The Grave Project is a collaboration between Jess Miley & Derek Sargent. We research historic individuals who have had an impact on queer and non-normative culture. This research culminates in a pilgrimage to their burial site which we document in photography, film and text.
We examine the way their queerness is used in the construction of their historical biographies and how where they lived, either by choice or not, had a profound effect on their queer story. These personal histories can act as a framework to examine contemporary ideas around queer existence. Graves or burial sites are important objects in the lives of these figures, who have often had their public biographies highly edited or adjusted to remove or diminish their queerness and their tombstone can be the last physical evidence of their existence. Our research, pilgrimage and subsequent photographs serve as a way to re-look at their biographical story with a queer lens.
The beginning Initially the project began more informally as a marker of our personal travels. The research at that time was a side-note to the primary travel. We focused on figures that held massive fame within their own country but were rarely recognised outside of it. This then evolved into seeking individuals more related to our own artistic practice and research. These individuals tended to have personal biographies that had been altered by their nation state to present a narrative that agreed with the social and political mood of the time. Our research and documentation aimed to highlight aspects of their life that contradicted this public image. Our work centered on the specific mobilisations and representational practices taking shape around these figures’ death.
The project was evolved from our presence in Eastern Europe and specifically Budapest where we were conscious of being outsiders in both terms of our own queerness and our Western origins. The research we undertook was done with a self reflexive understanding of our position both as a queer bodies and as outsiders to the dominant histories of this geo-political space specifically.
Two key figures in the development of the project were Tamas Kiraly and Ondrej Nepela.
Kiraly operated in Budapest largely during the 1980’s. His work and public persona was known to be ‘tolerated’ by the government regime of the time. The particular circumstances of his death, may have impacted the way he is now widely regarded, or not, as a key figure of 80’s/90’s art scene. Kiraly is reported to have died by strangulation during a sex act with another man.The man in question was later sentenced to ten years prison for manslaughter. Our initial observations show that the particular queerness of Kiraly’s death is either ignored or amplified by the media in order to satisfy a specific agenda and dominant narrative. As example, when he is referred to as a success, the widely known fact of his queer life is ignored while his death during a ‘non-normative sex act’ is also often used to degenerate his memory.
These observations come in comparison to another highly regarded Eastern European gay man, Andrej Nepala. The Slovakian ice skater was adored by the country and considered a national hero. However his death from complications related to the AIDS virus is almost always overlooked by the media and popular perception so that he can remain on the pedestal given to him by the state. In contrast Kiraly, who did not occupy a favourable position in the eyes of the reigning government, his death is used as a tool to discredit him by focussing on the unacceptable circumstances of it or the queerness of it.
Currently the project unfolds as two distinct chapters, Women of Infamy and Queer Public.
Queer Public This chapter examines the lives and deaths of queer public figures. The majority of these figures lived unconventional and public lives. Their queerness often played a large role in their biographical narrative. Where they lived, either by choice or not, had a profound effect on their queer story.
Women of infamy This chapter of the project focuses on women of historic interest whose notoriety set them apart from mainstream society. These individuals were either fetishised or moralised for their controversial and unusual life choices. We broadened the definition of queerness to include non- normative histories and people. This was important to us because it recognises how history typically preferences male stories.