This exhibition showcases a small portion of the death memorabilia owned by Richard Harris, a former antique print dealer from Chicago. What drove Harris to assemble such a morbid collection is unfortunately not revealed. I suspect it would be at least as intriguing as the exotic miscellany on show here.
Death is a fine subject for mortal contemplation; some might say the only subject. The problem with representing death is that you end up with a lot of skeletons and skulls. An awful lot, especially of skulls. Wood, gold, plaster, bronze, tin, bead and clay, not to mention bone. And that list is far from exhaustive.
The centerpiece, literally, is Jodie Carey’s In The Eyes of Others (2009), a massive bone chandelier, broken pelvises forming rounded tiers that hang from bendy spines. Don’t panic, it’s artfully moulded plaster. Displayed as it is here, in cramped quarters and low to the ground, I feel it is robbed of its gravitas, and my response was equally stunted. As strikingly gruesome as sculpture gets, you might think, until you see John Isaac’s wax sculpture, ‘Are you still mad at me?’ (2001). The flayed flesh of
the anatomically detailed man reminds us that the way people first learned medicine was by chopping up bodies.
Another large-scale piece by the Argentinian Mondongo Collective is Calavera (2011), a plasticine collage in the shape of – you guessed it – a skull, with a thousand references to Western culture, from books – A Clockword Orange, In Cold Blood – to neo-classical architecture to nursery rhymes, all crushing a South American shanty town at the bottom, an allegory you don’t need me to interpret.
The 297 other exhibits roam centuries and references. There are Pre-Colombian skulls stamped with numbers, changing death into a commercial and anthropological venture, genuinely unsettling skeleton family portraits by Marcos Raya and Goya’s frustratingly tiny etchings on the horrors of war. The exhibition opens on the gorgeously Gothic Vanitas Still Life With a Bouquet and A Skull (1643) by Adriaen van Utrecht, a beautiful comment on the ephemeral versus the eternal. The Zizenhausener Dance of Death, a series of hand-painted figures made by Anton Sohn circa 1822, shows skeletons cavorting with pedlars and high-kicking with bishops, as charming as death gets.
Ultimately this exhibition doesn’t answer any questions, but it doesn’t set out to. The source of our fascination, like Harris’, lies in the fact that nothing can give us the answers, except death itself. It is a striking self-portrait, as macabre and mysterious as Death himself might wish.
Death: A Self-Portrait runs at The Wellcome Collection until 24th February 2013
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