It started out as a funeral procession at the museum on a blustery September night. There was a hush in the gallery, even as a thousand people streamed through. No one had died, but people were still crying, and, exiting through the same door they'd gone in, acting like they'd seen ghosts.
In the final room at the end of the line were nine models laid out on coffin-length mirrors on the floor, surrounded by walls crowded with old paintings reflected in the mirrors. The models had their eyes closed and tried to lie still. In their discomfort, they would occasionally jerk and twist like they were having nightmares. One or two of the models never moved an inch—they seemed even further from this realm.
Ostensibly, the subject of the exhibition was the clothing they wore. Mark Mitchell created the clothes specifically for burial. His gowns and jackets and pants were every shade of soft, creamy cream, with macabre details. Ivory flowers of silk sprouted from the bottoms of slippers that would never be walked on. Every material used was chosen for its beauty, and its ability to decompose along with the body it adorns. All this rococo cream is for the worms.
But first, the museum. Besieged by paintings and staged by live models on mirror biers, Mitchell's Burial line became a full-fledged art installation. True, it's an installation that blends the concerns of art, a realm always once removed, with fashion, which can come so close to the everyday body. Does fashion have to pass through death to become art? Does everything have to pass through some kind of death to become art?
Mitchell does not have time for such questions. In the few weeks since the opening of the museum show, the Seattle designer has already received his first commission from someone planning for death. He will undertake (ba-dum-bum) that work in addition to all the sewing he does for the special occasions of the living, from custom-designed wedding dresses to stage costumes for performers whose identities are staked on their appearance, such as Seattle's brilliant, Juilliard-trained, queer burlesque dancer/actor Waxie Moon.
But back to the museum, where the living death of Burial caused the past and present to switch places. Visitors couldn't stop remarking that the old paintings on the walls—the Frye's always-on-view founding collection—have never felt more alive.
"This is life," an older woman exclaimed. She was pointing at the paintings. "This is the good-bye," she continued, pointing to Mitchell's clothing. She had not been there during the funeral procession—she came later. For all the power of that rainy night, Burial did not end there.
That night, after the mourners were gone, and after the stiff models reversed their death trance and lumbered up and out, the museum locked the doors and transferred the clothing onto standing mannequins. They'd been built expressly to match the models' bodies, since Mitchell had created each ensemble specifically for that model's personality and dimensions. Death may be universal, but each dead body was just one person, after all. So in a ghoulish twist on the story of the velveteen rabbit that longs to be real, these mannequins had undergone surgery to become real, rather than ideal, shapes. There were mastectomies and butt augmentations and all kinds of alterations made to proportions in order to emulate the dramatically curved, utterly nonuniform, in some cases transgender bodies of Mitchell's models, an assortment of his closest and dearest.
(I ask, indelicately: "What if one of them were to die today?" "God forbid," Mitchell says, adding that there are no arrangements in place, but that he'd be inclined to offer the ensembles regardless of the fact that none of his poor artist friends could ever afford them.)
This is not the first time death has been the life of the Frye. In 2008, visiting artist Dario Robleto, haunted by the collection and imagery of founders Charles and Emma Frye, created post-Victorian arrangements and creations including wreaths of human hair, tumbles and tumbles of black paper flowers, groupings of paintings owned by the Fryes of dead children—they never had children—and even death gowns. Those dresses were made for mourners, those living in shade. Not the dead.
Great black curtains like waiting graves hang on either end of the gallery containing Burial. Curator Scott Lawrimore installed the curtains as a tribute to the Fryes' old habit of using large curtains to hide and unveil acquisitions in their gallery/home on First Hill. Archival photographs of the Seattle meatpacking couple—she died in 1934, he died in 1940—lurk all over the museum grounds, in offices, meeting rooms, and hallways, not to mention in large, imposing oil portraits. Every curator at the Frye gets a little haunted.
None of the models in Burial was elderly. They were all too young to die, and one of them, smack in the middle of the three rows of three like the final move in a tic-tac-toe game, was a child. Not so many years ago, Mitchell was a young man surrounded by young people dying of AIDS.
But the truth of Mitchell's Burial collection is that it's a protest by someone who feels most alive—a protest against being pulled away from this place forever. If Mitchell, like so many others, was ever so haunted that he shambled carelessly on the edge of being here, that time is over.
On the insides of his garments, he embroidered patterns and messages, final tattoos that will continue to speak to the wearers—but may never be seen by anyone else—after all else is silent, six feet under. One imagines the embellishments there in the dark, coaxing out life after death, a kind of heaven, as the long rows of Mitchell's hand-built wooden, silk-covered buttons stay firmly, obsessively, buttoned: holding on until they actually disintegrate.
Each mannequin stands in a different place on its mirror. They're individual but unified, upright but stiffly posed. The child mannequin at the center is the first thing you see, turned to face you dead-on when you walk in, while the others face other ways.
Now vertical, the clothes interact newly and complexly with the paintings. The mannequin double of the model Maikoiyo Alley-Barnes, an artist and a black man whose body was once brutalized by Seattle police, whose bruises were once splashed in photo-mural form on city streets, now stands facing the Frye's paintings of soft, molting ducks and hard, crashing waves. The mannequin is draped, voluminously, in Mitchell's defiant but buttery death jacket and pants. The mannequin's chest is protected by knitting in place of chain mail. His hood is up. An entire chain of associations begins, which may be the real embroidery here.
Before Burial, Mitchell already was known for making exquisite clothing. The installation is more than that. "To live is to defend a form," claimed poet Friedrich Hölderlin. Burial is for survivors surviving even that one last time. Being able to afford it, as usual, has nothing to do with the art.