An exhibition of works from the Richard Harris Collection that explore the iconography of death across a range of artistic practices
Slought is pleased to announce Strictly Death: Selected Works from the Richard Harris Collection, on display in the galleries from January 23 through March 13, 2010. The opening will take place on Saturday, January 23 from 6:30-8:30pm, with a special address at 6:30pm on Thomas De Quincey, aesthetics, and death prepared by philosopher Simon Critchley, author of The Book of Dead Philosophers (2009).
Strictly Death is a provocative exhibition that explores the iconography of death across a range of artistic practices. The exhibition selection surveys work by contemporary artists including Jasper Johns, Robert Mapplethorpe, Kiki Smith, Irving Penn, Leonard Baskin, Vik Muniz, the Chapman Brothers, Andres Serrano, and Sally Mann, exhibited alongside historical works and memento mori by artists including Durer, Rembrandt, Goya, Odilon Redon, and James Ensor. The exhibition also includes material culture and historical artifacts including miniature bone carvings by Napoleonic prisoners, bronze sculls from the baroque period, and Day of the Dead illustrations by Mexican folk artist José Guadalupe Posada, as well as documentary research into the archivization of death following the genocides of the twentieth-century.
We should not forget that the term of "esthetics" was introduced into English for the first time by Thomas De Quincey to translate the German terms used by Kant and Schiller. This was in "Murder considered as one of the fine arts," the essay that established De Quincey's name among British humorists. It begins by stating that murder has two handles. It can be seized by the moral handle, which can be left to priests and judges, or by the esthetic handle, which is used by everyone else. That esthetic handle turns death into spectacle since it allows us to treat it purely "esthetically."
For instance, let's imagine that a victim has been killed: we should only consider whether it makes a good or a bad show. He writes: "A sad thing it was, no doubt, very sad; but we can't mend it. Therefore let us make the best of a bad matter; and, as it is impossible to hammer anything out of it for moral purposes, let us treat it aesthetically, and see if it will turn out to account in that way." Crimes can be appreciated and assessed as works of art; as such, these deaths are "signed" and stamped for posterity. Thus De Quincey tells us ironically, via Kant and Hegel that death is and is not death when it becomes art. The autonomy of the aesthetic domain entails that the work of art turns into its own reality. The point is less that it is ready to "kill" reality in order to assert its own laws than that it has become once and for all self-reflexive by actively bracketing out other concerns. Its significance is bounded by the deployment of its formal procedures which acknowledges neither a human nor divine tribunal. De Quincey forces us to conclude that without death and murder, there is no esthetics.
In The Space of Literature, Maurice Blanchot reminds us that we often close our eyes to death. "If men in general do not think about death," he writes, "if they avoid confronting it, it is doubtless in order to flee death and hide from it, but this escape is possible only because death itself is perpetual flight before death". Death, despite its inevitability, can only ever be realized as an absence of information, one that perpetually eludes understanding. What we take as death itself, is always and only a representation.Responding to Blanchot's provocation, the exhibition traces a preoccupation with and evasion of the topic of death, so as to explore the place of mortality in artistic practice. It begins with artworks from the 15th century, and continues through to the present moment, when the individual's relation to death is increasingly confronted by the political reality of mass death.
The tradition of representing death explored in this exhibition is exemplified over the last several centuries by Memento Mori. They can be understood as devices that invite the subject to contemplate their finitude. They invite the subject to separate from the collapse of the body at the moment of death, an experience which is often figured in cultural representation through the skeleton and the specter of the open grave. But it is precisely this process, that takes place as the body contemplates its unique and individual end, that opens up new ground for our relation to finality. Death, but not so strictly. Blanchot's stricture of incomprehension still stands, but today, as priests and judges loosen their grip, representation can perhaps, turn to the service of the self. Today our anticipation of death gives way not to the transcendental, but to a freer sense of the subject and its contemplation of its own finitude.
In The Phenomenology of Spirit, the philosopher G.W.F. Hegel writes that "the life of the Spirit is not the life that shrinks from death and keeps itself untouched by devastation, but rather the life that endures and maintains itself in it." The apparently tragic tone of this passage should not conceal its radical optimism; Hegel trusts that he will be strong enough to "look the negative in the face", and thus not close his eyes out of sentimentality to life's unpalatable or horrible sides. In so doing, he finds life in death, and death in life.
Chicago-based collector Richard Harris has collected, over several decades, an encyclopedic collection of works on death and related materials. The project spans centuries, genres, and media, with works compiled around the visual concept of the the skull and the skeletal. Slought Foundation was invited by Richard Harris and Balloon Contemporary in Chicago to engage the collection discursively, and to perform a critical examination of the representation of death in the collection.
Strictly Death at Slought Foundation is the result of that examination, and will be the first time the collection is presented to the general public. It is our hope at Slought Foundation that the exhibition will contribute to a transformative dialogue that repositions death centrally within culture. Likewise, Harris hopes that the exhibition "enables us to lead more meaningful lives by engaging and grappling with the reality of our finite limits." The exhibition also builds upon recent projects at Slought Foundation on death and dying by Arakawa + Gins and others, as well as international exhibitions including Fraktale IV - tod at the Palast der Republik Berlin in 2005 (www.fraktale-berlin.de).