Necrology for a Forgotten Tragedy

Necrology for a Forgotten Tragedy, 2015, laser prints on vellum, 110 pieces, 8" x 2.75" each

Necrology for a Forgotten Tragedy consists of 110 names printed on vellum and hung directly on the wall in a grid. Each is the name of a victim of the Great Brooklyn Theater Fire of 1876, in which a total of 278 people died.

Necrology for a Forgotten Tragedy is a hypothetical memorial for an event that has hardly any physical marker of remembrance. The location where the fire occurred in Brooklyn Heights bears no sign of previous events. The only marker of the tragedy is in Greenwood Cemetery, where a nondescript obelisk stands to mark the spot where 103 of the victims, unidentified, were interred in a mass burial only days after their death.

The names that make up Necrology for a Forgotten Tragedy were those published the day after the tragedy in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. That same edition of the paper on December 6, 1876 featured the customary holiday-season front page display of advertisements. These ads, for “Toys, Holiday Goods and Books,” Shnapps, and pianofortes, were spelled out in large letters made up of smaller versions of themselves. These letters, which sought to make a graphic impact in the days before imagery was commonly published in daily papers, are used to spell out the names of the victims on Necrology for a Forgotten Tragedy.

The rapidity of the Brooklyn Theater Fire victims’ burial and the lack of front-page coverage in deference to holiday advertisements speaks to the vastly different ways tragedy and mass-death were handled by society at this time. Necrology for a Forgotten Tragedy seeks to question which events we as a society choose to memorialize and therefore, publicly mourn.

This hypothetical memorial takes the common form of a necrology–list of the deceased's names–as its form. The names are placed in order according to how far they lived from the theater. This is an arbitrary method of organization, but no more so than those necrology walls that order names by time of death or age. Necrology for a Forgotten Tragedy is meant to be seen as a monolithic wall, and each name is printed on a piece of vellum the size of a brick. The flimsy and translucent quality of the vellum gives the wall a ghost-like appearance and also an ephemerality. This materiality speaks to the transient impact of even the most solid memorials. What meaning do we find in a name and why do we as a culture spend so much time imprinting them on brick, stone and metal?

Front page from Brooklyn Daily Eagle from the day after the theater fire