Essay - '[Ad]dressing death'
This essay is an excerpt from my MFA final project and discusses the rational for my artworks. Written by Lyndall Smythe
'Working as a Forensic Odontologist provides day-to-day insight into how the physicality of death is dealt with by contemporary Australian society. For those within this industry - the concept of a dead body is managed by a removed professionalism from the trauma of grief and loss and has at its core an over-riding respect for the body as a departed human vessel.
Death has become a subject matter that many people are afraid to confront or deal with in daily life. While the end of life experience is universal, the behaviours associated with expressing grief are very much culturally bound. Within Western society, with the isolation of bodies in mortuaries, the care of the deceased undertaken by strangers and an over-riding precedent to extend and preserve life, death has become removed from a normal biological part of life and its cycles and been replaced with mystery, sadness, denial, tragedy and sometimes horror.
This poses the question – how can art be used to bridge this connection and connect the human psyche with a reflective attitude to our own mortality, of those we care for and the community as a whole.
Responses to death can be configured through social norms, pressures and experiential constructs. This project aims to present alternative ways of looking at mortality – through quiet meditation and a dualistic approach – combining the cold materiality of remains with the presence of life in narrative or decomposition with regeneration.
British artist Christine Borland explores the boundaries between life and death using the interface of art and science. Employing forensic techniques, juxtaposition and displacing her subject matter from the usual frameworks, she, through her investigative processes exposes realities of contemporary society to facilitate a new path of inquiry in the viewer.
"The heart of what I am trying to discuss is very dark, very strong and passionate, and if you can reach that through quite a rational process, I think it becomes more powerful, and importantly, more powerful to the viewer."
Borland’s transformative approach to her subject matter can alter the way that the physical and social world is perceived and question the rationality of personal paradigms. This methodology has informed my projects ‘Cremains’, ‘Dressing for Death and Dress and Adornment’. Photography of these entities of death and ritual are used to isolate them from their traditional/everyday context and transport these subjects to the gallery. This transformation or new reading can be facilitated also through the act of titling or recoding the object or the subject matter. For example the materiality of Perspex used in the construction of the ‘Perspex Coffin’ suggesting transparency and openness or enabling regeneration of remains over time rather than decay in ‘Tree Lady’ and ‘Body to Berry’.
Collections of burial dress and cremains raise questions about how the presentation of the main subject(s) affects our ideas of seeing the individual as part of a collective rather than the individual themselves and how this affects our interpretation of the work. Examining the work of artist Christian Boltanski who explores memory, loss, birth and death, I explored the power of photography and installation to transcend individual identity and to function instead as a witness to “collective rituals and shared cultural memories”.
The idea of the cadaver/corpse reminds us of our own mortality – a breakdown of the living self and non-self met with a kind of discomfort, denial or even fear/horror. Julia Kristeva describes a human response to the corpse in her essay ‘Power of Horrors – An Essay on Abjection’–
“I am at the border of my condition as a living being. My body extricates itself, as being alive, from that border.”
That border being a transition into a state of death and decomposition. Artists who question conventional notions of the Abject using human remains or bodily processes inform this project. Rather than seeking to horrify I aim to access a positive connection of the living self to the materiality of death using curiosity, wonder and quietness in my work. These touches include individual human stories, burial dress reflective of personal character, a propositional space inside a Perspex coffin for reflection and combining transformation of remains on bones and on a figurative human model.
In this project the photograph is used as a vehicle to impart wonder and inquiry about death without the assault of viewing human remains. The photograph can act as both a “pseudo-presence” and a “token of absence”. The photograph suggests the absent human in the physical artefacts of cremation and likewise the potential for renewal and the continuance of existence proposed in the changing face of ‘Tree Lady’ and of strawberries in ‘Body to Berry’.
Works related to mortality (like those of Christine Borland and Berlinde De Bruyckeres) can often arouse an automatic tendency towards inquisitiveness, a fascination with this subject matter and the tools of its expression because of the proximity to the human body.These works can reveal/hide a morbid fascination from which the viewer recoils instinctively but chooses not to escape.
Responses to the absent human and the abject body expressed through my creative process are intended to provide accessible reflections on how we care for deceased individuals and manage responses to mortality.
The conjunction of art and science in my creative practice introduces the idea that by incorporating this dualism new perceptions on this deathly subject matter are made visible. Introducing the natural process of decomposition and a symbiotic relationship with the growth of plants and moss, can suggest the idea that though we face loss - transformation and natural processes allow life to continue, albeit in another form.