Julia Martin Black Hole, détail du projet | detail from the project You Are Talking To Yourself, 2014. Photo : permission de l’artiste | courtesy of the artist

Flat Death Jest: Julia Martin’s Performatist Aesthetics of Empathy

Jakub Zdebik
After Friday (2014–18) is devastating in its simplicity. Ottawa-based artist Julia Martin’s grandmother, a caregiver with whom she shares a bond like no other, dies. “There is nothing after Friday,” reads the text below the first image, a pastel-hued photograph of an elderly woman reclining in bed. The composition echoes the perspective of Carracci’s Corpse of Christ (1583–85): the figure, observed from the foot of the bed, has her head to the side and is stricken with obvious suffering. In the second, blurry photograph, the pastel hues dissolve the body on the bed. This work is touching; it triggers an empathetic response in the viewer. We wonder if Martin has managed to turn Emmanuel Levinas’s stance on empathy in art on its head in just two photographs. Levinas took the view that one could not have an empathetic response to art, as empathy is a state of being in solitude that makes one’s proximity to suffering incommunicable.1 1 - Emmanuel Levinas, Time and the Other and Additional Essays, trans. Richard A. Cohen (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1997), 42.

And then, suddenly, Martin pulls us back from this contemplation by inserting a jarringly matter-of-fact email exchange between herself and the headstone engraver about the aesthetic qualities of her grandmother’s monument. Further subverting this problematic understanding of empathy through the use of jokes, she compares a photograph of a dead bird to the bird silhouette on the headstone and makes references to a television schedule for episodes of M*A*S*H, Touched by an Angel, and Walker, Texas Ranger. Throughout, she tempers the quotidian strain with humour. And yet, humour does not mask the trauma that she expresses. She uses both text and photography to convey the trauma of loss and its aftermath in a way that would be irrepresentable through either text or photography alone.2 2 - Martin’s use of appropriation and the combination of image and text is tinged with a kind of romantic irony. Jan Verwoert, “Impulse Concept Concept Impulse: Conceptual Art and its Provocative Potential for the Realisation of the Romantic Idea,” in Jorg Heiser, Susan Hiller, Collier Schorr, and Jan Verwoert, Romantischer Konzeptualismus/ Romantic Conceptualism (Bielefeld: Kerber Verlag, 2007), 169

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This article also appears in the issue 95 - Empathy
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