Over the weekend my friend Matt and I got to hang out. I hadn't seen him since last year, (oh ho ho) when we ate Belgian waffles on the streets of Cambridge. I like Matt; he's clever and saucy and we always have a whale of a time - usually because we have not a clue of what we're going to do when we hang out.
With no map, GPS, iPhone, or money for the Tube, we decided to head for Trafalgar Square based on what I can only assume was a certain disregard for how likely London streets are to mess with your head. While going in the vaguely right direction (I assume) we stumbled upon a banner strung up between two buildings showing a skull made up of two people and the seductive title, "Death:A Self Portrait."
Needless to say we decided to go - elsewise the title to this post would be something very different!
As you may have guessed, the entire exhibition is about death - but more than that, it's about humanity's reaction to its mortality. The collection is divided up into sections, beginning with "Contemplating Death." This section is mainly paintings, though there is a cast of one of the (living) artist's skulls, made with some kind of technology I can't remember but desperately want to try out. The first of my favourites in this section was a calendar inscribed with memento mori (Latin for Remember Your Mortality.) Every month held a depiction of a skeleton doing something different, but the irony came in when its description explained that the calendar was made up of toxic materials. The other piece I liked was one called 'Fame.' Unfortunately, I can't recall the artist, but what I liked about it was the quote. He said that the idea of creating something and sending it out into the world where people can apply their own interpretation to it terrified him. I understand the feeling. Once you've made something, people are going to think of it how they will; everyone resonates differently. Scary thought!
The next section is "The Dance of Death." This section wasn't as interesting to me; the gist of it is that there's a dance of death called Le Danse Macabre. The only thing I associated it with was the Macabray from Neil Gaiman's book The Graveyard Book.
One of the more difficult sections came next, entitled "Violent Death." Scenes of death, war, and destruction covered the wall. Most were by Otto Dix, a German artist whose work from the First World War is incredibly powerful. I'd recommend looking at his etchings Der Krieg if you want to get a good idea of it - I've placed one of the less gruesome pictures below. There were also paintings by Francisco Goya - these were held in a glass case rather than spread across the wall like Dix, and therefore (somehow) easier to bear. They also don't hold the same horror as Dix's works.
The most forgettable section for me was "Eros and Thanatos." The interesting part is the idea of romance in connection to death - not something that's ever really occurred to me, but there you go - as well as portraying death as a sort of rapist rather than a natural phenomenon. It's interesting; the first section of the exhibition was contemplative, the second lighthearted, the third violent, and this one indignant and somehow sexual. The weirdest painting in this section was of a skeleton performing cunnilingus on a living woman. So, there's your nightmare for the evening. You're welcome!
My favorite pieces were a series of French postcards, also inscribed with memento mori. Every single one was a skull comprised of a picture of people doing normal, day to day things. The one on the website is called La Vie et La Mort (Life and Death.) It's the same couple on the poster above. The postcards are weirdly lighthearted, and very cleverly done. The other favorite wasn't a favorite because I enjoyed it, but because it created a very intense reaction in me. It's called Are You Still Mad At Me? and it's by John Isaacs. It's a multimedia sculpture of a partly dissected, full-size human body on a packing crate. The reason I pick it as a favorite is because though I knew it was fake, it was very realistic, and I had a strong physical reaction to it. I think art is meant to force you to feel things you wouldn't otherwise feel - whether you enjoy the feeling or not.
I like art a lot - would love to have a poster of the French postcards - and found this exhibition fascinating. The best part of it, though, wasn't just the quality of the artwork, but the questions it presented. What does death mean to us? Can it be viewed with a certain degree of humor, or is it best to keep it somber? Matt and I had different interpretations of the memento mori. For me, they were a sort of affirmation of life. Remember that you will die, that this life is all you have, that you need to keep in mind what's really important and live life to the fullest - because one day you will die. It's a sobering thought, but I think it's one that is actually a proponent of life - not of death. Matt had a different idea - a lot of the memento mori were depictions of skulls in people's homes, or were sculptures of skulls. He said that representing the idea of abhorring physical pleasures in lieu of the afterlife is strangely presented by holding on to a physical object. Death may not be a fun subject - if you've been reading my blog, you know I don't find it so - but I loved this exhibition and thought it, oddly enough, uplifting.
If you're interested in going to the exhibit yourself, it runs through February at the Wellcome Collection on Euston Street in London. Look here for more information! (Oh, and it's free, too.)
Thinking About You - Big Scary
Michicant - Bon Iver
2 Trees - Foals
Where I Come From - Passion Pit
Beacon - Two Door Cinema Club
Blood - The Middle East
Wrapped in Piano Strings - Radical Face
Steve McQueen - M83
Timshel (feat. Mumford and Sons) - Rhythms Del Mundo
Amazing Eyes - Good Old War
Only the Young - Brandon Flowers
Cannons - Youth Lagoon
Infinite Jet - Happy Particles
Run - Daughter
Dirty Paws - Of Monsters and Men
The Boxer - Jerry Douglas, Mumford and Sons
At Home - Crystal Fighters