Although death has been a permanent theme in art for centuries, it was not until the Post Modern era that artists broke away from the tradition of allegorical expression and boldly confronted the theme on an intimate level. From documenting their aging process, to exploring the tolls of disease, artists have used their own bodies to explore the nature of human existence. By making representations of their bodies, some ultimately immortalize themselves, as their bodies of artwork outlive their anatomical bodies. Post modern artists such as Hannah Wilke, John Coplan, Bill Viola and Pepe Espaliu have confronted their mortality through some of their most controversial and progressive works.
Such assertions of the bodily began during the Western European philosophical Enlightenment period, where a dualism between the mind and body was created. Empiricists created the epistemological concept, where the senses were privileged as a basis of knowledge. Prior to Aristotelian assertion of the bodily, Rationalists followed the Platonic order of logic and reason as the only reputable source of knowing the self. This emphasis on the body has paved the way for these post modern artists to create work that addresses the bodily and its end: death.
Artists are always dealing with the construction of the self, and one such way is by considering the reality of human existence. The discourse around the discussion of identity has evolved from Plato in 400BC to the present. In the seventeenth century, Descartes followed in Plato’s tradition, when he opined that one’s mental activity creates their self-hood. It was he that coined the famed Cartesian phrase, “I think therefor I am.” Plato argued that, as the body is from the material world, the soul is from the world of ideas and thus immortal. He believed the soul was temporarily united with the body and would only be separated at death where it would then go back to the world of forms. As the soul does not exist in time and space and as the body does, it can therefore access universal truths from the world of ideas. For Plato, and those in his tradition, the aim of the soul is to out survive the body where it will return to the world of ideas, along with the identity of the individual,
Now for Plato and, there is no use for artists in the attainment of knowledge. He sees the eyes as deceiving, thus dissolving the artists’ purpose. This doesn’t hold in totality for Descarte, but he does agree with Plato in that, “In order for man to attain the highest role in identification with God, as logical rather than embodied being, Cartesian thought required that the body had to be repressed or disavowed.” (Jones 252) Thankfully, influential thinkers of the Empiricist following, have paved the way for artists to brave the depths of the abyss called death. Following Plato, Descartes and Kant as the promoters of the mind, came thinkers who opposed the erasure of the body. Aristotle and Nietzche affirmed the role of the body as inextricably linked to the mind, and asserted its importance in the construction of the self.
In Amelia Jones’ article outlining the body in an art historical context, she affirms that aesthetics and art history were born out of the Enlightenment period. She continues, “The attempted erasure of the body did not actually remove it from the situations of making and interpreting art. By virtue of the very obsessive desire to eradicate the body it became a ubiquitous - if repressed - subtext for all western philosophy, including aesthetics.” (Jones 252) This Cartesian logic was applied to Kant’s theories of aesthetics, where it was simplified, then applied to aesthetic critique in theories by Clement Greenberg in the 1950’s. Greenberg watered down Kant’s “Critique of Aesthetic Judgement,” which argues that aesthetic judgments should claim a subjective universal validity because it is derived from common sense. The subjectivity outlined in Kant’s nineteenth century model, is extended to the idea of ‘disinterestedness,’ which served Greenberg, the post WWII writer well, when promoting abstract expression. For example, Jackson Pollock was often the subject of Greenberg’s writings, where he emphasized the absence of Pollock’s body in his work. He equated the erasure of the body as transcendent, and thus supported Kant’s aforementioned model of aesthetic judgement.
Although Greenberg’s critical theories were both dominant and influential, critics like Harold Rosenberg found Pollock’s work to be heavily reliant on the body. His drip paintings were a result of a performance, infamously called ‘action paintings.’ Rosenberg drew heavily on Friedrich Nietzche’s existential philosophies, which emphasized the role of the body. When Aristotle broke away from his teacher Plato in 383 BC, he laid the foundation for the nineteenth century thinker Nietzche, to stress the body’s importance. One could call him an extremist in infamously announcing the death of God while promoting the senses as the only source of knowing the self. But, his fanatical declarations paved the way for Rosenberg to premeditate the emphasis on the role of the body in post modern art.
Although modernism tried to erase the body as a source of meaning in art as a means of creating transcendence, many post modern artists have focused on the removal of the body in another sense. Death is an inevitable process, where all humans must accept its inescapability. Perhaps this is why so many post modern artists have found the loss of life as interesting subject matter in their work. From small galleries to museums featuring international artists, there have been exhibitions dedicated to art work that explores the impermanence of life in mediums ranging from video installations. traditional black and white portraiture, to found object sculptures.
One such exhibition, appropriately entitled Death: Artists Confronting Mortality, was on display in August 2004 at the John F. Kennedy University Arts and Consciousness Gallery, in Berkeley, CA. It featured twelve California contemporary artists whose work was created in specific response to confronting mortality as a condition of life. While the visual manifestation of the dialogue with death was extremely varied, all of the artists seemed to showcase the artwork as a process of cultural, psychological, intellectual and spiritual self-inquiry.
On a larger scale, the Tate Gallery in London, an internationally renowned contemporary art space, curated an exhibition that saw violence, decomposition, sexuality and death as inextricably linked. In the catalogue for the exhibition, Rites of Passage: Art for the End of the Century, Julia Kristeva notices that the aforementioned body-related taboos have broken the thresholds of shock value, and have been replaced with aging as the last taboo. The show features international artists from a variety of generations; Louise Bourgeois and John Coplan as elders to younger artists such as Hamad Butt and Pepe Espaliu who had both recently died from AIDS.
For this exhibition, Bill Viola’s video installation served as a meditation on the body by using ultra slow motion film, shot in real time of a mother giving birth and an old woman dying. His approach to death, evolving as a natural progression in the video, is underlined by Viola’s interest in Zen Buddhism, Islamic Sufism and Christian mysticism. In the traditions of these ancient religions, death is not a subject to be feared, and this is apparent in the works featured in Rites of Passage: Art for the End of the Century.
This exhibition poses an interesting outlook on death, with living artists who have confronted death with their work and those who have actually experienced the subject, to its ambiguous reality: the end. Pepe Espaliu’s “The Nest” shown in this exhibition, was created when the artist knew of his untimely fate. His bottomless, empty bird cages metaphorically describe his battle with AIDS. Prior to this show, his work had never been properly exhibited outside his native Spain, as he died at age 38 in 1993. His conceptually rich sculptures explored AIDS and the body’s ephemerality as its result. Empty tortoise shells, crutches and sedan chairs function as poetic symbols of death.
Another artist featured in the exhibition is John Coplan, whose large scale self-portraits of his aging body, highlight the physicality of mortality. The fifty-one photos act as a frank study of a naked and aging body. While he narrows in on areas from the base of his foot to the wrinkles of his hand, he never includes his face, making the images universal. These honest depictions of human aging, comparable to murals in scale, act as the antithesis to the Greek ideal of the nude. Only as a result of the boundary-less notions of postmodernism, do we embrace the brutality of taboo.
Similar in subject to Coplan’s portraits of natural aging are Hannah Wilke’s studies, whose body’s progression has been tainted with disease. Although her body was an integral part of her work for the the bulk of her artistic career, it was not until she was diagnosed with Cancer, that she embraced her mortality, and documented her struggle with chemotherapy. In 1995, the Ronald Feldman gallery exhibited Intra- Venus, ten photographs that chronicle the effects of chemotherapy on her body between December 17, 1991 and August 19, 1992. What makes this work so powerful, is that it is devoid of overly dramatic props used to prompt pity from the viewer. This is in interesting contrast to her earlier works, where her body was used to laugh at traditional female nudes. Intra- Venus is a departure from the feminist critique’s underlying humor. It was “the final testament of an artist’s integrity; the courage to confront her bod in adversity as well as in its glory.” (Tierney) Her source of inspiration never lot its fascination for Wilke, even when it lead to observing and documenting her own deterioration.
I consider art as the only honest mirror that reveals the contemporary human condition as a signifier of the times. At once our identity is constructed by both our mind and body’s interaction with our environments. I understand art as functioning in a similar way. Fine art has the ability to be a physical manifestation of non-materiality, where it lies somewhere between the aforemetioned duality of the body and mind. Death can also be seen as a substantive physical action, or an esoteric happening. Death and art seem to exist in a similar space, somewhere between the body and the mind. Because it is in the cards for all humans, the makers of art, the inevitability of aging and its consideration as the last taboo, makes it also the last shock we can experience as humans. We are no longer surprised by sexuality, political incorrectness, or bodily excrement in art, because these are all things we can grow to be familiar with. But death does not grant us this privilege. Once it occurs, we do not live to tell about it. I predict that the widespread realization of just this, will prompt further investigation of death for contemporary artists.