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Death and the artist: Angela Strassheim and funerary statues at the MIA

There is a lot of death at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts just now, and it is glorious.

Firstly, there is a smallish but extraordinary selection of photos by Angela Strassheim from a series she did called "Evidence." And when I say smallish, I mean there are only a handful of samples, but they are huge, probably about 5' x 5'. The images are black and white, but only just; mostly they are black. They show apartments and rooms in houses, taken in very low light with very long exposures, producing, in the darkness, images of tranquil domesticity. Except that the tranquility is interrupted by splashes of white in surprising places — smudged on walls, or scattered along the wall behind a bed in little drops, like we were seeing a night sky in which the stars are melting. In one, a large post in the center of a room has two photos of children on it, but they are engulfed by white, the whole post behind them covered with it.

The white is residual DNA from a crime. Strassheim, who was trained at MCAD and Yale, and is a certified forensic photographer, tracked down a series of crime scenes. She took photos of the exteriors, which are also on display. There's nothing unusual about these photos — they show slightly overgrown roadsides or the exteriors of nondescript buildings, and the only thing that stands out about them is that, in the titles, Strassheim describes the weapons that were discovered on this location: pistols, shotguns, knives, what-have-you. Strassheim contacted the inhabitants of these locations, and she always wanted them to be lived in by new residents, because she wanted photos in which the scene of the crime had been re-inhabited, and life had resumed. Once she received permission, Strassheim went in with a forensic tool, a powder that reacts to DNA, becoming luminescent for a short time. And, as it turns out, as carefully as you clean up a crime scene, there will still be traces of proteins left behind. Toss a little powder on it and the whole bloody mess is revealed, like a magic trick.

A piece from "Evidence" by Angela Strassheim
Courtesy of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts
A piece from "Evidence" by Angela Strassheim

There's a book that came out in 2004 by Francis Sheeran, who claims to be the man who killed Jimmy Hoffa; he had been a hit man in the Irish mob, and had been an enforcer for Hoffa. The book is titled "I Heard You Paint Houses," after the first words Hoffa said to Sheeran. This was a bit of subterfuge. Hoffa was asking if he was a killer, because, according to Sheeran, when you shoot somebody in the head, the results to the wall behind them is dramatic. This isn't hard to believe, but it's one thing to believe it and another to see photographic evidence. In Strassheim's photos, the victims don't seem merely to have been murdered; they seem to have exploded.

This would be very hard to look at were it a photo of the crime scene before it was cleaned up — presumably, as a forensic photographer, Strassheim has seen this. But, as an artist, Strassheim very smartly provides us two steps of removal from the original crime. First, she distances us by the the use of the luminescent powder — it's similar to a trick filmmakers have been using to avoid R-ratings, by swapping out blood for something else in scenes of violence.

A recent example would be a battle between samurais in "Sucker Punch," in which slashing at them causes light to pour out. In Strassheim's photos, we are not looking at gore, but at white spots that represent where the gore once was, and that allows us to view the scene without the sort of involuntary, visceral reaction of repulsion many of us feel upon seeing the claret stains violence leaves behind.

Secondly, Strassheim has gone to the scene of the crime after the crime has receded into history. New people have moved in, and are living their lives, for the most part oblivious of the horror that once occurred there. They are as much the subject of the photo as the crime is — how they have ordered their lives, how they have decorated, and how they represent themselves in photos and art on the wall. In many cases, they have innocently covered up the place where the crime left its mark, and they might never know about it, but for the miracle of chemistry.

There's a Strassheim piece at the Walker Art Center as well, from the same series, as part of the "Midnight Party" show. In a lot of ways, I find Strassheim's photos of the exteriors of the crime scenes to be as interesting as her chemical recreations of the violence inside, because the images look so innocent, and so unremarkable, and it is only their titles that hint at the subject of artistic enquiry. The photo at The Walker is not nondescript, but equally mysterious. For whatever reason — perhaps just an impromptu impulse — Strassheim reversed her camera at one of the crime scenes, pointing it at the door and entrance.

In order to make the room sufficiently dark for the long exposures she needs, she had covered the windows and the tops and the bottom of the door with paper or cloth. With the camera upon it, with its iris open for a long time, it reveals just how makeshift this attempt was — light manages to stream through whatever opening it can find. In the meanwhile, the fact that the door and window are strangely blocked makes it a very curious photograph; there is no way, in looking at the image, we can know why the entryway to an apartment has been done up like that. And, of course, the reason is quite extraordinary. I like art that presents a mystery, and then, when sussed out, the solution is so breathtaking. I think art is at its best when it raises questions, even when that question is just: What the hell?

"Mourner no. 51" from the sarcophagus of Duc Jean sans Peur
Courtesy of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts
"Mourner no. 51" from the sarcophagus of Duc Jean sans Peur

Upstairs from the Strassheim photos at the MIA are a group of monks in cowls, lined up like in a funerary procession, which is pretty much exactly what it says on the tin. There are 38 of them, all miniature, all from the tombs of the Valois dukes of Burgundy. If you ever watched cartoons, there is something familiar about them — there was a Warner Brothers cartoon, if I recall, in which a group of mice decided to terrify a cat by solemnly marching past him in cowls, holding candles, while a funeral march played.

This looks very much like that, but for the lack of candles. And, in fact, the original presentation was spookier: They are part of a statue in which, at the top, life-sized images of the deceased lay in state, supported by a series of Gothic beams, which these cloaked mourners are posed in, as though wandering about. It's an extraordinary, as though the dead were giants, or the mourners Lilliputians, that I wish the MIA could have represented it.

But, then, I also sort of wish the MIA had given the small monks candles and set it up so they might wander about the building, perhaps using some sort of clockwork system. I have obviously been ruined by cartoons.

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