Waxy white carnations are placed in large bouquets

A small darkened room is hung with lush black velvet, set up for a wake. Waxy white carnations are placed in large bouquets, lit by white candles. Incense is chokingly thick. Small shelves, each holding an icon placed underneath a hanging text, are placed around the side of the room like reliquaries containing the special effects of saints. A soundtrack of voices muttering prayers creates an abstract aural landscape, something like the roar of traffic or surf. A large white casket is placed along one side of the room with the top half of the lid open. Coco Fusco lies in the coffin. In this particular performance she is naked and covered in mud, performing the dead body of Ana Mendieta as it appeared, alive, in Mendieta’s work, Tree of Life.

Such a performance invites participation and a certain attitude of reverence – after all, funerals demand some kind of gesture of respect. Viewers speak in hushed voices and tend to fall into a circular perambulation, first paying respects to the body, perhaps placing a carnation in the casket, then viewing the texts and icons that line the other three walls. A nun (Kim Sawchuk) says a rosary for the deceased and watches the audience. Occasionally she picks out someone and hands her a prayer book.

Better Yet When Dead is an installation/performance that simulates a Catholic wake. Fusco’s live presence invokes the spirits of five Latina or Chicana women who died before their times. As Fusco’s artist’s statement reads, these women, though “brilliant in life. . . were better yet when dead, and thus shine forth as stellar examples of a fate that many women share.” These women are: Tejano singer Selena, who was murdered by the president of her fan club just as she was beginning to break into the mainstream market; Eva Peron, who skilfully created the performance through which she fought her way from poverty and humiliation to wealth, political power, and cult status; Ana Mendieta, the Cuban-American artist who was allegedly thrown our of a window by her famous and philandering husband, Carl Andre, just as she was beginning to gain serious recognition for her work; Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, the celebrated seventeenth-century Mexican poet, scholar and nun who was forced by the church to give up her famous library and renounce secular writing and died tending plague victims; and Frida Kahlo, who survived polio, being impaled by a streetcar, countless operations, the amputation of a leg, and Diego Rivera.

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