The etymology of bereavement is to “deprive or rob of.” At root, it is something enacted upon us. So too is bereavement’s progeny, grief, arriving not just for the person who is gone but also for ourselves. After my husband Colin died from cancer at 40, I entered a period of grieving, both for him and my lost self.
In my time and culture, without the black parramatta silk or bombazine dress of the Victorians, or Jewish observation timelines, I found I lacked a defined process of mourning. So, I went back to work a week after the funeral and carried on until, after further unexpected and traumatic deaths close to me, I was no longer road worthy. I left my job and returned to my practice. Within death, a part of me was reborn.
This return to making was markedly different from my previous practice. Then, my gaze turned outwards to contemporary society; now, I looked inwards to my own experience. Through my work, I bore witness to my grief in what had become a chaotic, uncontrollable world. Living as material, I began working from a place of transparent vulnerability.
What emerged was a lyrical conceptualism blurring art and life, externalising emotion, responding to relationships and the situation I found myself in, and forming presence that manifested absence. This is a lived archaeology of loss involving people, objects, place and story. Physically, it formalised across photography, text, object, video, sound, and documentation of performative action, such as Sending messages to the sea (2021-22), inspired by lighthouse keepers’ wives, signalling to their husbands from the shore, where I used semaphore flags, the language of the sea, to communicate: “I am here my love, where are you?” to the vast expanse of ocean and sky.
Making acted as a tether to the departed – a way to hold them close – so much so, that I found it difficult to finish pieces. Only when the Linenhall Arts Centre invited me to show with them in January did I finalise the body of work and realise that this was not a letting go. My solo exhibition, ‘How to create a fallstreak’, continues in the gallery until 4 March. The fallstreak of the title is a meteorological term for holes that can appear in cloud formations, referencing the proverbial gap in the clouds I was attempting to create.
While writing the exhibition wall panels, I found myself repeatedly returning to re-work these ‘tombstones’. While demonstratively focused on my own experience, I was also attempting to expand autobiography, to go beyond personal memoir and speak to others about shared human experience. I wanted to create honest, open narratives beside my pieces to enable conversation rather than hide behind distancing art-speak.
My practice has become a memorial, a transitional object, a communication and a salve. As I embodied loss, so did my work. To fill a void of absence, to find a way back to myself, to heal and come to a new understanding of my loss, I made art. This allowed me to access a space of mourning and, with it, a restoration of self.
Neva Elliott is a contemporary artist based in Dublin. After ten years as CEO of Crash Ensemble, Elliott returned to her art practice in 2021. Last year she was made an Irish Hospice Foundation signature artist.