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Performing mourning

Part of the Invisible Diaries series

Week 12 / Day 3


I have to start with a confession. There is a two-day delay between when you read this and the actions and reflections it refers to. For several years now, I have become very much an early morning writer. My best time to write is after showering but before breakfast, sometimes as early as 5 or 6 am. So, I am writing this entry Wednesday morning, reflecting on what happened yesterday. Later today I will probably just revise it a bit and send it off to Katalin (this week’s editor) and Tommo (the webmaster), who are doing a great job to prepare it to go online.

In-between showering and sitting down to write, I check my social media with the first cup of tea. Today my close friend and collaborator, the Brazilian-British choreographer Jean Abreu, posted a tribute to his friend, the set designer Alan Macdonald, who died three years ago and whose birthday it would have been yesterday. It is a beautiful, short video of a hand dancing with her shadow. Jean gave me his permission to share it with you: If I could hear your touch.

In the Introduction to the catalogue of the exhibition Mourning. On Loss and Change (which you can download for free from the website of the Hamburger Kunsthalle, its curator Brigitte Kölle writes the following:

We all have to grapple at some point in our lives with anguishing experiences of disappointment, failure and irreversible change. Whether it is the loss of a loved one through separation or death, departing from cherished ideals and visions, or being deprived of one’s home and familiar surroundings – every human being knows what it means to lose someone or something. Although these experiences of loss affect each of us differently, the way we deal, describe and assess them also depends on our cultural, social and political environment. Mourning is politically significant and allows conclusions to be drawn about social conditions and inadequacies.

The last sentence reminded me of Yasmin Zacaria Mikhaiel’s contribution in this series, Grief as Rebellion’.

My father, François Cools died in 1970 in a car accident, a fortnight before his 29th birthday and less than three weeks after my sixth. My younger brother, Luc was only one at the time and it was considered ‘unhealthy’ that we would attend the funeral. As a result, I was not able to perform my mourning and I interiorized my grief and got stuck in it. In the Greek tradition of the moirológhia (laments), one uses the expression ‘he went un-cried’, which is indicative of a ‘bad death’.

Until my late twenties, this created serious psychosomatic symptoms (a.o. insomnia and energy unbalances), which in turn became life-threatening. It took a lot of hard work (traditional therapy and other, more somatic practices) to come to terms with it, which is not to erase these earlier experiences but to accept and integrate them. When I started this process more than 20 years ago, I also became conscious of the importance to ‘perform mourning’ and how traditional, ritual practices such as laments and many artistic creations, as well as contemporary artworks, allow us to do this.

Performing Mourning is the title of my next book, and I am using the unforeseen ‘sabbatical’ that the Covid-19 crisis offers to finish it, since this crisis also highlights once more the importance to mourn as a fundamental human right. This is why my journey to Hamburg yesterday to see the exhibition Trauern/Mourning is as much a personal pilgrimage as a professional engagement. The exhibition brings together a series of 20th century and contemporary, visual artists, who all explored the notions of grief and mourning in different media: painting, sculpture, photography, video, graphic art. The journey through the exhibition spaces is beautifully curated around themes such as ‘Melancholy and Mourning’; ‘Grief and Gender’; ‘Collective Mourning’ or ‘Mourning and Protest’.

Watching the short, silent black and white film I’m too sad to tell you (1970-1971) by the Dutch artist Bas Jan Ader, I could already hear in the distance the soundtrack of the next room. Later Brigitte Kölle revealed that it was an unintentional side-effect of the Covid-19 crisis: after the recent re-opening they had to take extra measures, which involved, amongst others, reducing the audience in certain rooms and improve the circulation by opening the soundproof curtains that separated the rooms. To me this ‘accident’ was an extra gain. While watching the details of the facial choreography of Ader who filmed himself weeping in front of the camera, I heard in the distance melancholic singing, creating a strong synaesthetic connection between two different, private experiences and senses. Ader’s detailed movements of his eyes and mouth, his breathing and swallowing, with an occasional hand gesture supporting it, showed the visual tension of him trying to stay in control of his emotions and surrendering to them. The unexpected soundtrack belonged to the Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson’s video God (2007). In it a crooner à la Fank Sinatra in a black tuxedo accompanied by a ballroom orchestra, repeat over and over the same line: “Sorrow conquers happiness” for more than 30 minutes. Kjartansson’s video both touches you and makes you smile at the same time. Many of the works in the exhibition show, we need a certain ‘artificiality’ and sometimes even ironic distance to allow us to relive our mourning. This is the topic of my new book, and since I am fully immersed in it these days, it might possibly reappear in some of the next entries.

But today, I would like to dedicate the remaining space to my ‘five mothers’, who maybe overprotected me when I was young, but also showed me from a very young age that binary categories such as male/female never captivate the diversity and complexity of our human bodies and somatic experiences. After my father died, I grew up in my mother’s family with my grandparents and three ‘aunts’ of my grandmother, all living on different floors. My mother and my grandmother were my primary care takers, but the aunts were my ‘spiritual mothers’, the fairy godmothers, who looked after me.

Tante Mit had a huge library and stimulated my thirst to read in an eclectic range of subjects. She was also very butch (I apologize if I sometimes feel uncertain these days with what is the right, politically correct terminology) having a preference for men’s outfits and being very handy and up to date with any kind of new technology (which for her generation were cars and cameras). She also took care of her younger sister, Tante Wis, who was seriously intellectually disabled. They lived together with Tante Lin, who was Tante Mit’s partner for more than 60 years, from the mid-thirties when they met, till the late nineties when they died. They were publicly discreet about their relationship, but they also had an extremely busy social life (until shortly before they died, they went out dancing every Sunday afternoon) and all their friends, mostly heterosexual couples, fully acknowledged their relationship and so did the parish priest.

From a very young age, they showed me through their daily life and actions that being queer was very normal. They also showed me that ageing well and continuing to live fully and enjoying your own identity, regardless of your circumstances earlier in life (in their case, growing up in an orphanage like Aunt Lin or being seriously disabled or living through two world wars), is one of the biggest aspirations we can strive for.


Guy Cools is a Belgian dance dramaturg, currently living in Vienna. He has worked as a dance critic and dance curator. He curated from 1990 till 2002, the dance program of Arts Centre Vooruit in Ghent, Belgium. As a production dramaturg, he worked amongst others with Jean Abreu (UK), Koen Augustijnen (BE), Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui (BE), Danièle Desnoyers (CA), Alexander Gottfarb (AT), Lia Haraki (CY), Akram Khan (UK), Joshua Monten (SUI), Arno Schuitemaker (NL) and Stephanie Thiersch (DE).

As a dramaturgical mentor, he has been mentoring Anghiari Dance Hub, the International Choreographer’s Week in Tilburg, the project Danse et Dramaturgie in Switzerland; the Biennale Dance College in Venice and the Atlas program of Impulstanz in Vienna. He lectures and teaches at different universities and arts colleges in Europe and Canada.

His most recent publications include The Ethics of Art: ecological turns in the performing arts, co-edited with Pascal Gielen (2014); In-between Dance Cultures: on the migratory artistic identity of Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Akram Khan (2015); Imaginative Bodies, dialogues in performance practices (2016) and The Choreopolitics of Alain Platel’s les ballets C de la B, co-edited with Christel Stalpaert and Hildegard De Vuyst (2019). With the Canadian choreographer, Lin Snelling, he developed an improvised performance practice Rewriting Distance that focuses on the integration of movement, voice, and writing.

He is currently using the time-out of travelling, working at home on his next book, Performing Mourning, Laments in Contemporary Art.


Photography by Pawel Wyszomirski.

Image is courtesy of the author.


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