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UK Artist Graham Dolphin Transforms Musicians’ Notes And Memorials Into Art

Elliott Smith’s note and Jim Morrison’s bust


Turning suicide notes of famous musicians into art may not be an easy task, but this is what UK artist Graham Dolphin did in his series ‘Burn Away Fade Out’, which was presented at Seventeen gallery in London a few years ago. I just became aware of it because of his replica of Elliott Smith’s alleged suicide note, a note which was kept by the police and has never been made public to my knowledge.

Dolphin has been exploring issues of fandom and idolatry, and his work focuses on replicating suicide notes left by cult musicians or re-staging the graffitization of their memorials and shrines crafted by fans.

His exhibit included reproductions of written notes, the alleged (and I insist on this because there is some controversy for some of them) suicide notes left by Elliott Smith, Kurt Cobain, Ian Curtis and Phil Ochs. Cobain’s note was made public a long time ago, and circulates on the internet, and if I am not sure about Curtis and Ochs’, I am certain that Elliott’s note was never seen by anybody else but the police. I have even heard the family could not see it because of the investigation.

So I asked Mr. Dolphin if he was able to see the note and he kindly answered this:

‘As you surmised my ‘version’ of Smiths’ suicide Post-It note was based solely on written testament from the inquest and police reports along with a study of his hand writing from set lists etc. Many of the last note series are based on actual facsimiles of the ‘real’ note whereas a number are based on verbal, written or testaments from inquest etc.’

So it’s clear he never saw the actual note but tried to reproduce it as loyally as possible. It reads: ‘I’m so sorry—love, Elliott. God forgive me.’ And I should remind here that there was no misspelling of his name on the note, since the mistake was made by the coroner and not by the author of the note.

Dolphin has also reproduced the wooden benches covered by graffiti made by fans and found in Viretta Park, Seattle, overlooking the house where Kurt Cobain died in 1994. He also produced three replicas of a Jim Morrison bust that used to sit amongst the sea of graffiti at his grave in Paris’ Pere Lachaise Cemetery. Just like Cobain’s benches, the bust provided a surface for fans to express themselves, and inscribe messages and tributes, but the item was ultimately stolen. Dolphin used photographs of the bust to recreate various states that occurred during the object’s constant evolution over time, and that’s why I bet he would be interested by all the pictures of the Elliott Smith’s memorial wall I took over the years! May be he could add another piece to this series?

Shrines and memorials are strange, they are not tombs and they are constantly evolving with time. They are also enduring, even though Elliott Smith’s memorial wall has recently been transformed into a bar, fans are still writing on the façade every day! However notes left by the dead are frozen in time, and whether they are actual suicide notes or not, they encapsulate a specific moment, and bring a lot of emotion with them.

A last note on Mr. Dolphin, he also told me this: ‘Thank you for your email and telling me about your research into Elliott Smiths’ death. Fascinated to know what you have found out as there seem to be many unanswered questions about the whole event. Is this personal research or for publication or other?’

And it’s always fascinating to see that an artist, who is working on suicide notes, manages to show a critical eye on events which are too often classified too fast.

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