Pain and Grief Emerge in Exhibit of Suicide Notes

<i> Nancy Kapitanoff writes regularly about art for The Times</i>

Los Angeles artist Erika Rothenberg uses words in her art to explore what’s going on in the world.

Last year, for her installation called “House of Cards,” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, she created 80 greeting-type cards with what she described as “that mean, flip greeting-card sensibility” to address such matters as art and culture, politics, foreign affairs, crime, religion and abortion.

“My work is direct on purpose, and if it’s successful, it makes your mind take off and think about things. But it doesn’t tell you what to think,” she said. “A lot of my work is about self-expression and helping people express themselves.”

In her latest project on view at Rosamund Felsen Gallery, Rothenberg gives a public forum to the expressions of people who committed suicide. “Suicide Notes,” an installation done in collaboration with Tracy Tynan, presents almost 20 notes left by individuals of varying ages and walks of life who decided to end their lives for a multiplicity of reasons.


A boy was upset about a bad grade in school. One woman feared for her future with only $120 in the bank. Another woman lamented making her husband unhappy. A couple didn’t want to be a burden.

The texts of the installation’s suicide notes are authentic, re-created from notes obtained by the Los Angeles Police Department and passed on to Tynan by an anonymous source. She shared them with Rothenberg.

“When I saw the letters, I was so overwhelmed,” Rothenberg said. “Each one is so different. Each has something to say. In our time, when people are dying of AIDS and cancer, there are others who want out.”

“We wanted to provide an arena to discuss death,” Tynan said. “We’re all afraid of it, but the installation allows you a way into it.”

Tynan and Rothenberg have spent the last year and a half working together on the installation. From about 100 letters in their possession, they chose to include 18. The name of each person has been changed, but the handwriting style and the type of paper used in the original notes have been approximated as closely as possible to retain the individuality of each author’s final communication.

One man simply states: “Just another business failure.” Another has a simple request: “Please bury me in my blue suit. Thanks, Bill.” Yet another man’s request is more pointed: “I desire that disposal of my remains be done by and at the expense of the U.S. Army--after all theirs was a part of spoiling my life.” Still another leaves with love for his country: “I leave no ‘estate.’ My only possession worth having is love for and loyalty to my country. And I’m takin’ that with me.”

“You really sense the feeling of humanity in all those people,” Rothenberg said, adding that every emotion is evident here, including selfishness, envy, anger, pain and a sense of humor. “When you get into people’s lives, it’s us. We’ve all felt similar kinds of pain.”

To reinforce the human element of these suicide notes, Rothenberg and Tynan have attached them to body bags that they obtained in a mortuary supply store--"another world,” Rothenberg said.


The body bag “gives a frame to each person and makes you think of the whole scenario--the body, the person, the policeman, the grieving,” Rothenberg said.

The only other pieces of information Tynan and Rothenberg had about those who took their lives were their ages and methods of suicide. Well over half of those in the exhibit used a gun.

“One wonders what the suicide rate would be without guns,” Rothenberg said.

During their collaboration on the project, the two women read everything they could get their hands on about suicide. For those interested in their research findings, they have compiled some statistics and thoughts on the subject by philosophers, authors and psychiatrists in a booklet that accompanies the exhibit.


One of the more intriguing findings comes from the 1991 United Nations Statistical Year Book. It states that in that year, the highest suicide rate was in Hungary, with 38.2 per 100,000 residents, followed by Sri Lanka, 33.6, and Finland, 27.5. (The rate in the United States was 12.4.) One is left to guess why those three countries would have the highest rates.

And for all of the available information on who has committed suicide where and when, Rothenberg says, there are no sure answers as to why people do it.

“It is a mystery to everyone who reads about it and studies it,” she said. “The first question asked is ‘Why?’ For every person who commits suicide, there’s a different reason, which means we don’t know why.

“We just wanted people to read the letters and have the same profound experience we had. We’ve provided an environment for them to do that.”


“Suicide Notes” is open 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday, through March 13, at Rosamund Felsen Gallery, 8525 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles. Call (310) 652-9172.

BIOGRAPHICAL ART: Painter Calliope Caloyera Babu-Khan says she is not very good with words. So rather than use them to express her feelings about people, she makes what she calls biographical paintings that pay homage to individuals who have inspired her.

Several of her colorful, exuberant biographical tributes are included in a solo exhibition of her work at the West Los Angeles City Hall Gallery. In “McDonald Biography,” a multitude of images convey the accomplishments of a scholarly woman named McDonald who speaks several languages, has written books and has devoted much time to nonprofit organizations. She also shares Babu-Khan’s interest in preserving Hellenic culture.

Born in Greece, Babu-Khan brings her cultural background to her work as well as that of her husband, who is a native of India. In the biographical painting representing him, one finds some personal symbols--big eyes, a tennis racket. There are also a Nehru jacket and a seven-strand necklace that is typical of his home state in India.


The colors and textures of India have also found their way into a series of abstract mixed-media works and watercolors called “Patterns of India.” The pieces are interspersed with the biographies and Babu-Khan’s light, airy, watercolor still-lifes of beets, orchids and birds of paradise. Additionally, a series of female nudes in watercolor and linoleum block prints highlight her pleasure in using line contours to compose figures.

“In my work, everything is wonderful. It is a celebration of life,” Babu-Khan said. “If you don’t have color, you are very depressed. I’m trying to see some light, some hope.”

“Solo exhibition by Calliope C. Babu-Khan” is open 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, through March 12, at West Los Angeles City Hall Gallery, 1645 Corinth Ave., Los Angeles. Call (213) 237-1373.