lakes—and everywhere there are tombs of every sort.  There are thin limestone headstones where the text is fading, tall granite plinths with statues, squat obsidian cubes, Egyptian pyramids, and elegant urns.  Sometimes you also pass huge haunting circles of graves which evoke feelings of barrows and ancient standing stones. During the open house my friends and I visited the spooky Greek revival mausoleums of a heartless railroad baron and of a rich tobacconist who turned to spiritualism after the mysterious death of one of his (demi-mondaine?) female employees. We also visited the underground catacombs where workers installed a creepy underground network of burial chambers in the excavation left over from a pebble mine.

Inside the catacombs (lit by bore holes drilled from above)

The princely grave of the stingy Whitney

The largest mausoleum inhumes the remains of Stephen Whitney, one of the richest and most parsimonious merchants of the nineteenth century who eschewed philanthropy. As one might imagine he was not well loved and when he died, the famous social commentator George Templeton Strong remarked that “his last act was characteristic and fitting.  He locked up his checkbook and died.” Although Whitney’s grave was magnificent and the cemetery’s great mourning chapel (pictured below) was even more so, to me the most interesting mausoleums and graves were the smaller gothic ones which I have pictured throughout this post.  We’re getting closer to Halloween (and to peak foliage)—why not take a constitutional through a nearby cemetery and contemplate the ephemeral nature of things amidst a beautiful vista?

The Chapel at Green-Wood Cemetery

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