Coroner Regrets has manifest in different exhibitions formats between 1999 and 2011; as a solo exhibition in the form of a video, sound and object installation in Temple Bar Gallery in 1999, a solo exhibition in the form of a three-room video, sound and object installation at the Orchard Gallery in 2000, as a solo exhibition of photographs and sound in the Irish Arts Center, NY in 2002 and as printed leaves of paper on the floor of the group exhibition re: public in Temple Bar Gallery in 2011.
The work further exists as a 47 page hardback book that includes a photographic essay, a text of the artist recollection of inquests at Dublin City Coroner's Court and two audio CD's containing readings of the text by actors Ronan Wilmot and Ena May and a reading by Mick Wilson of his essay ‘Exhibiton Notes’.
The section below contains a 2 minute video documentation of the exhibition installed at the Orchard Gallery in Derry, an essay by Mick Wilson and an exhibition review by Marianne Ó Kane.
Coroner Regrets Orchard Gallery.
Run time: 2 mins.
Coroner Regrets is the result of an eighteen-month research project at the Coroner's Court in Dublin. Amanda Ralph started this project by attending at the Coroner's Court and listening to some of the cases reviewed there. Though open to the public, the attendance at the Court was generally limited to members of the Gardaí, people intimately connected with the deceased, people directly witness to the circumstances of death, legal and medical representatives and journalists. Throughout this period, at the end of each day's attendance at the Inquests, Ralph made a record of her recollection of what had transpired in the Court.
Amanda Ralph has thus been conducting her own inquiry into certain events. These events are of a dual nature. On the one hand there is the Inquest procedure with the conventions of medico-legal evidence and the participation of family members and other properly interested parties. On the other hand, and at some remove, there is the death itself.
Unlike the Coroner, Ralph has not been commissioned to conduct her inquiry by the state, the municipal authorities nor indeed by any other agency. It is her own self-initiated project. However, in like manner to the Coroner, the artist is conducting an inquiry, asking questions and trying to ascertain the nature of things. In the course of producing her own summary document of events at the Court, Ralph has produced a series of extremely concise and seemingly matter-of-fact accounts of particular deaths. These terse reductions of the narratives produced by the court may be seen to perform much more than a simple retelling of events (not that there can ever be a simple retelling of events). Firstly, these texts in their reduced, flat and emotionally ambivalent style disavow any claim on a specifically artistic subjectivity or sensitivity.
Secondly, the manner in which they collapse together the colloquialisms of marginalised communities with the legal and medical jargons of the empowered, disrupts any naive claims to objectivity. The specific languages and preoccupations of the Court, those dealing with a range of issues from blood-substance levels to domicile in respect of the deceased, and from public safety to expressions of condolence and regret, become artefacts rather than neutral statements of fact or clarifications of meaning. This is as a consequence of being reported within the stylised and minimalist prose of Ralph's accounts, which are stylised even in as much as they appear to be straight-forward and uninflected. This is not to say that the reported speech of the relatives and others participating is given a privileged sense of authenticity. Rather their language and performance is presented in a complex negotiation with the activities of the Court. In short, neither voice is privileged as the truth-speaking one, nor does Ralph make this claim for her own texts.
Thirdly, these texts avoid the pitfalls of journalistic sensationalism and moral panic. The repetition here of many different stories of death avoids either sensationalising or normalising the deaths described. It places them in an open-ended and not fully assimilable form. They are stories which are marked as stories produced at the intersection of competing agendas. These are the competing attempts to construct and determine the meanings and degrees of normality of death. This phrase, "normality of death," may be taken here to refer to the very way in which the Court's remit is defined. Thus the Court is established to register and inquire into cases where "a death occurs suddenly or unexpectedly or is due to some unnatural cause" or more tersely put, "in cases of sudden, unnatural or violent death." Even where there is clear agreement on the way of telling and naming a particular death, there is still the attempt to order and classify death, in order to make it amenable to the purposes of the law and of the state. In doing so the court is also implicated in the attempts by the survivors of the deceased, the families, the loved ones and the witnesses to make sense of the death.
In recent years there has been an increased expression of alarm and concern at the apparent increase in levels of violent, accidental and self-incurred deaths. Suicide statistics, road-fatality statistics and other such devices are most often used to propose a sense of crisis, loss or failure: a crisis in our social values and behaviours; a loss of humanitarian values and social connection; or a failure of our political will, welfare commitment, economic policy and legal regulation. A term, that recurs in this debate is that of "epidemic". This term is used to propose a pathology, a type of problem which is not directly produced by economic, social and political power. This term constructs heroin use, suicide, or other fatality described as an epidemic, as a problem presented to power from somewhere and something outside itself. Epidemic suggests the operation of forces outside the normal arena of cultural and social power: in this way socially produced patterns of death are interpreted as in someway outside the normal system of social relations and processes. In a similar way, the demand that political power or some other agency should take command of the situation is in a sense to deny that these deaths are already produced by the action of existing structures of power. Of course not all commentators, to their credit, reproduce this denial.
At this point, it may be worth drawing on the work of Goodwin and Bronfen, who in their introduction to an anthology of essays on Death and Representation, argue that representations of death necessarily engage questions of power: the locus of power, its authenticity, its sources and how it is passed on. Citing Foucault's discussion in "Right of Death and Power over Life" they write:
For Foucault, death is at once the locus and the instrument of power: that is, an independent power inheres in death itself, but other forms of power rely on death to disclose and enforce themselves. Death, not in the abstract, but people dying and the processes by which they die, may signify by turns; a monarch's sovereignty, a people's own power, and the primacy of biology over culture. There is probably no more universal signpost of urgency and magnitude than body counts. Governments know that to manipulate public reaction to violent events they must maintain control over information about deaths. People want to know: How many died? How did they die? Who has the power over these deaths?
While there are some problems presented by this passage, in terms of its level of generalisation and its notion of the people and their desire to know, the salient point holds: the management of the information, in respect of violent death, is a crucial instrument and task of government. It is against this backdrop that Ralph's work must be read, and it thus becomes of central significance that this work does not primarily propose these attitudes of crisis, failure or epidemic dramatised through the media.
Ralph's work concerns itself with the everyday repetition of these deaths and with, what might be termed the success of one of the civic institutions in managing these deaths. Where others read ciphers of crisis, Ralph examines the operation of an apparatus that constructs a narrative to each death, and, while each narrative appears to locate the unique individual circumstance of each particular death, Ralph's work suggests that it does so by commissioning a further series of repetitions. Her work documents the repetitious normalising of the heroin overdose, the apparent suicide, the vomit-aspiration, the alcohol poisoning, the road fatality and so on. By “normalisation”, is meant the process of documenting, classifying and ordering these deaths. Normalisation may also be taken to mean the process whereby the marginalised do not determine the meanings of their lives and deaths, but rather legal and medical functionaries substitute their own speech for this. The families are allowed to speak, however such speech is ultimately co-opted and contained by due process. Ralph by producing a parallel text to that of the Court immediately suggests a critique of this process.
Ralph does not seek to challenge this power by a shock tactic such as the display of the distressed corpse or the grief of mourners, rather she employs a degree of understatement and utilises oblique imagery. Thus the imagery of the tidal rise and fall of the river Liffey may partly be seen to refer to the seemingly endless repetition and evacuation of the city's waste. The washing away of the city's detritus is then suggestive of the civic management of the dead bodies, sometimes thrown up by the river, but produced everywhere in the city. These dead bodies have always been a problem for the managers of urban space. The concentration of living bodies in one place produces concentrated levels of pollution and for many the most polluted of all things is the dead body.
Ralph's project begins in a chamber from which the material dead body has already been expelled, and is present only as representation and memory: as a pathology report, an autopsy record, a narrative of events ordering the before and after of the appearance of the dead body. Arguably, the most salient and direct access to the idea of death is the dead body of another. The dead body is concealed, just as it's death is revealed by legal and medical authority. In this way the institutions of authority interpose themselves between death and the social world.
The management of the dead body is a complex task, and the Coroner's Court is but one of many apparatuses deployed in this task of management. It is the management of a material entity, a bag of bones, blood, organs and processes of decomposition. It is also the management of information: Who has died? When? How? Where? It is the management of meanings: What is the nature of their death? How shall it be properly ordered and recorded? It is also the management of the greater material fact, death, everyone's death: How can we ever speak of death? Who should be allowed to speak of death? To whom? And to what end? The management of the dead body thrown into the city's spaces by the sudden, violent or accidental death is then all the more important a matter for the managers of the city to address. Its meanings must be carefully controlled and directed to serve the best interests of the citizens.
A summary consideration of recent scholarship on death and its representation points to another context in which Ralph's work may be experienced. Since the 1960s there has been a ferment of work by cultural theorists and critics in respect of the cultural elaborations of death. Philippe Aries through his influential book “The Hour of our Death” promoted a greater awareness of the cultural particularity of death, of the manner in which death was made over into meanings, and of how these meanings were subject to historical change and transformation. Theorists of the photographic image have attempted to establish a privileged relationship between the photographic image and the idea of death. For some, any consideration of the specific nature of the chemical photograph is already a meditation on death, in as much as it points towards a consideration of what has been: of what is now, by virtue of being photographed, already inevitably past, a moment removed from the immediate present. Literary theorists have pointed to death as a meta-trope, as a kind of representation of the very nature of representation. Medical scientists have increasingly blurred the simple distinction between the living body and the dead body. The idea of the exact moment of death emerges more clearly as a cultural artefact, a notion specific to a given culture. This ferment of research and discussion has yielded a number of differing though related positions. For some, death marks the limit and horizon of representation: it is unrepresentable. For others, death is always and only representation since, its referent can not be known to us, cannot be directly experienced, for death is the cessation of experience, of living. For yet others, "every representation of death is a misrepresentation." Amidst this profusion of opinion and question, there is for many a concern that death is being robbed of its potentially most salient characteristic, its certainty.
Even though Ralph's work plays with oblique imagery and with layers of discourse, disrupting any claims to the simple truth of the case, she does not withdraw into a total agnosticism and relativism. She does not abandon the referent, she does not abandon these deaths to the unspeakable. Furthermore, and most importantly, she does not claim to speak for the dead or in their place. She wishes to give testimony to the testimony of others, to bear witness. These short narratives of death are not presented as moral tales or moralising rebukes to her society. Rather, they might be read as acts of mourning or even expressions of regret.
There is thus a second sense in which Ralph's project parallels that of the Coroner's. She also is bearing witness to the witness of others. Among these testimonies, she bears witness to the Coroner’s Regrets even as she articulates something of her own regrets, her own attempt to come to terms with these deaths even as she seeks to avoid compromising or sentimentalising them. This alignment at critical points with the Coroner does not disrupt the implicit critique of aspects of the Court's function. Rather, in doing so, Ralph makes clear that she also is not seeking to adjudicate on questions of responsibility or engage in blame. Ralph does not claim any privileged ownership of grief, but she does provide us with an expression of regret, a bearing witness to the witness of others, an occasion of mourning.
It is precisely in that moment of mourning that this work opens a way into the question of death, the death of the marginalised and the marginalisation of certain deaths. If this question can be opened up for us, then Ralph's inquiry becomes our inquiry and there will be no comfortable answers: How have they died? How have they come to live in such a manner as to die in this way? Am I witness to this death? Who wants power over this death and to what ends?
© Michael Wilson
Circa Art Magazine. No. 93, 2000
Marianne Ó Kane
At the Orchard Gallery, Amanda Ralph’s Coroner Regrets is the outcome of an eighteen-month research project conducted at the Coroner’s Court in Dublin situated close to the artist’s home.
The visitor is met at the gallery entrance with the sign ‘City Morgue – No Parking day or night’ and is consequently prepared to some degree for what lies within. Each room houses a projection screen that is surrounded by long wooden pews, reminiscent of both church and court. The provenance of these pews is a Jewish synagogue built in 1892, almost contemporary with the functioning Coroner’s Court of 1901. Both building types have a similar formal austerity.
The Coroner’s Court deals with “cases of sudden unnatural or violent deaths.” They are referred to as such when further information is needed for public record. As a result a formal inquest is conducted. Examples of such deaths include suicides, road traffic accidents and drug overdoses. Although the inquests are on public record, if one reads the journalist account they are very different to Ralph’s personal version. From memory she conducts a parallel inquest describing people’s reactions and expressions. The resulting account is read like reportage but it provides an insight into personal response and is entirely subjective. Ralph, therefore, conducts a series of death narratives from her recollection of events in court that day.
Two actors, Ronan Wilmot and Ena May, read Ralph’s reports in an undramatic, broadcast manner. These reports are neither sensational nor emotional and the speaker’s perceived ambivalence awakens sympathy and regret in each individual listener. On account describes the death of a teenager: “He kissed his mother goodnight…At 11am she went to wake him and there was no answer…” He had died from a heroin overdose. In the Coroner’s report this was listed as “Recorded death by misadventure.”
The projected images are nonsensational and relatively mudane. The central focus of the audio remains. The still images of the River Liffey are non-specific but effective. The endless tidal cycle echoes the city’s management and organisation of events. Bureaucracy circumvents emotion to death process.
© Marianne Ó Kane