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From here to eternity

At Forest Hills, the works in `Dwelling' create spaces for reflections on life and loss

A cemetery is a breeding ground for ideas about mortality, grief, and the afterlife -- prime real estate for contemporary art. ``Dwelling: Memory, Architecture & Place," the Forest Hills Educational Trust's fourth summer juried show, is as rich with contemplation and eeriness as its predecessors.

Cozy domesticity may not be the first thing you associate with burial grounds, but consider the Victorian aesthetic of Forest Hills Cemetery. It's full of the homey trappings of its era. Marble staircases climb to houselike mausoleums. Iron fences enclose family plots into small yards. Granite draperies top tombstones like throws tossed on the backs of easy chairs.

As the brochure for ``Dwelling" puts it, Forest Hills is ``the ultimate domestic space: a home for eternity." Artists submitted pieces responding to this theme; 15 projects were tapped. The airy and ethereal art makes a breathtaking counterpoint to the bulk and opacity of the cemetery's monuments. It's a stirring exhibit that almost inadvertently examines how ideas about death have changed in 150 years.

``Knock on Wood" by Andrea Thompson recalls the hair-raising scene in ``A Christmas Carol" in which Jacob Marley's ghost materializes as a doorknocker. Thompson mounted antique doorknockers on several cedar posts. Situated near the cemetery's entrance, Thompson's posts represent the threshold to the spirit world inhabited by the residents of Forest Hills. The act of knocking is poignant; nobody will ever answer. That lack of response evokes the ache of absence after a death and reminds us of our own solitude.

The Victorians made the cemetery a place where the bereaved could visit the departed, as represented by a tombstone. But if this show is any indication, artists today don't find granite or marble adequate as a stand-in for a lost loved one. They are more focused on expressing the experience of loss. And they turn the burying ground into a site of self-reflection.

Nothing does that better -- both literally and figuratively -- than ``The Mirroring Stone" by Adam Frelin , a gravestone crafted from polished stainless steel. Walking past, the reflection of grass and other monuments reads like a dizzying warp in your vision. Stop and focus, and you'll discover your own reflection, a chilling reminder that in the end, all that will be left of you is a marker on your grave.

If, that is, you choose to be buried and not cremated, scattering your ashes to the winds. Winds blow through many pieces here that are shaped like simple shelters. They become chapel-like, sacred spaces, and entering them affords an opportunity for contemplation. Jim Coates's lovely ``Sunflower House" has a sturdy black chair in the center of a skeletal hut made from interlaced branches; sunflowers along the edges sprout, grow, and will eventually die, making the sculpture witness to life's cycle. Similarly, Robert Gilmore and Sarah Walker's roofless ``Living Room" sports morning glory vines crawling up the wire walls.

The roofline of Joan Goody and Lesley Davison's quiet ``Breathing Room" echoes the gothic architecture of many mausoleums, but it's all air -- purple wire strung among four trees. Beneath lies a Zen garden. Maybe it's easier to remember a lost loved one or sit with one's grief in such a setting, compared to a mausoleum, the sheer heft of which accentuates absence.

Halsey Burgund's ``One Hundred and Four Thousand" has no material substance at all: It's a sound piece you can dial up on your cellphone. Burgund overlaps voices of cemetery visitors with ambient sounds and mournful music. The bodiless voices suggest an ethereal blanket resting lightly over the cemetery's rolling grounds, holding traces of all the people who have been here.

A rocking chair sits on a wooden mosaic of a Victorian carpet in Nadya Volicer's ``Living Room." The rug appears to lift off along the sides, as birdlike shapes rise up on strung wire. The stodginess of the Victorian design makes a powerful contrast to the flying carpet, which poetically embodies death's dissolution.

There are smaller houses, here, too. Michael Beatty and Mike Newby riff on the architectural motifs of Forest Hills -- including the symbol of a dove for the soul -- with birdhouses that resemble nearby monuments. Jason Middlebrook mounted dozens of birdhouses on one totem pole, helter-skelter, commenting on how shelter can be upended; his pointed social critique seems out of place in an otherwise contemplative exhibition.

Christopher Frost's clever ``Neighbors" features models of homes occupied by some of those interred at the cemetery, ranging from a Queen Anne mansion to a modern split level. Of all the artists, Frost is the truest to the Victorian approach to cemetery design, as he examines how the places people dwell -- before and after death -- reflect their lives and personalities.

Amy Walsh built ``Sexton's Room," a tribute to poet Anne Sexton (buried at Forest Hills), into a low stone wall. Peer through a tiny window into a room with a door ajar, a broken window, and a certain slant of light. Walsh's small scale feels wonderfully intimate beside most of the larger pieces here.

Jay Cummings makes a minimalist abstraction in ``Family Lot," which floats in the cemetery's Lake Hibiscus. It reads like a diagram of hierarchy, as do many family plots at Forest Hills, with father getting the largest stone. Yet it's sweet, suggesting that even though the whole family has passed, its members are still together.

Whether or not visiting a loved one's grave is a solace to you, ``Dwelling" opens up the cemetery as a place to linger and be comforted.

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