The art of letting the dead speak to you

Art and death – examining a long-suffering friendship

One of the most important themes that artists help us address is our own mortality. Thus, it is not just an undertaking for the undertaker, and while it is not time to take measurements for the coffin, it is certainly time to take stock.

First of all, art and death or death in art has an official name. It is ‘Memento Mori’, a Latin term with several cross-literations all meaning something along the lines of ‘remember you must die’.

For the French artist Nicolas Rubinstein it is one of several components in the expanding exhibition ‘Mickey is also a rat’. It is the notion of Mickey being revealed as a dead rodent himself along with others reflecting our unchanging hyper-capitalist ways of operating from within our inner rat. Social comments aside, there is a further irony of the opening of Disneyland Paris on the artist’s home turf.

For the Love of God, the diamond encrusted skull by Damien Hirst is another example of memento mori. Evidently, even the augmented reality of a dead person can die a little further. We’re not thinking here of Damien buying his own art together with White Cube because no one else does on the day. That is his own business, so to speak, and who gives a rat’s arse except Mickey? It is going to be considered a major contribution to art sooner or later, and that even if Mexican Indians got there first on almost the same concept using Turquoise mosaics.

No, it is the fact that the skull has lost a tooth in the transit between well-meaning art venues. That is, museums whose curators wanted to exhibit the whole deal after it came into being or gained a new life of its own. To be precise, a cosmetic dentist might call the missing bit ‘3UR’, which is an important tooth for the perfect smile. But for those of you who could not care whether the deceased brushed his teeth with a hand grenade, there is still hope.

By the way, two versions must co-exist. One with less bling travelling about (lighter on the insurance premium). The other is held back in storage, which is the one with all the proper rocks and teeth in place.

Memento mori by other artists

Both Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dalí included death in their art frequently, and Andy Warholl who was not all that fond of death, created a series of fatal car crashes which are lining exhibition halls today. A great number of artists have worked with the concept with some poignancy.

Dutch golden age stilleben are often good examples of memento mori. Their flowers, riches and so forth are loaded compositions with symbols of the good life and death at the same time. A variant of this theme is referred to as vanitas. If we stay with the Dutch and Flemish influence, Joos van Cleve painted the Holy Saint Jerome. The poor sod is clearly frozen starring blankly out at us whilst pointing his index finger at a skull – as if to say that this is what we’re all turning into. Another example is the famous ‘Youth with a skull’ by Frans Hals.

For as long as human civilisations have existed, we have been aware of our own mortality, and have had a need to express ourselves, which is why it is not just part of our software but certainly also hard wired into our species at a protein molecular level. All cultures and civilisations have created art concerning death independently of each other. Aztek art has death as one of its central themes.

As a semiologist would probably point out, with loads of signifiers and signfieds, the skull is a very nifty sign to sum up the whole notion. But it might also have been used ad nauseam such as in Capela dos Ossos, the chapel of bones in Évora in Portugal. Simply, the whole architectural vault is covered in human skulls. The monks may well have been frustrated sea-shell decorators of cigar boxes. However, Évora it a bit inland, which means the journey to collect shells at the seaside wasn’t feasible. Instead, they had access to catacomb remains, which happen to cover a square foot faster.

In Christian art the skull has been used extensively. If nothing else it reminded us of the finite nature of time, and of doing more good than evil deeds before our afterlife is being decided upon by the redeemer — a rather easy-to-understand deadline if nothing else.

A sense of mortality is one of the things that makes us human

Whether religious or agnostic, this the point in time when it makes sense to reintroduce our dear semiologist. S(he) might call all this the transcendal signified. See it is the whole idea that we live on in our literature and art after our own death. We all notice this peculiar time stamp rendered by the dead, but when you read Tacitus and Cicero and view art from the antiquities you realise their intellect, emotions and acute sense of being alive are exactly like our own.

Therefore, the transcendal signified is really at the heart of our identity in this sign-making culture. That even if we keep repating or re-inventing the same signs over and over again. It is an important reminder of us standing on the shoulders of giants before us. Indeed, a sense of mortality is what makes us human, and that means something a wee bit more than mamals procreating and competing for resources. We prefer to think that we are a bit above the other mamals in order to preserve our sanity. Some of us might even hope that future generations think we made a difference. At the same time we know there is a fair chance that we simple grew up, ate, shat, and died. Ironically, as you grow old, that on its own begins to sound like a good proposition. But until then, it is something that rattles around in the head on a conscious and subconscious level.