The Art of Death 

Local artist Michael Aurbach lays his work to rest

Local artist Michael Aurbach lays his work to rest

Vanderbilt art professor Michael Aurbach has pronounced his sculpture dead. "Final Self Portrait," a wooden casket that Aurbach made for himself, died on Feb. 17 at 6:52 p.m. in Atlanta and was given a funeral at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia (MOCA/GA). A reverend officiated the ceremony, and two Atlanta police officers led a motorcade to the burial site. Three wailers, four pallbearers and dozens of onlookers attended.

Aurbach created "Final Self Portrait" in 1984 as part of his "Final Portrait" series, which addressed the prevalence of death and violence in our culture. "It all started from word games," he says. "We 'execute' a piece of art, 'shoot' a photograph—there's all this violence and death in our words. That's what language is doing. So I 'executed' a piece of art, and that art was a coffin." Aurbach initially made caskets about workers whose jobs went largely unappreciated, such as bricklayers or truck drivers. "Then I wanted to elaborate on it. So I went back to language and looked at words such as 'exterminate' and 'eradicate.' I started thinking about groups that were exterminated." One of the resulting works was a casket for a Native American that included a partially obscured map of the United States.

The University of Tennessee displayed his "Final Portrait: Handicapped Person" installation, which included an oversized ramp that ran 20 feet into a burial plot, for over a year. "That one was for my mother, who was confined to a wheelchair late in her life," Aurbach says.

The decision to make a casket for himself came early in the series and was intended as a parody of the art world, he says. "I'm always amused by people who take themselves too seriously. Artists are so often concerned with artistic immortality, so I wanted to play on that." Aurbach designed the interior of his casket like that of an art gallery: black-and-white copies of famous paintings such as "American Gothic," "Mona Lisa" and Whistler's "Portrait of the Painter's Mother" lined the walls. "If you go to art talks," Aurbach observes, "you'll often hear people talk about themselves in the same breath as Picasso or da Vinci. It's how they elevate their stature."

In the process, the artists we enshrine in museums and history books get name-dropped so often that they become caricatures of themselves. "If I go see the 'Mona Lisa,' I'm not going to stand there and look at the pigment and the paint and the fact that it's an important half-length portrait, I'm going sit there and say, 'Wow, I'm standing in front of the "Mona Lisa"!' I used black-and-white images because their fame sucked the life out of them. The idea is that this gallery is my final exhibition, and I'm giving all the famous painters the wall space, and I, the sculptor, get the floor."

It wasn't until Dan Talley, off-site exhibition curator for MOCA/GA, invited Aurbach to show "Final Self Portrait" in an exhibit titled "Accelerating Sequence: Artists Observe Time and Aging," that Aurbach thought of throwing his artwork a funeral—a performance piece he called, simply, "The Funeral." "The exercise of parting with something that has been considered precious for so long is important to me," he explains. "It's just the logical next step."

"The piece fit with our theme very well," says Lisa Dewberry, MOCA/GA's manager of collections. "The exhibit was about the passage of time, and the fact that he made it 20 years ago and wanted to bring its life to an end was something we found interesting. We were happy to help him bury his piece."

That "The Funeral" was somewhere other than his hometown is typical of Aurbach, who rarely shows his work in Nashville. "In a lot of things, especially in art, you're never a prophet in your own town," he says with typically blunt candor. "I cannot build a national reputation showing in Nashville. Red Grooms did not get famous showing in Nashville. He went to New York, and then Nashville accepted him. There's nothing wrong with showing locally, but for my professional advancement, it is a dumb strategy. Until I got full professor, my focus was to get through the academic ranks in a normal way"—by showing work wherever and whenever he could. But now, he says, "I can sort of pace myself."

Aurbach admits that he isn't a performance artist. Until now, his artwork has been limited to static installations in galleries and museums, and this funeral has pushed him out of his comfort zone. "I had no idea if this was going to work," he says. He found a burial site, hired a landscaper to dig the proper burial hole, and convinced friends to attend the gathering. The Atlanta police escorted Aurbach's black SUV and trailer, which was dressed up to look like a hearse, along with a yellow school bus full of onlookers to the gravesite. A Nashville band, the Nashvillains, played "Happy Trails" as the casket was lowered. "This is definitely the weirdest gig we've played," says Tom Mason, the Nashvillains' Dobro player.

All of Aurbach's sculptures are built to scale, and attached to the life-sized—or rather, death-sized—casket is a small trailer. Aurbach says he added the trailer as a statement about artists who worry about their posthumous reputation, though most people at the funeral thought it was a miniature of the trailer behind his own SUV. "My friend inspired the trailer because we were joking about artists who took themselves seriously and worried about immortality, and he said, 'Hell, you ever see a U-Haul behind a casket?' That was the joke with the piece." Still, it's easy enough to see the trailer as a self-mocking gesture, one that fits right in with the macabre humor of the rest of the piece.

Nothing embodies this spirit more, though, than Aurbach's inclusion of hired mourners. Three of his close friends, including Vanderbilt colleague Ljubica Popovich, donned purple wigs and matching satin jackets embroidered with the words "Poppy and the Wailers." Looking like an older, purple version of the Pink Ladies in Grease, they followed the casket, crying and howling. Occasionally, one of them would break into a giggle, or Aurbach would slip into a smile, and the performance would jump back to reality, a conscious parody of itself. Even the reverend's eulogy, written by Aurbach, was tongue-in-cheek.

"Final Self Portrait" was laid to rest at the home of Lucinda Bunnen, a photographer and a member of MOCA/GA's board of directors. In front of the grave stood two parking meters. When observers asked Aurbach their significance, he replied with a smile, "My time here is expired. Get it?"

The corny joke comes as no surprise to those who know Aurbach, who's famous among colleagues and friends for his bad puns and joking manner. "I take my work seriously, but I can't take myself too seriously," he says. His ideas may be somber, but he can't escape the temptation to poke fun at himself, to go for the silly or absurd, just to see what people do.

"Michael has a natural tendency to mix the absurd with the serious," says John Powers, a local artist and former student of Aurbach's. "This is a major part of his personality and often translates directly into his work. 'The Funeral' is an excellent example of this." Powers was one of the pallbearers during the ceremony, helping to bury the piece. "The idea that art has a life of its own invites quite a dialogue. The very idea of burying a piece of art with a ceremony, even if farcical, approaches the issue of art as sacred object."

Artists have been addressing the subject of death for centuries, but rarely have they gone quite this far, pulling the concept out of the gallery and making it a part of, well, real life. Aurbach's "Funeral" suggests that death isn't something to be feared, but something to be explored, to be played with. Audience members may not have agreed on the tone—some laughed, while others had to look away—but either way, Aurbach clearly made his point. If you gotta go, you might as well have fun doing it.

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