Funeral Song

Funeral Song, June 2013, essay in book “Splitting the Choir; The moving Images of Donigan Cumming”, Canadian Film Institute, edited by Scott Birdwise. Copyright Mireille Bourgeois


“Everyday is blue Monday, everyday you’re away.”

Who is Nettie Harris? Harris was a former journalist and model as well as part of a close group of elderly individuals featured in Donigan Cumming’s photographs between 1982 and 1993. She is recognizable from the photographic series Pretty Ribbons, as one who mused the lens with her body, at times naked, in intimate embraces with various maturing men, her facial expressions rapt with emotions.

Cumming, a friend to Harris spent countless hours with the subject, adding to his wide-spanning collection of quirky personae captured on film. Most specifically, Nettie is introduced as a treasured icon first. The fact that she is a woman enters the frame a little more objectively, through scientific portrayals of the body. The female body is rarely portrayed in such a sequence in visual media. Nettie isn’t imbued by the trope of the mother, the caretaker, or the sexual bombshell. She carves out an identity that stands alone despite the context of the aging female icon. She can appear almost genderless, since aging tends to strip the individual of important traits like sexuality and gender. However, in the artist’s video A Prayer for Nettie we become very aware that the filmmaker exhibits her via predominantly male voices, as a representation of the moral fiber she is believed to uphold in his eyes. Though the collection of the female body is a tired assemblage, Cumming’s collection is not about the glamorous female body, but about the cumulative behaviors of a group of individuals who wish to be part of something. As a kind of leveling of the playing field of visual association, the viewer can interpret Nettie as an equal to her male counterpart.

In both photography and video the artist confronts the viewer with close ups and invasive angles, breaking down the barriers of the gaze. We are encouraged—if not forced— to look closely and empathize. Cumming’s photographs are much less exhibitionist as they are revealing, which is the genius of working with a close collection of actors spanning multiple years. Art Critic Henry McBride is said to have stated that writer and art collector Gertrude Stein: “collected geniuses rather than masterpieces.” Every collection is a marriage of want and need that idolizes what is collected. Perhaps Cumming is experiencing aging through symbiosis, or maybe he is attempting to defy the loss of life by casting these people in stone for his collection.

A Prayer for Nettie was released by Donigan Cumming in 1995 and marked the first video for the artist after a 27-year distance from his first film. Cumming and his then collaborator, filmmaker Robert Forsyth, interviewed individuals on the street of a commercial strip. The film was an 8-minute short, and was looped over a 2.5 hour-long soundtrack titled Tennessee Street.[1] Despite this 1968 film work, Cumming’s A Prayer for Nettie is considered his first video, which won him the Telefilm Canada Video Prize for Canadian Discoveries and now lives in the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection in New York City along with five other films.[2] Nettie is a 33-minute video, handheld in style, where the artist interacts with 7 elderly individuals, which the artist calls migratory figures.[3] He alternates between questioning them about their relationship to the protagonist who is said to have died in her nursing home at the age of 81 or 82, and prompting the characters to read scripts emulating eulogies of the Christian funeral services type, and others based on theatrical scripts from classical plays. The artist also plays with familiar country songs, as a nostalgic meditation on Nettie’s life. That Nettie was still living at the beginning of this production (Harris passed away in 1993) is the basis for this offbeat documentary that is more realistic than real.

Regardless of the falsities foregrounded in his documentary work, the artist’s transition to video feels far more revealing than in photography. The viewer is placed not only in relation to the visuals, but also to the breath, body-twitches, pauses, and laughter of these characters. Cumming sets his film scenes like a photographer would: nurturing an obsession through placing, staging, collecting and creating the atmosphere in which the image should be read. Regardless of the skepticism that has developed surrounding the age-old debate of photographic truth and the death of photography as addressed by Roland Barthes; photographs are deemed artifacts. Their authoritative precedence in society as conductor of fact and event—even through the lens of simulacra—functions to prove or disprove the subject matter. In the case of photographers such as Donigan Cumming, the photograph can lead the viewer to achieve empathic moments of true pain, pressing the grit of life to the lens. If anything, one would assume the translation of these moments from photography to video would only enhance the portrayal of reality; Cumming’s videos serve instead to destabilize it.

Everyday fictions and frictions

“Oh shoot I forgot her name… anyways… You’ll always be remembered.”

Some of Cumming’s actors are prominently featured in his other videos, namely Albert Smith who is also filmed as being one of Nettie’s close friends in A Prayer for Nettie. The praise and proclamations of love bestowed by a mourning Albert suggests an intimate relationship between the two. In an earlier scene, Cumming feeds lines to Albert as he recites “We miss you and wish you hadn’t gone away, we want you back, please come back, oh dear Nettie, goodbye… and goodbye… forever.” The film is divided in multiple scenes that seem inconsequential from one to the next. The self-contained cast is recognizable personalities, if only due to how easily we can typecast the elderly and the circumstances of life that has brought them to their state of existence. Cumming describes them in his cast list as “a man in his fifties, a forty-eight-year-old man with a camcorder, a woman in her seventies” and so on and so forth. There is no clear indicator of their names and their relation to Nettie. To the viewer there is: the heavy smoking man, the man in his underwear, the man walking with a cane, a woman on ventilator, etc. All the characters seem to live in a state of suffering, except for Albert who recites the script giddily for Cumming, almost over-joyed with the experience of an odd interaction. Albert sings songs, sometimes simulating the western hero wearing a miniature cowboy hat, as Cumming films his and the others’ living spaces. Cumming takes us from the dingy carpet to the decorative brass plates on the wall, the various carpet and chair patterns, from floral to plaid, to country style and blurs them together using the fast pans of his 90s-quality camcorder.

Home, home on the range
Where the deer and the antelope play
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word
And the skies are not cloudy all day

A scene that stands apart from the others is when Nettie and Albert are filmed in an embrace. The slow-motioned scene records them arms around each other’s neck, then Albert kissing Nettie on the cheek. “My my…” says Albert. Then Nettie: “I never grew up you know, that’s my problem.” The schoolyard kiss is the only scene where Nettie speaks and shows some semblance to the ray of light portrayed by Cumming. It also marks the only nostalgic visual reference to when she was alive, laughing and well.

The kiss between the two, though shared, seems staged. Past analysis of Cumming’s work have made reference to his controversial documentary practices. The filmmaker can be criticized as exploiting his subjects. Whether his cast is willing or not doesn’t imply they fully grasp how they will be portrayed. But they generally look like they are having a great time and the filmmaker doesn’t mask his relationship to his subjects. As such we get to see the snarky comments, the giggles at ridiculous acting requests, and we also see Cumming’s own vulnerability emerging occasionally as he releases his subjects in moments when they seem to have had enough. Much like Polish filmmaker Artur Zmijewski, who has been highly criticized for his documentaries in which he situates the elderly, the disabled and the political victim in contentious scenarios, Cumming heavily leads the viewer in one particular direction. “The Art of Love” by Zmijewski is a film that portrays individuals living with Parkinson’s disease.[4] The filmmaker shows close ups of ticks and spasms experienced by coupled individuals that trigger an inadvertent sexuality when strategically positioned near each other. Awkward because of their glaring giddiness towards the camera, a shy elderly couple is filmed, open mouthed and twitching into a kiss for a long period. Then is filmed once more for emphasis.

Nettie and Albert’s kiss isn’t unlike the kiss in Zmijewski’s video. We could assume a consensual kiss belongs in the Nettie documentary, but then again, if everything else is false, perhaps the kiss is also false? The field of documentary in Zmijewski and Cumming’s work is a matter of style, more so than a genre. Where the two differ greatly is in Cumming’s intention to deliberately present an important rupture in the very fiber of his characters.

The continuity in my work is to raise questions about documentary practice – to challenge assumptions – even as I present the realities of social conditions. In short, the work comments, often very critically, on the documentary tradition that feeds and houses it. Its overt artificiality and lack of orthodoxy are the first signs of rupture – fiction infiltrating the house of truth, and vice versa.[5]

The politics of the documentary enters the discourse of film in the same manner as his photography, which is why we are a most stern audience, able to read between the lines, sent into a position of criticality. Though a living elegy isn’t more palpable because of our criticality, it may at least be distinguishable from a true one, allowing us to grasp a much deeper concept of a life through Cumming’s depiction of death.

Gestation and the portrait

“You don’t want to die do you?”

“I have to.”

Contemporary artist Martha Rosler used the tactic of distance in her video art, where she felt the viewer needed visual detachment in order to grasp the underlining politics of her work. In a 1977 essay, she wrote:

Tactically I tend to use a wretched pacing and a bent space, the immovable shot or, conversely, the unexpected edit, pointing to the mediating agencies of photography and speech; long shots rather than close ups, to deny psychological intent; contradictory utterances; and, in acting, flattened affect, historionics or staginess.[6]

Cumming denies us the comfortable visual distance of the apparatuses of aging; the oxygen tanks, the wires and deathbeds that may delay death if only to give a false security to loved ones. Sometimes the characters appear as if in a state of benevolence, offering themselves to death before their body is ready. Flowers at a funeral, food on a grave or like the mourning portrait, A Prayer for Nettie is in constant friction between life and death. Nettie has died in the film, but she is being born in our eyes/mind. It isn’t unimaginable to wonder if Cumming has filmed her dead body in one scene where she lays still and naked. He closes in on her groin, moves up her body and moves clinically close to her lips, wrinkled and still. It is her stare, her opened eyes that blink occasionally and remind us of her subtle living state. She is laying on an oversized calendar; the camera closes in on October as if approaching her deathday. She is still breathing but she has accepted to be portrayed in her own death portrait. The death portrait, a popular subject in Daguerreotypes, were portraits taken of family members and friends who had died, infants dead at birth or from disease, or politicians and leaders as a commemorative objects. They were also a way of preserving the last breath. As in the death portrait, the images in A Prayer for Nettie are a depiction of the mourning process itself, not of death.[7] One can’t help but link Cumming’s own fear and suffering to this elegy. The prayer grasps in hope to false relationships and a peaceful afterlife. The elegy can be a transferable speech, one that could be bequeathed upon anyone and is perhaps also meant to be Cumming’s elegy. Aside from the state of aging the filmmaker also explores the depleted state. Eliciting the outcome of a life lived in poverty, affected by disease, or trapped in mental illness; Cumming’s videos investigate the emotional renderings of individuals that disappear like fleeting memories from society’s psyche.

If we the viewer arrived at the video knowing nothing of Nettie, we leave knowing our minds have been impregnated with her. Whether they are stagings or true reactions to facts, we are nevertheless taken on the reverie brought on by Cumming. A Prayer for Nettie is a self declared elegy, at the same time, the video progresses with a smirk, playing with many characters, as we become more fascinated with the human condition. If we didn’t hear the artist directing his subjects, we wouldn’t question their existence. As such, Nettie becomes a conduit for a discussion on community, not only on the single person. The prayer in Nettie acts like an embryonic sac, it is imperative to keep it protected throughout the video; once it bursts Nettie will be freed. However, like birth, emerging from the womb is as miraculous as it is cruel. In one of the scenes featuring Nettie, Cumming films her sleeping while audio of another character incessantly repeats her name as if trying to wake her out of a restful sleep. By this time we know that she is gone. Simulating illness and death through scenes of fragile elderly bodies makes Nettie’s death so believable. Cumming presents Nettie not necessarily in death but in a state of gestation. Through the video she is not quite reborn; she is fetal. Embodied and articulated. The disturbing fate of gestation is that like death, it has not been attributed a determinate fate. We await Nettie, having met some version of her, yet we have nothing with which to cross-reference the validity of Cumming’s account of her.

“I didn’t know her very well though…”

“Yeah, I guess you didn’t.”



[1] Text of the lecture given by Donigan Cumming as part of the French tour Donigan Cumming : Continuity and Rupture, a series of video screenings organized by le Centre culturel canadien and Transat Vidéo, shown in Paris, Hérouville Saint-Clair, Strasbourg and Marseille, from October 25th to November 2nd 1999.

[2] Cut the Parrot (1995), After Brenda (1997), Karaoke (1998), Erratic Angel (1998), and If Only I (2000)

[3] Text of the lecture given by Donigan Cumming as part of the French tour Donigan Cumming : Continuity and Rupture, a series of video screenings organized by le Centre culturel canadien and Transat Vidéo, shown in Paris, Hérouville Saint-Clair, Strasbourg and Marseille, from October 25th to November 2nd 1999.

[4] “Sztuka kochania” / “The Art of Love” (illustrations) (2000) was a film made for the exhibition “Sexxx”. It deals with a phenomenon of elderly patients – suffering from Parkinson and other diseases – attempting transference.

[5] Text of the lecture given by Donigan Cumming as part of the French tour Donigan Cumming : Continuity and Rupture, a series of video screenings organized by le Centre culturel canadien and Transat Vidéo, shown in Paris, Hérouville Saint-Clair, Strasbourg and Marseille, from October 25th to November 2nd 1999.

[6] Marth Rosler, “to argue for a video of representation. to argue for a video against the mythology of everyday life” (1977) in The Everyday, Documents of Contemporary Art, Ed. Stephen Johnstone, 2008

[7] Adam McEwen,


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