metropolis m

S*an D. Henry-Smith, selection from the series, Isle, 2022.

What is grief like? We asked Staci Bu Shea to edit a series of writings from individuals who have faced the loss of someone deeply important to them. Read Staci’s introduction to the series here.

Published every Thursday through the early weeks of summer, each writer offers a glimpse into how they shape and are shaped by grief, and every text is published with a photograph by the artist and poet S*an D. Henry-Smith. Chus Martínez reflects on the work of her friend, the artist Lin May Saeed.

S*an D. Henry-Smith, compress, 2016; a small square-shaped rock is compressed between two larger rock surfaces. It looks as if this smaller rock fell between the cracks and became wedged, or like boulders fell off a mountain face and perfectly landed this way. The rocks look like sandy limestone and appear jagged, well-lived.

It was early summer. I was in the public swimming pool. A person working in the art world came to me and told me Lin May Saeed may be seriously ill and wanted to inquire if I knew something. I said no. I became very cold despite the very hot day. I asked how this news came around. The person overheard a conversation on the phone where Lin said she couldn’t travel as agreed and the situation seemed serious. Lin and I were friends. Not the kind that calls every week, but the kind that is always there and regularly texts each other. I always made it very clear that the work by Lin is, in my opinion, extraordinary, and stated my admiration every chance I had. I called my husband, Ingo Niermann, who was also good friends with Lin. He heard the rumor the day before from the same source. I confess I did not dare to write to Lin at that moment. A few days later I saw a common friend and she, being in constant personal and professional exchange with her, confirmed that Lin was seriously ill.

My reaction speaks to my reluctance to accept the dimension of the problem, but my energy found direction. I began obsessing about organizing an exhibition about her work while my husband booked tickets to go to Berlin. I was aware of how fundamentally important Lin’s artistic practice was for her. Making art, this kind of art, was about feeling and sensing the world from a particular perspective informed by ancient myths and how the wisdom in them informs the present. In working, she saw the enormous potential of art in creating a pedagogical language on the question of love and nonviolence. Indeed, the complete erasure of violence was a fabulous horizon for her, one we should all share, one everyone should accept and even embrace as a mandate.

We started texting almost daily. But once in Berlin, I could not bring myself to see her. My husband and our child went. I was a total coward and was possessed by very powerful emotions. I thought a lot about it: was it self-pity? Or self-protection? We kept writing to each other, and it was obvious that Lin did not resent my decision. She was too generous, too kind to lose a second to these thoughts. The summer was intense in our exchange, and it gave me another more formative opportunity to reflect on her work. She was also very active. Yet by the end of the summer, she couldn’t write anymore. I remember holding the phone in my hands open to the text chat, knowing what it meant and crying. When she passed away, I had already cried a river.

Lin May Saeed, Kofi, 2019. Bronze cast, lacquer, 162,5 x 79 x 35 ,5 cm. Photo Wolfgang Günzel. Courtesy Lin May Saeed Estate; Chris Sharp Gallery, Los Angeles; Jacky Strenz, Frankfurt/Main. © Lin May Saeed Estate

I totally know my place in the art world, and I know how difficult it is to follow certain paths, paths that I see clearly as vital, inspiring, and fertile for others, but the pragmatics of the system are not porous enough to absorb it. If it could, the urgency of Lin’s life might necessitate an agile approach to respond to her work within her lifetime, regardless of institutional timelines of planning and production. Meanwhile, I think about her and her work daily. I believe I have a responsibility in creating access to and understanding of her work. Why? Because she was a person that could connect with the non-human dimensions of life on so many levels that what she wanted to share, needs to be shared. As someone who intimately values all kinds of life, she created her work because she wants to stay with us for a long time. This is a message that guides me. Actively searching for those that may recognize the greatness of her work is a very important part of my mourning. I need to manifest both my admiration and my friendship with Lin.

I keep as a treasure the first studio visit we had together. We were both so shy that the first quarter of an hour we were almost silent. Then she started telling the stories about each piece, the ancient myths that connect the Middle East with today’s perceptions of kindness, about the bonding with animals, about preventing us from hurting anyone. A while later, a fantastic mutual friend gave me a print by Lin. I have several of her works, and I always write my texts with a small sculpture of hers next to me on my desk. It’s here now. I talk to the sculpture when I have certain problems, when I am very worried. I believe in transfers. Not because I necessarily believe Lin is listening, but because I believe her small sculpture is listening. I think that small sculpture is a part of her and in actively communicating with it, I give the three of us an opportunity to be together: Lin, her work and me. My favorite night of the last year, somewhere in January, I left a glass of water and some food for the sculpture. For the Chinese New Year I have placed a small candle shaped like a dragon next to it. More of these moments of connection follow. The American philosopher Stanley Cavell resonantly uses the word “nextness.” My grieving is all about creating this nextness, small steps into a future where Lin is all-present. It is a beautiful exercise that enriches my life and honors her presence.

Chus Martínez

is een curator, kunsthistoricus en schrijver / is a curator, art historian and writer

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