The Procession of Death. ALMA Y MUERTOS by Daniela Portillo Cisterna
ALMA Y MUERTOS takes us on a procession of death – one that is at times mournful, but also strange and even delightful.
The skies were grey and overcast as we all gathered on Štvanice island for the performance ALMA Y MUERTOS by Daniela Portillo Cisterna; I arrived in a smattering of rain and thought that was a pity because I knew from the programme we would be participating in an outdoor procession of some kind, but unsure of what to expect exactly. The performance began when the artist gave a brief introduction to the piece, explaining to us that this was a ritual exploring death and loss through the funeral rites of northern Chile, and dedicated to the memory of Germán Droghetti, an influential Chilean theatre designer who died of COVID in 2020.
The artist asked each of us to pick up a ribbon in a basket that would represent someone we have lost ourselves, and who would symbolically go on the procession with us. We were also asked to scan a QR code on our phones that had a short video on it. I misheard and thought we were supposed to watch it at the same time, so I waited for a bit before realising that everyone was already viewing it on their phones. I was able to see just the start of the video – desert scenes, sand-coloured crosses – before we were suddenly interrupted by the appearance of a performer who literally seemed to come out of nowhere.
She? It? was clothed head to foot all in red, in particular, a red dress with a metal hoop skirt that had metal flowers attached to it; it began at her shoulders and encased her small body inside. Her face was fully covered in a mask of soft flowers. This being came dancing towards us. Was she/it meant to represent death? In any case, the suddenness of its appearance, the way she interrupted us in the middle of something – felt representative of death.
She began moving away from us, her hoop skirt shaking as she walked, rattling the metal flowers attached to it like bones – so we followed. Flowing through the park, her movements at various times a slow walk, at others a skip in the open grass; but always swinging the hoop around her almost like she was carrying along something heavy, her body’s movement defined by the constraints of the metal hoop skirt. The way she moved reminded me at times of a small animal, scurrying away, at other times she pranced in circles like a whirling dervish, innocent in its carefree joy.
At some points along the procession, there was music playing from speakers that were probably hiding behind some of the trees - layers of mournful, evocative vocals that intermingled with an acoustic guitar. Sometimes she would stop leading and come back towards the participants. To some, she handed out metal wreaths with metal flowers on them like a ritual offering, these wreaths that seemingly came out from nowhere; they must have come from underneath her skirt.
And although a solemn procession, there were too many cameras and photographs being taken which undermined the ritual aspect of the experience – I too along with others was busy photographing and videoing, afraid that I would forget something about the performance when I had to write about it later. Would it be a different experience if I could stay in the moment? I tried to put my phone down, tried to be present, gripped my ribbon and remembered who I was carrying with me in this procession. I had completely forgotten about our ribbons, completely forgotten what this ritual was about. Is it the nature of contemporary mourning, reflecting how we can't now do even the most private of things like grief without putting it online, on display ?
When we stopped and she, the performer, death – came close to me, her face of flowers looking directly at me, before turning away – I felt my skin crawl. Was this what it was like to look at the mystery of death? A strange faceless creature, unsure if it meant me well or harm, if it was innocent or evil…after she walked away, I realised that her dress was made up completely of rags.
We walked the length of the park, moving past people having BBQs and picnics (what a strange sight we must have been for them!); she ran on into the part of the park that was wide open, leading us to our final destination, to the final point in the procession.
A small field of crosses of different sizes. Implanted in the grass, and facing the river. It looked like a kind of cemetery. Somehow, without speaking she invited those she has given wreaths to hang up their wreath on one of the crosses. One by one they do this.
Then we are all invited to tie our ribbons onto the wreaths.
Our ribbons blow in the wind. The sun finally came out at the end, and we all stood, silently, looking at the crosses.
May Ngo is a Chinese-Cambodian Australian living in Prague, Czech Republic. A former academic in anthropology, she is now a freelance writer, teacher and editor (mayngo.net) and founder of the Prague Writers Workshop (praguewritersworkshop.cz).