The new exhibition at the Cultural Center, Morbid Curiosity, features an expansive and surprisingly uplifting overview of diverse cultural meditations upon death. Ranging from an impressive collection of fine art masterpieces to medical specimens, the exhibition underscores the peace and closure garnered from accepting death, rather than the fear and anxiety traditionally associated with it in Western culture. I took a tour with co-curator of the show, Debra Purden, to discuss the exhibition layout design and the selection process.
All photographs courtesy of Andrew Roddewig
Entering the exhibit Morbid Curiosity: The Richard Harris Collection, a black and white mural spanning twenty-five feet entitled The Death March inducts viewers into a diverse collection of cultural depictions of death, mortality and commemoration. At the exhibition opening, art collector Richard Harris spoke about how he came to acquire each piece on display. At the ripe age of 74, Harris felt it prudent to “make peace with death” and generate a collection of work that spoke to the universal quality of death and mortality. Harris commissioned the opening mural especially for this exhibition from artist Hugo Crosthwaite. Co-curator of the exhibition, Debra Purden, met with me for a tour of the exhibition for a closer inspection of the work and to detail the process of selecting pieces for the show. “Richard actually commissioned this work for the exhibition,” she pointed to the mural. “He just sent [Hugo] the size of the hallway.” When asked if she was informed what the mural would depict she smiled. “No. We were just hoping he would take into account those lights,” she said, gesturing to the spotlights angled towards the wall. The charcoal and graphite piece incorporates imagery from many cultures and religious persuasions that is immediately both arresting and tranquil. Mythological animals lurk in the shadows, while smiling skeletons frolic, seemingly overjoyed with their lack of mortal concerns. Appropriately, this contemporary piece is directly mirrored by a 16th century print by Erhard Schön of the same name.
In efforts to streamline Mr. Harris’ extensive collection of memento mori, Ms. Purden and her co-curator, Lucas Cowan, studied each piece of the collection on a database for over two years to identify reoccurring themes that would make viewing the show accessible to the public. “Everything has a skeleton in it but it has to be categorized in a way that you can see it; it has to tell a story and the story really is that Richard can’t quit buying.” Harris’ collection boasts over 1,500 pieces conservatively and filling two entire galleries stands as one of the Cultural Center’s largest exhibitions to date.
“We were going to have another gallery but due to funding we had to settle back on a lot of things,” Purden said. Studying Harris’ collection revealed the appropriate way to display such an extensive cross section of art, culture, and spirituality. The first gallery is a Kunstkammer, or a Cabinet of Curiosities, featuring artwork and artifacts from across the globe that illustrates different cultural attitudes and understandings of death throughout the ages. Within the Yates gallery, Mexican Day of the Dead altars and celebratory artifacts rub elbows with authentic medical specimens of “conehead” skulls and prints from the likes of Albrecht Dürer and Robert Mapplethorpe.
The Yates Galleries are an inspired choice for the exhibition, as the gilded moldings and rich red walls merge opulence with vast open space, perfect for academic display of pieces that are classical in artistic structure. The first gallery features several large pieces, one of the grandest being the thirteen-foot tall chandelier created by London-based artist Jodie Carey, that is composed entirely of bones and anchors the rest of the work on display. “That chandelier was purchased especially for the exhibition and a lot of the planning was based around that chandelier,” Purden explained.
Across from the chandelier an entire wall of the gallery is filled with framed paintings, etchings, prints and two-dimensional artwork. Transforming one of the walls into a 19th century salon presentation seems perfectly suited as the intricate wall carvings enhance the essence of the hung work, most of which are pre-21st century pieces. Such a decision is not impetuous, as Ms. Purden explained how the salon wall was one of the first curatorial decisions made after viewing the scope of Harris’ collection.
“The salon wall came early in the planning,” she began. “That was part of the early design [of the exhibition]…the architecture of the room really speaks to the show and asks for all of these things.” It is also remarkable that such a large, potentially imposing wall, swelling with art remains visually accessible, thanks to a labeled guide provided on a stand next to the wall to supply names and titles for the pieces hung high above. The immense salon wall is grounded by a long table featuring decorated skulls (both real and imitation). Some appear as precious idols with pearls gleaming in the light, while an authentic, disfigured human skull beside it reminds the viewer of the symbol’s gravity.
A contemporary piece that commands attention is Roger Reutimann’s Death of Venus. Lacquered in red the sculpture mirrors the central figure in Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and stands just beyond the Jodie Carey chandelier. The inventive layout of the gallery, designed by exhibition co-curator Lucas Cowan, forces viewers to approach the sculpture from the back, beholding an idealized model of female form invoking eroticism and idealism. “Aren’t you excited to come to this absolutely shiny thing from the back,” Purden began. “Its perfect body, and then you come around to the front…” Once the viewer turns to view the face of the Venus, desire turns to revulsion as the tranquil, coquettish face of Venus is replaced with that of a shrouded skull. “It’s the truth – it’s what’s underneath the skin,” Purden explained. The juxtaposition of polished refinement and external beauty against the rough skull below the skin emphasizes the temporal quality of life based upon the inevitability of death. It is a contemporary Vanitas – emphasizing the insignificance of the material world by inserting skulls and grim iconography into the composition of the art. Traditional Vanitas compositions are on display throughout the salon wall as still life paintings featuring rich tapestries and shiny adornments contrasted with gradually wilting flowers and skulls.
In an exhibition featuring such breadth of material, the nuances between different cultures outline the potential thesis of the show. Comparing a decorative Japanese Okimono sculpture of a snake curling around a bare human skull from the early 20th century with a contemporary sculpture of a snake lunging out of a skull’s eye socket from the West, underlines one culture’s tranquility and ease with death and the fear and sensationalism associated with the other.
In Japanese culture, snakes are viewed as a positive symbol of luck and good fortune, while in Western and European culture snakes are saddled with notions of original sin and the devil . Comparing the pieces reveals not only the different conditioned views toward the symbolic animal, but also how the same icon of a dead human is to be viewed. While one piece is framed as a frightening, gothic allusion to the afterlife, the other suggests a serene and fluid transition from one life to another, just as a snake elegantly glides out of its old skin and into a new one.
As we finished discussing a cabinet of postcards and ephemera featuring skulls, Ms. Puden excitedly directed me to one of her favorite pieces in the exhibition. “Did you see this one,” she pointed as I leaned forward to inspect an etching of a decomposing skeleton. “Now read the title.” The title card read My Portrait in 1960. The piece was created in 1888 by James Ensor. “Isn’t that lovely? Doesn’t it change everything?” Purden smiled as she discussed the philosophical element of time in the piece. “I look at my portrait in 1960 and it has a whole different meaning than it did for Ensor.” Ensor’s piece emphasizes the inevitability of death and while the composition may sound grim on paper, Ensor’s print evokes peace, closure, and resolution. Understanding and accepting one’s inevitable future death truly unites humanity instead of eliciting fear and dread.
In the second gallery, entitled The War Room, five series of prints depicting wars, ranging from the Thirty Years War to the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, illustrate the horrors of warfare in varying degrees of detail. An exceptional note about the prints on display in The War Room is that it is the first time in history, that all five collections of prints have been exhibited in their entirety. “A big portion of his collection is Richard’s prints, and it’s hard to combine these with the artifacts in one exhibition space,” which was when the decision was made to expand the exhibition into two galleries. When I asked about the decision to display all five complete series of prints I was surprised to learn that it was not the original intention. “We fought it initially,” Purden shrugged. “I worried that people would only see it as a grid and not look at individual prints.” While entire walls are filled with framed prints, the remarkable clarity of each individual print entices the viewer up close to inspect each piece closely.
One of the most surprising prints that Ms. Purden singled out was the final print in Otto Dix’s series The War from 1924. While I thought I had seen the complete series during my undergraduate studies, when she mentioned the “rape print” I became confused. Sure enough, the final print of the series depicts a soldier raping a nun in the trenches; it is a grim closing to a series chronicling the disintegration of the human soul after trench warfare in WWI. Ms. Purden explained that traditionally this final print is omitted from the series, allowing the collection to end on a slightly less nihilistic note. “It was printed after the whole series and is often not shown. Most people don’t have this one. In contemporary times, this is not such a horrific image but in its time it was a horrific, banned image.” This history of censorship is remarkable, especially since it seems to have persisted occasionally in contemporary showings of Dix’s series. “Dix was in the war, so these are his experiences. The amazing thing is that after this he goes off to paint religious paintings,” similar to how Goya went on to paint wealthy lieutenants and generals after he completed his series The Disasters of War from 1820, although the series was not published until after his death.
As we inspected Jacques Callot’s meticulously refined and precise 17th century series detailing the Thirty Years War, I recalled how Richard Harris described Callot’s work as “cold and detached” from the events depicted. Every stage of the war is documented within well-balanced panoramic compositions but sets the viewer back from the action – away from the emotion of the circumstances. Ms. Purden agreed but quickly outlined how each series influences and directs the analysis of each of the other print series. “The disaster starts with Callot, then goes to Goya, to Dix and then to the Chapman brothers, and finally to Birk.” She walked with me back to the large, bold contemporary prints of the Iraq war entitled The Depravities of War by artist Sandow Birk, gesturing to the scale. “If you look at Birk’s, it’s the same proportion as the Callot [prints]. The contemporary pieces make you come back and look at Callot’s depiction of the peasant revolt from the 1600’s in a whole new way.”
Viewing the first print of the Callot series, soldiers are gathered in the background while on the right hand side of the plane in the foreground, soldiers are enlisting in the army beneath a tree. The first print in Birk’s series matches Callot’s print directly, from the gathered soldiers in the background to the enlisting troops beneath a tree on the right. The intensity of the battles increases as each series progresses, although Birk’s work always remains more graphic. When we reached one of the final prints from Birk, Ms. Purden noted how each figure in the scene depicting the torture of Iraqis is taken from either the cover of a magazine or a still frame from leaked videos of the war.
“These come from our times. These are the covers of our magazines – then [Callot’s series] goes from being art history to contemporary.” The mirrored compositions are not simply to lift stylish, classical stagings, but to illustrate the cyclical nature of war. Suffering is suffering, from the 17th century to the present day. While Callot may not have rendered the graphic bloodshed and torture that took place during the Thirty Years War, as Birk did in the 2000’s, the experience of man suffering through war unites these disparate works of art. “Richard bought Sandro Birk very late, and that’s when this room made sense,” Purden stated. “In the end, I’m glad we conceded and featured each series in their entirety.” The opportunity to easily view the prints on display in the second gallery is unparalleled and unlikely to be repeated elsewhere any time soon.
Despite the walls being dominated by black and white prints, The War Room (or “Anti-War Room” as Mr. Harris dubbed it at the exhibition opening) features several bold shocks of color. Collaborationist team Guerra de la Paz, composed of Alain Guerra and Neraldo de la Paz, created a rainbow-hued sculpture at the far end of the gallery. Entirely composed of used clothes, the piece was inspired by a black and white photograph of piles of shoes and clothes taken from Jewish captives at concentration camps. Simply titled Tribute, the piece brings to life the frozen photograph in aggressive colors and incredible scale.
The contemporary used clothing also illustrates how many people are represented in the black and white heap of clothes from the holocaust. Both Debra Purden and Richard Harris are quick to note that the pile of clothes is completely made of real clothes with no armature or fillers to generate the staggering scale of the pile. The artistic team is also responsible for the unsettling mannequins of little children in fatigues playing Ring Around the Rosie with a lit bomb is in the center of their circle, and a re-creation of Michelangelo’s Pieta in army gear.
The two exhibition rooms carry distinct meditations about death and humanity. The Kunstkammer of Death features a wild assortment of artifacts ranging from the celebratory and decorative to the poetic and serene. The subject matter may appear grim at first glance but together the work does not regard death as a definitive end of existence, but rather a joyous transition to a new one as well as reinforcing a strong sense of carpe diem. “A Kunstkammer, really, is a happy place,” Purden elaborated. “It’s the age of discovery when everyone is bringing things back [to view]. It’s about knowledge and the combination of art and science together.”
Viewing the ephemera of dancing skeletons alongside authentic medical artifacts removes the macabre stigma typically associated with these symbols and reinforces a serene unity of mankind in our most essential structure. Cyclical use of imagery throughout the show emphasizes the ubiquitous nature of death and the necessity for individuals’ acceptance of it. How we reach the other side is explored in greater detail in The War Room. The gruesome images of suffering and cruelty reference the stolen lives of these fighters, thereby reinforcing the preciousness of the present and suggesting change for the future to make man’s transition from corporal to non-corporal as seamless as possible.
The exhibition Morbid Curiosity: The Richard Harris Collection is currently on display until July 8, 2012.
Also, take advantage of the guided cell phone tour. It is free and very informative.