An Echo in Amber: Grief and the Disappeared

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This text was written for the opening of the exhibition ‘Relicarios’ by the Colombia artist Erika Diettes, which opened at the Museo de Antioquia, Medellín, in November 2016. It is dedicated to the families of the tortured, murdered and disappeared of the multilateral armed conflict in Colombia.

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An Echo in Amber

GRIEF IS A BURDEN OF THE LIVING. It echoes in the void left by loss, the embrace no longer filled by the one for whom our love endures while they do not. And, like an echo, the aching lament that reverberates within us is nothing more than the sound of our own sadness reflected back from the hard edge of emptiness; the bulkhead that segregates the quick from the dead.

The unfathomable ocean that lies between the land of the living and the isle of the dead has troubled the human mind and beguiled the imagination for millennia. The rituals surrounding death have become some of the deepest cultural expressions that connect our shared humanity, drawing fibres of mutuality through the tapestry of social and ethnic multiplicity. One of the earliest ritualised burials so far discovered – an infant interred with a necklace of perforated Conus shells – dates back more than seventy thousand years. Such rites frequently involved the placing of personal belongings alongside the body of the deceased, supplies to smooth the departed into the afterlife and offerings to the gods for their safekeeping.

But what ritual can attend those who simply disappear; those for whom death is a certainty, but whose shroud is mystery? Here, the callous hand of circumstance denies the bereaved a body to be mourned, to be prepared for the solemnities of burial and the emotional closure of a final farewell.

And what of the men, women and children who endure the trauma of violence, rape and abduction? They may survive – their bodies continue to breathe, their limbs to move – but such atrocities do more than physical harm, they cut to the very heart of the psyche, to the validity of being human. Something inside is slain; a private invisible loss deadens existence. Who will grieve for the living who have already begun to die from within?

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AMONG THE FORMAL RELIGIONS of Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism, a reliquary contains the remains of a spiritual elite or fragments of their former possession: the bones of a saint, a tooth of the Buddha, a shard of the true cross. Such potent notions brought with them the prospect of a miracle. Made in collaboration with the bereaved and traumatised of Choco, Uraba, Antioquia and other parts of Colombia, the reliquaries created by Erika Diettes extend no such supernatural promise. They are firmly anchored in the world of mortals and, in this, convey a more pragmatic power, delivering a concluding chord that brings to a dissonant melody its final resolution.

A gravestone or memorial plaque does more than act as a marker for kith and kin, it stands as testament to a life. In that, all of us share an interest. Our lives are made meaningful by their relation to other lives, not just the lives of people we know, people we love, but in the knowledge that this web of relationships is what draws us into the community of being human; of not simply existing, but sharing the world, being connected. As human beings we find our deepest emotional meaning in our relationship with others, and they with us.

These reliquaries, each with their precious relic, are cast inside an aureate block. The material is a rubber tripolymer, but it has the appearance of another more ancient material which also has its origin in a sticky liquid leached from trees: amber.

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ACCORDING TO ANCIENT GREEK MYTH, when Phaëton (the son of the sun-god Helios) was killed his mourning sisters transformed into poplar trees and their tears became amber. Phaëton died as surety of the sun’s continued cycle across the heavens and the classical name for amber (‘electrum’ in Latin and ‘ēlektron’ [ἤλεκτρον] in Greek) refers to the beaming sun, the source of all life in earth.

For many centuries, amber has been considered a gem, prized for its honeyed glow and frequently incorporated into jewellery. It is perhaps because of its associations with the life-giving sun that, in the traditional lore of gems, it is said to absorb negative energy and transform it into positive.

Amber containing the fossilised remains of insects and animals is most prized, not least for its extraordinary ability to preserve a remnant of life that time and the corruptive forces of nature would otherwise have returned to the loamy underworld. In August 2012, a lump of amber discovered in northeast Italy was found to contain two mites, 230 million years old. That lives so tiny should have the distinction of being the oldest living things whose remains have reached the present day is a mark of the unique preservative qualities of amber and the importance of valuing even the smallest of lives.

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IN THE GREEK FOLK STORY, Echo was an Oread who, cursed by Hera, was only able to repeat the last words anyone spoke to her. Misunderstood and rejected, she pined away until only her voice remained. In these latter-day reliquaries, the lot of the mountain nymph is inverted and made manifest as the last possessions of the disappeared and the broken stand in silent memorial to the individual. Encased in a sunset-tinted sepulchre that evokes the promise of renewal and the transformation of grief, each is both a private votive and a public valedictory: an echo in amber.

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Alasdair Foster
Sydney, September 2016

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Images (from the top):
Erika Diettes ‘Relicaro # 121’ from the series ‘Relicarios’
Erika Diettes ‘Relicaro # 21’ from the series ‘Relicarios’
Erika Diettes ‘Relicaro # 69’ from the series ‘Relicarios’
Erika Diettes ‘Relicaro # 52’ from the series ‘Relicarios’
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  • The majority of the texts on this site are by Alasdair Foster and represent his opinions. However, in order to facilitate a useful diversity of views, some texts have been invited from artists and colleagues around the world, while others appear as independent comments. These opinions and comments are not necessarily those of Alasdair Foster or Cultural Development Consulting (CDC). All data and information on this site is provided on an as-is basis. While every effort is made to be as thorough as possible, neither Alasdair Foster nor CDC make representations as to accuracy, completeness, currency, suitability or validity of any information on this site and will not be liable for any errors, omissions or delays in this information or any losses, injuries or damages arising from its display or use.
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