Laments express sorrow, anger, and frustration in the wake of catastrophe. Weaving together themes of loss, suffering, memory, vengeance, forgiveness, hope, and healing, laments perform a fractured identity. Vacillating between what is said and unsaid, between speech and silence, laments inhabit the shifting space between ritual, text, and performance.
A lament, as James Wilce notes, is a public performance improvised in real time as ‘melodic weeping with words’ (2009: 33). By contrast, our memories of lament are privately composed and presented as a finished product. This leaves a gap between the performance and the tradition, text or images that remember and interpret a lament. Every lament bears a unique set of features—words, sounds, smells, gesture, dance, music, setting, history, etc. However, to transcend this context, a lament must be transposed into a coherent and repeatable ‘set of signs’. Each additional performance adds to this entextualization, since ‘performance is entextualization’ by restructuring the lament so that it becomes memorable (Wilce 2009: 33).
Laments express what Richard Schechner calls ‘restored behavior’—the redeployment of past ‘strips of behavior’ in the present so that ‘individuals and groups’ can ‘rebecome what they once were’, or even, ‘what they never were but wish to have been or wish to become’ (1985: 37–8). Laments speak with a ‘double-voice’ in a ‘double-time’, thus amplifying the griever’s voice by echoing what has been said in another age (Wilce 2009: 58). This patina of antiquity lends authority. By incorporating inherited grievances into her own performance, the griever’s laments survive.
These dynamics are evident in Lamentations 1 and the artworks selected here. Written in the aftermath of three military assaults that left Jerusalem in ruins and its inhabitants in exile, a narrator compares Jerusalem to a woman who is the victim of violence and exploitation (1:1–11b). The personified city herself interrupts to implore God to ‘see’ (ra'ah) her affliction (1:9, 1:11c–22). As Kathleen O’Connor notes, a gender politics is at play here. The narrator’s ‘dispassionate description’ has ‘provoked’ Jerusalem to speak. She does not ask for ‘the return of her children, for freedom, or for the return of past splendor’. She only ‘wants God to see her pain’, but ‘God does not reply’ (O’Connor 2002: 22).
Standing behind this exchange is a longstanding tradition in antiquity that objectified women as ‘lament-loving’. Women typically played the emotive role of performers; men the intellectual role of archivers. This established, as Wilce notes, an ‘emotional regime’ of reserve that continues today (2009: 62–70). Jerusalem’s persistence therefore resists the ‘domineering logic of the archive’ that would make her performance ‘disappear’ from memory (Blocker 2004: 106). Of course, the actual lament that inspired Jerusalem’s voice goes unrecorded. We can only imagine the pain and horror she experienced. We can only trust God heard and saw her suffering.
Similar tensions exist in Ana Mendieta’s Imagen de Yagul (1973). Lying, as if dead, in the ruins of a Zapotec tomb, the flowers covering her body refer to both a common mourning practice and a deeper process of death and resurrection. Like other works from her series Silueta Works in Mexico 1973-1977, Mendieta is both the performer and archivist of this intersectional work, thus upsetting the usual gender politics of lament.
Alison Saar’s Blood/Sweat/Tears (2005) is a life-sized statue of a naked, grieving figure clothed in bronze droplets representing either blood, sweat, or tears. Highlighting the struggles of African-American women, Saar draws from African indigenous art and from the myth of Persephone and Demeter, goddesses who are cursed to grieve periodically for eternity. This statue also remembers the death of her father, Richard. She thus highlights the ‘double-voice’ and ‘double time’ features of lament.
Sam Gilliam’s April 4 (1969) remembers the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. Gilliam pours colours on a canvas that he folds repeatedly before hanging it loosely on a wall. The circles of red suggest gunshots and blood. The purple background suggests royalty. The colours caught in the folds trace an outline that is reminiscent of the Shroud of Turin. Nonetheless, the work’s abstraction destabilizes the archiving process. Despite its resilient beauty, King’s memory must be recreated in our minds to understand the work’s message. We are thus invited to perform our own lament from the loosely constructed archive Gilliam creates, to imagine what we wish to have been or wish to become.
Blocker, Jane. 2004. What the Body Cost: Desire, History, and Performance (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press)
O’Connor, Kathleen M. 2002. Lamentations and the Tears of the World (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books)
Schechner, Richard. 1985. Between Theater and Anthropology (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press)
Wilce, James M. 2009. Crying Shame: Metaculture, Modernity, and the Exaggerated Death of Lament (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell)
1How lonely sits the city
that was full of people!
How like a widow has she become,
she that was great among the nations!
She that was a princess among the cities
has become a vassal.
2She weeps bitterly in the night,
tears on her cheeks;
among all her lovers
she has none to comfort her;
all her friends have dealt treacherously with her,
they have become her enemies.
3Judah has gone into exile because of affliction
and hard servitude;
she dwells now among the nations,
but finds no resting place;
her pursuers have all overtaken her
in the midst of her distress.
4The roads to Zion mourn,
for none come to the appointed feasts;
all her gates are desolate,
her priests groan;
her maidens have been dragged away,
and she herself suffers bitterly.
5Her foes have become the head,
her enemies prosper,
because the Lord has made her suffer
for the multitude of her transgressions;
her children have gone away,
captives before the foe.
6From the daughter of Zion has departed
all her majesty.
Her princes have become like harts
that find no pasture;
they fled without strength
before the pursuer.
in the days of her affliction and bitterness
all the precious things
that were hers from days of old.
When her people fell into the hand of the foe,
and there was none to help her,
the foe gloated over her,
mocking at her downfall.
8Jerusalem sinned grievously,
therefore she became filthy;
all who honored her despise her,
for they have seen her nakedness;
yea, she herself groans,
and turns her face away.
9Her uncleanness was in her skirts;
she took no thought of her doom;
therefore her fall is terrible,
she has no comforter.
“O Lord, behold my affliction,
for the enemy has triumphed!”
10The enemy has stretched out his hands
over all her precious things;
yea, she has seen the nations
invade her sanctuary,
those whom thou didst forbid
to enter thy congregation.
11All her people groan
as they search for bread;
they trade their treasures for food
to revive their strength.
“Look, O Lord, and behold,
for I am despised.”
12“Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?
Look and see
if there is any sorrow like my sorrow
which was brought upon me,
which the Lord inflicted
on the day of his fierce anger.
13“From on high he sent fire;
into my bones he made it descend;
he spread a net for my feet;
he turned me back;
he has left me stunned,
faint all the day long.
14“My transgressions were bound into a yoke;
by his hand they were fastened together;
they were set upon my neck;
he caused my strength to fail;
the Lord gave me into the hands
of those whom I cannot withstand.
15“The Lord flouted all my mighty men
in the midst of me;
he summoned an assembly against me
to crush my young men;
the Lord has trodden as in a wine press
the virgin daughter of Judah.
16“For these things I weep;
my eyes flow with tears;
for a comforter is far from me,
one to revive my courage;
my children are desolate,
for the enemy has prevailed.”
17Zion stretches out her hands,
but there is none to comfort her;
the Lord has commanded against Jacob
that his neighbors should be his foes;
Jerusalem has become
a filthy thing among them.
18“The Lord is in the right,
for I have rebelled against his word;
but hear, all you peoples,
and behold my suffering;
my maidens and my young men
have gone into captivity.
19“I called to my lovers
but they deceived me;
my priests and elders
perished in the city,
while they sought food
20“Behold, O Lord, for I am in distress,
my soul is in tumult,
my heart is wrung within me,
because I have been very rebellious.
In the street the sword bereaves;
in the house it is like death.
21“Hear how I groan;
there is none to comfort me.
All my enemies have heard of my trouble;
they are glad that thou hast done it.
Bring thou the day thou hast announced,
and let them be as I am.
22“Let all their evil-doing come before thee;
and deal with them
as thou hast dealt with me
because of all my transgressions;
for my groans are many
and my heart is faint.”