Papier-mache' skulls line the walls of a modest bedroom. Tiny plastic skeletons dance in rows on strings. A stenciled design, sophisticated but strong, showing a man pursuing death, is repeated over and over on cardboard sheets in the sun-drenched Mexican colors: sky blue, blinding orange, light-struck pink and green. Colored feathers and paper flowers bloom everywhere. Above the hand-built altar march abstract skulls, done in spray paint on square after square of toilet paper.
The effect is lyrical. A cheerful place.
"Every year I do a Day of the Dead altar," said Felipe Ehrenberg, widely known in Mexico for his conceptual art, collages, massive sculpture and a TV show that has featured the likes of Jorge Luis Borges and Octavio Paz. This year the Fondo del Sol art center at 2112 R St. NW invited him to create an environment in the front bedroom, opening today -- All Souls Day, in Mexico called the Day of the Dead.
Arriving with only an armful of skull masks, some feathers, copal resin incense and other odds and ends, Ehrenberg has been cutting and pasting and spraying and sticking things together practically night and day for five days. Nearly all the stuff he uses comes from local five-and-tens.
"The bed and lamp in the room make it right," he said. "Every family makes one of these for this day. To them it's not elaborate at all. It's like all the things you do at Halloween or Thanksgiving without even thinking about it. But the artists have picked up on it."
There is an element of satire in Dio de los Muertos: You can talk about the great and powerful as if they were dead. You can draw them as skeletons, as did that seminal people's artist Jose Guadalupe Posada, whose angry woodcuts helped start a revolution in 1910. Ehrenberg himself had a show in Mexico City, "Designs of Death," consisting of 1,500 skull drawings: daddy skulls, mama skulls, baby skulls, businessman skulls, rock singer skulls, prostitute skulls, homage-to-Steinberg skulls, Picasso skulls, gory skulls, anatomical skulls, abstract skulls and so on.
"The Mexicans don't laugh at death," he said. "They live with it. It's part of life. The vitality of death."
On the floor lay piles of tiny plastic tools of death: swords, automatic rifles, jet planes. He would work them into the design, perhaps around the rows of small coffins on the wall. He picked up a flimsy pink dagger, all bent. "These are so badly made you can't get them here," he chuckled. "The Mexican craftspeople are using plastic now. You see the family turning these things out with a tiny injecting machine. Some people are furious because the old wood crafts are dying out and there is this plastic. But plastic is what's happening."
A professional artist for "24 of my 38 years," Ehrenberg is the son of a German-Jewish refugee who fled Europe in 1936. He lives in Mexico City and Vera Cruz with his wife and their nine children from other marriages. He has shown in New York and Chicago as well as in Europe but has made no special effort to promote himself in this country.
"I got a Guggenheim five years ago, and it really freaked them out at the University of Mexico, where I teach. So now they're getting out a large book by me."
He moved to England in the politically difficult year of 1968 and founded the Beau Geste Press, printing work by such artists as Joseph Beuys, Yoko Ono and Ben Vostell. But England was too safe and comfortable for him.
"We took a freighter home. It took months, but it was a relief to be getting out of that careful place. Everyone is so careful to preserve themselves. You have it here in the States, I think. I found myself asking if it was all right to put those votive candles there, was it safe, was it all right. At home we would just put them there."
Is it morbid, this daily awareness of death? These annual shrines to the souls in purgatory? The skeleton cookies and skull masks? Is it less healthy than cultivating the delusion of security? Does he think about death much?
A bellow of laughter. "Not specifically," he said. And showed his left hand: Finger bones were tattooed on the backs of the fingers.