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Sunday, February 24, 2013

Death and Art

Helena--Birdseye View, 2000, Marco Evaristti
It's a subject artists are no less reluctant to talk about than the rest of the general population--death. Everyone knows it's as certain as taxes and perhaps a little less painful yet we'd far rather talk about the former than the latter. And in fact, with our present economy, we talk a lot about taxes. And even though they are historically low, mostly we talk complaining about them. However, unless it's imminent, usually a pet or loved one, we don't complain about death, first because it would do little good, and second, well, again, that would mean talking about it. Today death usually happens only in automobiles or intensive care units. We've anesthetized ourselves to it. But in the past, death and art, and indeed life itself, were inextricably linked. Until a few hundred years ago, it was one of the most pervasive and persistent subjects in all art. Antique art is full of murder, mayhem, fatal suffering, and death. In modern times, it would seem one has to go to either Copenhagen, Denmark, or Corpus Christi, Texas, to find any link between the two.

Goldfish art, Helena, 2000, Marco Evaristti
In Copenhagen, at the modest Trapholt Art Museum several years ago, death and art met in an exhibit that has animal rights advocates outraged, and there's no one more opposed to death than an outraged animal rights advocate. Maybe you read about it at the time. At a museum that normally sees maybe 80,000 visitors a year, one thousand people trooped through in a single weekend. The exhibit featuring ten blenders. Each was filled with water and a single goldfish. Behind them was a life-size nude picture of the artists, eyes blackened, with a bazooka missile surrounded by tubes of lipstick. There's no sign that says, "Please feel free to puree the goldfish." Two met that fate at the opening, however. Five more got blended the next day. And the following day, five were stolen (which, I guess, is an artistic statement in itself). Danish officials ordered the power disconnected to the exhibit though any viewer still interested in making his own fish soup had only to plug in the extension cord and push the right button. The whole episode ended up in a Danish court which ruled the goldfish were not treated cruelly because their death was instantaneous. The point of the whole effort was to bring to people's consciousness the degree of control we have now learned to exert over death through abortion, organ transplants, respirators, suicide, and as always, our own self-destructive lifestyles. But is it a point well taken? I mean, they're only goldfish, and certainly no less disgusting than swallowing one whole (not to mention less traumatic for the goldfish).

Heavenly Dreams, Mona
In Corpus Christi, Texas, an artist going by the name of Mona (no last name) is also mixing death and art. Among her conventional abstract oil paintings, she literally mixes the two. She paints abstracts, and the not-so-secret ingredient in her paint is human ashes (cremains). Though she admits not everyone is ready for such a memorial, she's not without buyers and supporters, even among the funeral industry. Though a painting is probably no less a final resting place than a bronze urn on the mantel, she sees something eternal in beauty quite apropos to the eternal rest of death. She's sold a large number of her abstracts, ornately framed, mostly through an Internet website and funeral homes across the country. She has to use a national chain, coming from a part of the country where cremations are uncommon (23% in Texas). Nationally, the cremation rate is 40%. Most of her marketing success has been in California where the rate is 46% (nearby Nevada leads the nation at 68%). Prices range from $1,200 to $1,500. Admittedly, it's a gimmick for otherwise unexceptional painting.

Fireworks of Life, Mona

Two, largely unrelated stories separated by geography and culture. I'm not sure which is the most startling. What I am sure of is that, though we might argue its form, death should still have a place in art. And personally, I can see no reason why art shouldn't have a place in death.

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