Death at the Wellcome Collection

How often do you think about death? There are those who simply don’t understand the concept: babies, dogs and so on. Others, like that one guy who taxidermies field mice into tiny re-enactments of Jesus’s life, fixate on it and revel in it. Most of us try to avoid the topic. In psychology, terror management theory is the idea that human behaviour is motivated by the fear of death. Wherever possible, we evade confronting our mortality. Death: A Self-Portrait gives no room for escape, it guides you to a window to your future and dares you to open the curtains.

The exhibit is a collection of artefacts belonging to former antique dealer, Richard Harris. These are mostly paintings and sculpture, separated thematically into five rooms. Traditionally, we are familiar with depictions of death through memento mori or vanitas; melancholy images of crows pecking at skulls. This attitude of sad resignation in art is rather firmly ingrained in how we think about death, as if it’s a dental appointment, an unpleasant but inevitable fate. After a while, it seems absurd: how ironic it is to waste time sulking over how short life is! Then again, painters are not typically the #yolo types.

Some of the artworks twist this idea into a recursive concept, mocking our obsession with it. Warhol’s machine-stitched photographs of medical skeleton have a distinct brick-in-the-wall feel to them, and Ray Johnson’s collages combine jazzy licks of paint with sombre images of bones. Death is serious; few things compare to the pain felt with the passing of a loved one and the notion of non-existence is philosophically terrifying. Yet, reducto ad absurdum is also not the worst way of coping with it. Onwards to death at the hand of man.

While some of the works on display serve to call attention to the horrific realities of war, many others will romanticise it. After all, death in combat has always been seen as noble and valiant; the ultimate sacrifice in defending your beliefs. Perhaps, romance in death is another coping mechanism. Inevitable mortality is easier to accept when dressed in a wreath of white lilies. This might explain why so many of the works are so beautiful.

The last room contains several artworks from Mexican painters, like Marcos Raya who transposes images of skulls onto colourful portraits, in similar fashion to the painted faces of people celebrating Día de los Muertos. The clash of bright colours and human remains is jarring and morbid to the Western gaze, yet is this attitude any worse than the sullen etchings of the Renaissance? As we leave the exhibit, a statistical frequency map emerges on the wall: most common causes of death. Right next to ‘infectious diseases’ looms a large circle labelled ‘humanity’. There is much to think about here, and much to discuss. A fantastic exhibit to feed your introspection and your curiosity.

Death: A Self Portrait is open until Sunday 24 February 2013 at:

Wellcome Collection
183 Euston Road

Tel: 020 7611 2222

Entry is free.

Image: Marcos Raya, Untitled (family portrait: grandma), 2005

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