Artist Lili Bernard Memorializes Vanessa Libertad Garcia
Pussy Cat Challenge was the title of the group art show downtown. My boyfriend Airom had a painting in the show. Airom convinced me to go to the opening even though I felt emotionally drained from Suicide Prevention Week. He said I needed to have some fun.
A black line split the gallery: girl’s art on one side of the gallery, guy’s on the other. A DJ played cat centric tunes. Artists had delivered all imaginable interpretations of Pussy Cat. The festive atmosphere promised to be just what I needed.
A chaotic mixed media piece titled “All My Love, Vanessa”by artist Lili Bernard hung opposite the entryway. I passed it quickly, too distracted by the violent disarray of imagery to comprehend its meaning. I returned for a second look, this time from further away. I saw the word “Help”, spelled out with black electrical cord in the top right corner.
“Help.” I moved closer. An image of a beautiful young woman filled the top left corner. The word “help” could have been coming from her mouth, but her smiling face conveyed no distress. In fact, the upper third of the canvas was a carnival of tinsel, sequins and stars. Only the word “help” suggested what lie beneath the dark haired woman and her pretty smile.
Further down, glued scattershot across the black background: razor blades, pills. A syringe with a stomach curdling nasty needle. Photos of the same smiling woman as above, only different. Hair shaved into a mohawk, she looks subdued. Possibly frustrated. Sad.
“Help.” The word tapered off, the cord and its plug dangling down toward the floor. The empty light socket on the other end of the cord drooped off the side of the canvas.
Four sheets of paper hung on a silver ring below the canvas. A suicide note; beautifully written, but oddly devoid of emotion and dated August 19th, only three weeks before. The note had been printed off a blog page, the title of the post was the same as the artwork;”All My Love, Vanessa.” I didn’t understand. Was it real? Or maybe the end result of a performance art piece?
I looked for a tie in with the Pussy Cat theme. There is a cat on the canvas. And a mouse. Cat and mouse? A game of chase. Not a game, survival. The cat is black and licking its lips. Perhaps the mouse lost the game and was consumed by a dark hungry beast.
I read through the entire text again this time turning over the last page. On back – copies of text messages from a frantic mother trying to contact her daughter Vanessa who had just posted a suicide note online. A daughter who won’t reply, because she is dead.
I begin to cry. Airom comes over. I calm myself down. I show him the art, the suicide note. I turn to the last page and say,”These are text messages from her mother.” The word “mother”emerges like a strangled wail. I shut my mouth, afraid of what else might come out.
We stand there, breaking art gallery etiquette by blocking the view of an artwork for a really long time.
“Do you think the artist is here?” I ask. Airom goes to find out.
While I wait an older man and a young woman come over to look at “All My Love, Vanessa”. The woman is animated, gesturing at the piece. I am about to ask if she is the artist when the man goes up to the artwork. He mimes plugging in the electric cord, pretends to put the empty socket in his mouth and gyrates from an imaginary electrocution. He is laughing. I am not.
“I’m sorry,” I say sweetly, “Did I interrupt you making fun of someone committing suicide?”
The man quickly goes away. The woman stays. She tells me she is not the artist but she likes the work.
“Let me take a picture!” We are interrupted by a woman I’ve met before, who enjoys documenting gallery events around town.
She means for us to turn and stand in front of “All My Love, Vanessa.” I tell her no, I do not want to be in the photo. She thinks I’m being shy. I ask her if she knows the meaning of the piece. She says yes, the artist created it in honor of her friend who committed suicide.
She is smiling as she says it, enthusiastic. A life event has been documented, and isn’t it wonderful?
“I am very upset by it,” I tell her. “I don’t want to be in the picture.”
I walk away.
I want to run grab a mic from the DJ and jump up on the table. I want to say that somewhere tonight a mother is crying because just three weeks ago her daughter died. The way her child died is not to be ridiculed or remarked upon lightly. I want to say that it is still National Suicide Prevention Week and I’m calling out ridicule and complacency as enemies of the cause.
As the tirade brews in my head, Airom finds me and points out the artist. She appears to be enjoying herself, smiling, immersed in conversation with a group of people.
The angry energy drains away. I realize I am out of context. People came for a party. For anyone not personally affected by suicide or Vanessa’s death, Lily Bernard’s artwork is a lovely tribute to a friend. That is probably what the woman with the camera thought.
That is how I wanted people to react to Lala’s Dia de los Muertos altar: What a lovely tribute, isn’t it wonderful?
As for the man who mimed electrocution; it is possible the light socket confused the young woman and he was providing a demonstration.
“Do you want to go meet the artist?” Airom asks.
“No,” I say, “Let’s not interrupt. It looks like she’s having fun.”