OpenIDEO is an open innovation platform. Join our global community to solve big challenges for social good. Sign up, Login or Learn more

The Grieving Wall

Using collective art to express individual grief in public, creating the sense of community and allowing one to think about the end of life.

Photo of Panisa Khunprasert
0 2

Written by

One of the interesting things I found from talking to people about public memorials is that they do associate with the remembrance of victims of wars, terrorism, or other public tragedies. This  territory of death and memorialization challenged me because I have always focused on individual grieving that directly affects individuals and the people around them.  I personally have never experienced losing any immediate family members or friends to a public tragedy.  This fact created a disconnection between me, my work, and my audience. After several attempts to explain the objective of the event and to correct misunderstandings, I decided to leave the agenda open.  This is to be regarded as a place where you come to think about your lost loved ones, and where you can express your feelings for people or things you have lost regardless of when or how. I also needed to be able to talk about the event as part of the memorial of public tragedies. I therefore looked for artists whose works are related to public grieving or memorializing.

Doris Salcedo, and her exhibition at the Guggenheim in the Summer of 2015, was my first inspiration.  This Colombian artist has addressed the traumatic history of modern-day Colombia, as well as wider legacies of suffering stemming from colonialism, racism, and other forms of social injustice. Originating in lengthy research processes during which the artist solicits testimonies from the victims of violent oppression, her sculptures and installations eschew the direct representation of atrocities in favor of open-ended confluences of forms that are fashioned from evocative materials and intensely laborious techniques. Many of her works transmute intimate domestic objects into subtly charged vessels freighted with memories and narratives, paradoxically conjuring up that which is tragically absent. For example, Plegaria Muda, or silent player, is an installation of tables creating a space the size of a  human coffin. One table is inverted on top of the other with live grass growing from an earthlike layer in between. The installation counters the anonymity of victims in mass graves with hand-wrought, unique works, and asserts the importance of each individual’s proper burial—whether in the United States, Colombia, or elsewhere. For Salcedo, the individual blades of grass evoke a sense of optimism: “I hope that, in spite of everything, life might prevail, even in difficult conditions . . . as it does in Plegaria Muda.” Another example is the work of Colombian artist, Maria Fernanda Cardoso, Crementerio-jardin vertical (Cemetery-Vertical Garden), 1992.  Artificial flowers are grouped on top of delicately drawn shapes on a wall that recalls the funeral niches of a mausoleum. The work suggests the age-old practice of placing flowers on the burial grounds of departed loved ones at the same time that it evokes a garden, the traditional symbol of life and rebirth. The fact that the flowers will never die also relates to the idea of eternal life. Cardoso conceived this work in the aftermath of a particularly violent period in Columbia’s long-running civil war, as the conflict between government forces and guerrilla fighters grew to encompass heavily armed factions of the country’s major drug cartels. Cardoso’s use of readily accessible, non precious materials as an aesthetic strategy formed by the socioeconomic context in which recycling is an inextricable aspect of daily life for many. The last artistic creation  is from South America, I Wish Your Wish, by Brazilian artist, Rivane Neuenschwander. This is more aptly related to the gesture of collective empowerment and support rather than to public grieving. I was interested in the fact that the artist reimagined the traditional wishing wall gesture and transferred it to an urban context like The New Museum in New York City. The work is derived from traditions popular among pilgrims to the Church of Nosso Senhor do Bonfim in Bahia, who bind ribbons to their wrists or the church’s front gate in the belief that when the ribbons fall off or disintegrate, their wishes will be granted. In Ms. Neuenschwander’s conceptual-art variation, which will be displayed at the rear of the New Museum’s lobby, colorful silk ribbons have each been stamped with one of 60 wishes left by previous viewers of the piece. The show’s visitors can take a ribbon from one of 10,296 small holes in the wall in exchange for scribbling a new wish on a slip of paper and inserting it into the hole. “When I was starting off, I was very interested in the ephemeral, in quotidian materials that disappear or are subject to entropy, which is how my art got stuck with labels like ‘ethereal materialism,’ ” she explained.

Mixture of peacefulness of those in the old community who have been living there for generations and the young energy of the new residents who continue to respect the serenity of the neighborhood. The balance between vendors and the community’s own property also helps create more charm to the neighborhood. Because I feel at peace in this particular area of the city, I decided to go location scouting and discovered that there are over 30 community gardens in this neighborhood. I emailed as many gardens’ boards or administrators as I could and received several responses. One of them was Soretta Rodack who runs the 6BC Botanical Garden. We had a meeting at the garden to discuss a wall installation, and then emailed back and forth about the details of the installation. Having had the opportunity to see the space and talk to Sorretta, I discovered that having one big wall may not be the best solution because the only suitable location would have been at the entrance to the garden, and I felt that this might not encourage people to walk further into the garden space itself. So I proposed the idea of having three narrower walls installed in several spots within the garden space. This would make it immersive in  the garden, and help reduce certain structural problems. Since the garden board had also asked to keep the wall in the garden after the event, I needed to make sure that the wall would be strong enough to withstand the wind and rain. In addition to having such a lovely space in Manhattan for a very reasonable rate, another big benefit of hosting the event in this garden was that it helped ground my design to the functional and feasible level. 

As for the message cards, I decided to use of the typology of the garden which is meant for remembering and healing. First the user will receive a package of message cards.  As they read the instructions on the package, they can sit down at the provided tables and chairs and articulate their emotions in a written message. After that, they will walk into the garden which in Buddhism practice is a meditative oasis for the act of self realization. Instead of sitting down, walking and meditating teaches one’s mind to focus on taking steps corresponding with their breathing. It is a time for self realization and being present with one’s inner thoughts. Participants can also choose to simply walk in silence and think about their loved ones or enjoy the peacefulness of the garden. If they want some private moments they can select one of the walls that is not occupied or one that is less crowded. Finally, they are encouraged to read people’s messages that are on the walls and enjoy the collective art work they helped create.

What is a provocation or insight that might inspire others during this challenge?

It takes the bereaved a lot of courage to be vulnerable about their loss. Sometimes it is easier to express grief and loss to strangers.

Tell us about your work experience:

I am a recent graduated design student and spent a year working on a thesis titled Hereafter; remapping the landscape of of death and the way it is remembered.

If you participated in an End of Life Storytelling Event, tell us which Chapter or city you came from:

New York City


Panisa Khunprasert


Join the conversation: