How to Read an Exhibition, and a Review of Death: A Self-Portrait

My cousin Matt (Devon born and bred) visited London a couple of weeks ago, and asked me to recommend an exhibition. I suggested the Wellcome Collection’s Death: A Self-Portrait.  This isn’t as weird as it sounds (really, let me explain). Nor does it necessarily indicate a penchant for the macabre in my family. He’s actually in the penultimate year of doctor training, so it seemed an apt proposal.

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Richard Harris, a former antique print dealer based in Chicago, has assembled thousands of ‘death’ objects ranging across all cultures and periods. The Wellcome Trust clearly thought this impressive but a little extravagant, so selected 300 of them to exhibit. Paintings, photos, sculptures and masks etc are split into five rooms, titled Contemplating Death, The Dance of Death, Violent Death, Eros & Thanatos, and Commemoration. It’s difficult to explain (without taking you physically by the hand and dragging you around the whole thing) how well curated this exhibition was. Rather than simply being a room of stuff for you to look at, an art or museum exhibition should be a visual thesis. It has chapters (rooms), and paragraphs (walls). Each sets out different ideas, proffering evidence and examples that encourage you to consider a series of arguments. It is less restrictive than an essay of course, as the arguments are your own, but the way objects are grouped together make these arguments easier to construct. Death: A Self-Portrait does exactly this.

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Being a weekend and a free exhibition, it was obviously packed, but the swarming masses were unusually considerate. I’m not keen on crowds.  Nor do I approve of those who photograph every item in an exhibition instead of using their actual eyes, or who articulate their banal comments in loud, bovine voices. I’m a bit like a cranky old cat prowling around galleries and museums; shuffling bowlegged away from any crowds, hissing at people who push in front of me, and glaring, cross-eyed, at those who speak in my presence. Don’t mind me though. Just pull my tail and shove me on my way.

Sometimes it takes time to get into an exhibition. You’ll wander around, peering at old pictures, wondering if there’s something wrong with you. Some reason why you couldn’t care less about what you’re looking at. If this happens, skip ahead. You don’t have to look at everything, or read every description. Meander. Try the next room. Ignore anything that doesn’t grab your attention, until something does. THAT is why you’re here. Get up close, shuffle backwards so you can observe it from further away, squat down in front of it if it’s below eye-level. Sketch it if you know how to hold a pencil, even if you just choose to capture an irrelevant detail, or scrawl ideas and responses along  your arm (a notepad is better but, you know, desperate times. I have done this before).

Western representations of death like memento mori are quite familiar, so it was those from other cultures that particularly struck me. The playful treatment of death in Kawanabe Kyosi’s Frolicking Skeletons was familiar, but the angular skeletons and their contortions seemed slightly alien; just enough to give a sense of unheimlich.

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A variety of objects from Mexico are also included, and all struck me as quite bizarre. There were doll-like articulated puppets for All Saints and All Souls celebrations, colourful sequinned masks, and photos of elaborate alters designed to welcome departed spirits on the Day of the Dead. They reminded me of Disney’s 1929 ‘silly symphony’ short, The Skeleton Dance, or Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. 

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The third room, Violent Death, aimed to consider “whether it is possible to make aesthetically pleasing work about violent death and the damage that war does to bodies, minds and souls”. The art here was painfully visceral. The line blurred between decomposing corpses and mutilated soldiers. Some dead seemed to dissolve or be swept away, whereas others dined alongside the living. The stench of death swept into my nostrils as I shuffled around the crowded room, observing each image in turn, almost making my gag before I realised that my imagination had fabricated it.

It was interesting to be reminded how large a part death has always played in our society. The very fact that our lives will one day be terminated so preoccupies us, that it spreads throughout the culture of the living. The ideology and approach to death of other periods and other cultures seems at times alien, and yet we can invariably empathise with the ideas that have driven their expression.

Take a look at www.richardharrisartcollection.com if you’re interested, as it has examples from his entire collection (including those I’ve used in this post) as well as interviews, background information etc .

Did anyone else see this? What were your impressions?

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