An Interview with Community Artist Marina Szjiarto
by Anna Wilkinson
Earlier this October(2010), I took a walk around Mountain View Cemetery with Marina Szjiarto the art and technical director of Vancouver’s All Souls. In its sixth year, Marina describes the series of All Souls events as a time for community members to come to the Mountain View Cemetery and remember the dead. On October 30th, the public is invited to engage with a wide range of shrines and commemorative sites all around the cemetery.
As Marina points out, All Souls is nothing new; celebrations during this time of year go back hundreds of years. “There is something special about this time of year. Many cultures in this hemisphere have traditions related to honoring the dead during this season. Traditionally, it’s a time when the space between life and death becomes thin and communication between the two realms is possible.”
However, for Marina and her collaborator, the cemetery’s artist in residence Paula Jardine, the event is about engaging with these older traditions in a contemporary way.
“A lot of people in Vancouver are from somewhere else and many of their cultural traditions get left behind. It seems that All Souls often appeals to people who have been here for two or more generations; those who are not embedded in a strong tradition already. They are often the ones searching for meaningful ways of remembering their dead.
At the same time a lot of religious and cultural diversity is expressed during the event. We have had Buddhist ceremonies at the event as well as First Nations and Catholic traditions, so it definitely isn’t a non-religious event. But it also goes beyond this; it’s almost pan-religious. In a way, the event is open to whatever people want it to be and that maybe even means that for some people there is no religious reference to it at all.”
This universalism is an integral concept behind All Souls. And it is a concept that is perfectly illustrated by a Buddhist narrative that Marina came across through her research into cultural traditions surrounding death.
In the story, a woman’s child dies. She asks the Buddha to revive her child and he tells her that he will if she can bring him a mustard seed from a house which hasn’t been affected by death. She tries and finds that she can’t. In the end she thanks him for helping her realize that she’s not alone. It is these commonalities of the human experience that Marina hopes will become apparent through the All Souls programming.
“There is something very special about being in a public space and seeing that others have lost people or are creating beauty out of it. There is a sense of human connection through death. It’s about taking comfort in the fact that we’re not alone. Different cultures may have different rituals surrounding death but they all have them. Creating a space for grieving just opens one’s heart up to humanity. It can be very moving.”
For Marina, art-making is also part of a universal and hugely therapeutic process when it comes to dealing with grief. This is why many of the structures and spaces at All Souls invite participation and public engagement. Even something as simple as writing the name of a loved one on a prayer flag and tying it to a tree in the cemetery can help someone express their feelings in a healing way. As Marina puts it, “The shrines at All Souls are defined more by the meaning they are imbued with than by the form they take. They can range from a rock with candles on it to a huge, elaborate structure. Really it is the act of working with one’s hands that literally helps to express grief.”
The All Souls events promise to offer an intergenerational, multicultural, and moving experience in a unique location. See some of the upcoming events below and check out http://vancouver.ca/commsvcs/nonmarketoperations/mountainview/allsouls/index.htm for more details.
All events take place in the Celebration Hall at 5445 Fraser Street at 39th Avenue.
Go here for details.