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The Art of Mourning

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Eternally on Display

Anthony Vizzari lives with dead people, about four hundred to be exact. And there are always more to find, more to rescue and more to frame. Vizzari founded the Museum of Mourning Photography and Memorial Practice earlier this year, hoping to share his immense and wonderful collection of mourning photographs.

Born in Connecticut and raised by a singer and a hair stylist, Vizzari claims to have been destined to a life of confusion. He is an artist, architect, collector, dealer, and curator. His studies began at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he focused on sculpture. From there he got his Master’s degree in Architecture at UC Berkeley and is currently looking into Ph.D programs. None of his interests seem to take precedence, perhaps because he finds them so intertwined. His work influences his collecting and his collecting influences his work. “When I’m at work you’ll find me on Ebay, when I’m at home you’ll find me at work,” he says.

This is apparent upon entering his home, which has been filled with his many pursuits. Upon entering the collection, visitors are confronted with a silkscreen of Hank Williams by Roger Brown, a custom cabinet built to display carefully arranged shards of antique Tepco China, leftovers rescued from a beach in California that he used to create floating, recycled architecture, and a mourning portrait framed by the words “Gone But Not Forgotten” in gold lettering. The walls are lined with rare books. I asked Anthony how he felt about inhabiting the same space as the mourning collection, to which he replied, “I don’t mind living with these images. Besides, they’re not the only things I own. They find their place among my many collections. The majority of them are stored, but a few key pieces are on the walls. Most people don’t even notice them unless you point them out. Of course, many visitors are freaked out at first, but you get used to that.”

The Art of MourningVizzari feels that other people should get used to it, too, which is the intention behind the museum, “The museum is merely a tool to disseminate knowledge and history about mourning practice. As our contemporary lives become more digital, faster and more emotionally detached, we have forgotten how to mourn personally,” he says. “A hand-woven mourning pin or a tin type not only document death and loss, but represents the contemplation of it through craft created during the process and time of grieving. Mourning need not be expedient, but worn on the chest or hung on the wall for as long as it takes to find solace.”

The search for solace helped Anthony develop his interest in mourning photographs. Though he began collecting at around age 16 (his first purchase was a $30 box of cabinet cards from a Maine flea market), he thinks it was SAIC professor Jim Zanzi, now a close friend, who really introduced him to this type of image. “I lost a number of good friends in my young life and never felt that I paid them proper respect after their deaths,” he says. I suspect that’s where my interest developed. For some time, I allowed these images to take the place of something that was missing.”

Perhaps that’s why the images at his house don’t frighten him, though he is afraid of death and a little of driving cars. His photographs are kept like those of relatives: framed, dusted and thoughtfully but intermittently hung amidst the treasures and refuse of the living. His interest isn’t macabre or gruesome, it’s personal, historical, anthropological and artistic. Vizzari likes a lot of different things and a lot of different styles, but his preference is anonymous works. The fact that they were lost or forgotten allows them to be found again, cherished for their mysterious unknown history, and preserved with the additional context of the collector’s private narrative and personal significance.

Right now, the Museum of Mourning Photography and Memorial Practice is found only online at www.mourningphoto.com . The current exhibition is based on photographs focused on floral arrangements. It is possible to join the mailing list, become a volunteer, or donate funding through the museum’s website. Other collectors can join forces with the museum in assembling a worldwide digital archive. Vizzari is hoping to find a permanent physical museum space for shows, lectures, and research and get the digital archive running by spring of 2008. Patrons will be able to view shows with varying themes related to all areas of mourning, schedule appointments to view archived materials, or use the museum library for personal projects.

Before returning to one of many tasks he was working on during our conversation, I asked if he had any plans for his own burial. In response he said, “I expect dirt, a box and a photo…hopefully some flowers too.” Certainly, by that time he’ll be ready for some rest.

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