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Images & Text © 2017 Michael Forbes - All rights reserved.

Curatorial Project - Redemptive Beauty of Life After Death, Bonington Gallery 2007
Redemptive Beauty of Life After Death - Mik Godley & Giles Corby (foreground), Bonington Gallery 2007
Redemptive Beauty of Life After Death - Mik Godley, Bonington Gallery 2007
Redemptive Beauty of Life After Death - Michael Forbes, Bonington Gallery 2007
 
Redemptive Beauty of Life After Death - Robert Ball, Bonington Gallery 2007
Redemptive Beauty of Life After Death - Said Adrus, Bonington Gallery 2007
Redemptive Beauty of Life After Death - Giles Corby, Bonington Gallery 2007
Redemptive Beauty of Life After Death - David Farell, Bonington Gallery 2007
Redemptive Beauty of Life After Death - David Farell, Bonington Gallery 2007
Redemptive Beauty of Life After Death - David Farell, Bonington Gallery 2007

  

Beauty will be CONVULSIVE or it will not be at all.

Andre Breton [1]

The focus of the present exhibition constitutes a paradox: the representation of something that is essentially beyond representation, beyond direct display. The Redemptive Beauty of Life after Death brings together a number of artists whose work takes up a variety of stances towards the picturing of death, or who, to be more precise, attempt to attend, in their different ways, to the problem of confronting traces, memories and the frequently elusive evidence of the loss of human life.  A second aspect to the exhibition is its concern with the notion, construction and experience of beauty. These two interlocking elements find their point of interpenetration in a disparate series of paintings. photographs and sculptures that have been selected for this show on the grounds that they exhibit, if not always in equal measure, both aspects of this double-edged aesthetic.

The title of the exhibition is a decidedly tricky one, not easy to take in at a single glance, its individual terms being weighty, provocative and ambivalent. We can read it in at least two ways. On the one hand the title may refer to a “redemptive beauty” provided by an engagement with life that only comes after we have had some experience of death, some encounter with what we might call a transgressive moment. In this reading it is life, one’s connecting again with it, which provides a sense of redemption. On the other, we may take the phrase “life after death” to be a single unit within the full expression and thus read the title to be an allusion to a beauty that is effected by this curious entity described as “life after death”. The title’s author does not appear to be directing us to the world of spiritualism and spectres (though that might be a third interpretative option), so we must work at this segment of the text to uncover a plausible meaning. Given the contextual framework, an exhibition in an established art venue, “life after death” would appear to be a portmanteau term for the kinds of artistic objects that are here presented. These, without exception, can be seen to attend to depictions wherein “death” is the primary signifier, the central thread offered by the “stuff” of which the exhibition is made. Even when the deeply depressing matter of death is not at first sight the most visible ingredient of the works in the show, it does not take long to recognise its presence throughout. “Life after death”, then, is conceivable as meaning the life that is supplied by works of art. To put it another way, the exhibition title may be considered as directing one to the redemptive beauty that is given to us by artworks that successfully attend to - that is, represent, translate, modify, successfully negotiate - death; insofar as there can at all be any such negotiation. “The essential difference”, observes Georges Bataille in one’s encounter with death isthat between a man’s dead body and other objects such as stones…what we call death is in the first place the consciousness we have of it. We perceive the transition from the living state to the corpse, that is, to the tormenting object that the corpse of one man is for another. For each man who regards it with awe, the corpse is the image of his own destiny. It bears witness to a violence which destroys not one man alone but all men in the end. [2]

The consciousness of which Bataille writes is a subjective transformation but it can be a communal one if it is mediated, as it is in this exhibition, through works of art, and this is the case even though the artists included here are not so much making works about their own personal encounters with death but about the experiences of others, and, about their own position as artists encountering the various effects of such confrontations between the living and the dead.  

As for the redemption that beauty may bring, one must ask oneself whether or not art of any kind can redeem such extreme situations. Can beauty radically reinstate a realm of order, negotiating death in a manner that is significant, non-reductive, in short practical and useful? Beauty and art are not necessarily synonymous. “Beauty”, as Bataille has pointed out, “is none the less subjective, varying according to the inclinations of those assessing it.” [3] Might the recourse to beauty, in all its multiplicity and contradiction be a way to move away from the horror and “unthinkability” of death? This is something the audience for The Redemptive Beauty of Life after Death must themselves decide.

The juxtaposition of eight artists in a show with a specific but open thematics suggests that the exhibition’s parameters are broad enough to accommodate a range of positions or points of view, whilst simultaneously holding to the stated framework. As well as employing several distinct artistic mediums the artists brought together here come from a cross-section of backgrounds. Their personal biographies may be seen as key determinants upon the work they have produced, and a recurring feature of The Redemptive Beauty of Life after Death is its engagement with particular cultural formations and with the specificity of place. David Farrell’s photographs, for example, are of locations in Southern Ireland at which the remains of murdered Northern Irish individuals were found, whilst Mik Godley has turned his attention to a large mountain in Silesia (close to the town in which his mother lived as a child), the site of a vast underground factory and bunker built during the Second World War. Even when an individual location is not overtly cited as the subject of a work, an actual incident (which must of course have occurred in a given and precise location) is implied. The firearms photographed by Robert Ball are used weapons; the pictures’ meaning, as well as the “meaning” that may be attributed to the objects themselves is intimately linked to occurrences that may be, at least in principle, pinned down to an absolutely unique place and time.          

Martin Godwin’s photographs of flowers left at the sites of deaths occurring on British roads are particularly poignant reminders of the part a given place may play in the unexpected death of an individual. Attached to lamp posts, fences or laid directly upon the ground close to the location of a car accident or other instance of untimely death, the flowers are themselves either dead or soon about to die. Their placing has as likely as not been carried out by people who had no relationship whatever to the victim whose demise they mark. Flowers brought by relatives of the dead are also of course deposited but whether left either by a stranger, or by a relative or friend, the act of laying down such perishable pointers to the sudden passing of a life constitutes an act of public mourning. There is something a little pompous about this gesture, signifying as it does the desire to be seen to mourn, rather than simply expressing one’s grief in a private, less emphatically visible way.  Godwin’s images sometimes show the fairly immediate context of the accident – police officers in their dayglow tunics or the emergency tape barricades they have erected around the scene of death. They are a marker of a marker, the flowers being doomed to inevitable decay, whilst Godwin’s pictures may be, at least potentially, infinitely copied and disseminated as prints, in magazines and newspapers, and in books.

The ease of multiplication of the photograph – of virtually all photographs – is in acute contrast to the absolute particularity of the event of which it is the trace. In Roland Barthes Camera Lucida Alexander Gardner’s “Portrait of Lewis Payne” (1865) is accompanied by the caption “”He is dead and he is going to die…””. The first set of quotation marks is already there in Barthes, as if to emphasise the layered distance between the human subject fixed within the image (Payne) and the recipient or reader of the image in the present time. For the viewer-reader Payne, who was already a condemned man when Gardner photographed him in his cell, is already long dead, but in the photograph, at the point of its production, Payne is, as it were, simultaneously about to die – that is, still alive - and already dead. “This will be and this has been”, writes Barthes. “I observe with horror an anterior future of which death is the stake. By giving me the absolute past of the pose…the photograph tells me death in the future…Whether or not the subject is already dead, every photograph is this catastrophe.” [4] Photography as a medium is for Barthes (he was writing at a time prior to the easy digital manipulation of the image) intrinsically linked to death, because the photograph is by definition a direct and inviolable record of the Real. One might suggest that even today, at a time when digitised picture-making is replacing that of the film and the darkroom, we read photographs as being real; even when a photograph has been digitally doctored its power seems to lie within its ability to appear as though it was an authentic trace of an actual place, person or event.   

Photography, then, is still haunted – and often defined – by its claim to versimilitude. Farrell’s pictures of uncovered burial sites, to which I have already alluded, are accompanied by their author’s claims for their veracity. Without this information the viewer may well find the images mysterious and engaging but an important component of their meaning might well be curtailed. If photographs are here being presented as a kind of evidence, as much as they are memorials to the dead, it is nevertheless the accompanying story that moves them into a different order of perception than that in which they might reside if this linguistic material were suppressed. Once one knows what these photographs show, the temporary or permanent “resting sites” of men murdered by members of their own community, one can no longer read them as unproblematically beautiful landscape images. They take on, rather, another kind of beauty, a sort of perverse attractiveness that is the product of our knowing that these trees and hills and bogs are the intended final resting place of murdered men.

Unlike Farrell, Michael Forbes, who also takes photographs of places connected with death, includes within or across his images a compressed account of what the viewer is looking at when perusing these works. If Farrell’s accompanying text is one provided by remarks that are physically outside the work, (in notes accompanying his exhibitions or in interviews), Forbes enforces the relationship between image and text by putting the latter into the image itself. This juxtaposing of elements anchors (the term is again from Barthes) the farmland or the rough roads Forbes has recorded to what we as readers belief to be an account of a horrendous crime. [5] In putting picture and caption together in this way a question is raised about the truth content of the photograph. Is this field really the site of the murder described? Did such a thing even take place at all? For The Redemptive Beauty of Life after Death Forbes has produced a new piece of work that further develops the image/text relationship of the earlier series (collectively entitled The Kill). In the new piece, eight brightly coloured childrens’ coffins disposed in a grid formation can be seen to each carry a brief euphemistic text such as “our sweet baby girl fell asleep”, a description of death in which the bitterness and despair felt over the loss of the child is linguistically displaced. Utilising bright, ostensibly playful colours in the context of an almost unthinkable death is not without precedent – Andy Warhol’s car crashes and electric chairs, for example, utilised such a ramming together of erstwhile separate modes, But Forbes’ installation, the result of recent research into child mortality and its relationship to poverty, imposes upon the gallery audience a potentially more intense shock than that instituted by Warhol. The central difference here may be the three-dimensionality of the piece, in which the size of the coffins is equal to those in fact used for the burial of children. The colours reflect those of abstract painting but also of childhood games and toys; innocence is both presented and removed, a parallel to the shepherd’s reading of the tombstone announcing the presence of death in Nicholas Poussin’s The Arcadian Shepherds, painted in the late 1630s [6].      

The other sculptural work in the exhibition is that by Giles Corby.  Corby puts together geometric assemblages that resemble in their overall appearance miniature cities. His titles reinforce this interpretation – Derelict City, Underworld, Everytown – but there is also a contrast of proportions within some of the pieces, resulting in a rapidly shifting sense of physical scale. The distended, interrupted floorboards may hide beneath them another, less accessible world, one that is essentially unknown to us, despite its superficially similar, if shrunken, appearance. Such a lost city is indeed breaking through the boards in Underworld. It looks to be something of an anomaly, a future city already rendered as dead, a “forgotten kingdom”. [7] In these constructions death is present but somehow tamed, toned down through a deliberate reduction of size, as though immense destruction might be impossible to depict save through overlarge and verbose renditions. Occasional lighting built into or adjacent to the works conveys a curious mood. One is reminded of a passage from The Waste Land: Unreal city, Under the brown fog of a winter dawn, A crowd flowed over London bridge, so many, I had not thought death had undone so many. [8]

Mik Godley’s contribution to The Redemptive Beauty of Life after Death takes its point of departure from an actual subterranean structure, an immense network of chambers designed by the Nazi architect Albert Speer, located under a mountain in Silesia. Begun in 1943, the complex of tunnels and bunkers (thought to be a secret rocket factory and potential hideout for the entire Nazi officer class of some 25,000 people) utilised the labour of 28,000 workers in its construction. Known as “Riese” (giant), this monstrous mountain fortress contained nine kilometres of tunnels and had some thirty entrances, a proportion of which were destroyed during its evacuation at the end of World War 2. Godley has not so far visited the site, deliberately working for the present time on a collection of paintings and drawings based upon pictures and other information about Riese primarily available only on the Internet. Taking into account the limitations (but also the advantages and inherent possibilities) of this form of information gathering, Godley has consciously maintained a painterly, “post-pixel” approach to his subject matter in the work he has derived from this source. The incredible construction under the mountain reeks of death, not only because it was a place of weapon production buried literally deep into the earth, but also because it may well have had affinities with the death camps scattered throughout Germany and Poland during the period of the Nazi rise to power.     

Said Adrus mixed-media installation initiates a dialogue around an actual place, the Muslim Burial Ground in Woking, Surrey. Constructed in 1920 the location of the Burial Ground was in part apparently chosen because of its proximity to the Shah Jehan Mosque (also in Woking), built in 1889. Adrus regards the Burial Ground as a memorial and sees his own work as being an attempt to produce another kind of construction that, although positioned in an art context, might yet still be read as a memorial in its own right. The location and the complicated history of the Muslim Burial Ground raise questions not only about the British Empire, war, and cultural integration but also about the placing of an Islamic architectural structure within the English countryside. Adrus’ work also considers, through the combination of photographic and cinematic elements, the connections between other burial sites and that of the Woking cemetery (notably through the necessary reburial, as a consequence of vandalism, of the remains of Indian Muslim soldiers). Archival film of Indian soldiers at Brighton’s Royal Pavilion provides a further layer of reference. This black and white footage, dating from around 1915, shows exchanges between wounded Indian soldiers and British Royalty, and also with British military officers. The awarding, by the British, of medals to the Indian troops is also documented here. There is, further to these interconnections, a more personal aspect to Adrus’ practice, which echoes that of Godley to his: Adrus’ father had been, during the Second World War, part of the British Army operating in Kenya. I have already mentioned Godley’s mother being a resident of a town adjacent to the Riese complex. This kind of close personal connection to bodies of research and practice help to explain these artists’ choice of subject matter. The work they have made is as much a personal investigation as one grounded in broad cultural issues and ideas. Such intimacy of interest drives the work, though ultimately artistic practices must of necessity transcend private concerns in order that the material under scrutiny is accessible, no matter how intellectually and morally complex, to a wider viewing audience than that of experts or specialists with ready connections to the historical information from which these artists take their cue. 

Much of the content of The Redemptive Beauty of Life after Death has a tight connection with the (at least implied) realism of the photograph and of whatever exactly is singled out and presented within its frame. Even Godley’s painting can be tracked back to the actual presence of a once-extant political regime, to its physical remains in the landscape it had so extensively reworked. The paintings of Raksha Patel differ from most of the content of the exhibition (the work of Corby is the exception) in that they are dreamlike and, to put it more negatively, dystopian. They are certainly not realistic in any crude sense of the term, by which I mean they cannot be directly indexed to a particular locale or single place. They function, rather, at the level of metaphorical generalisations of place. Untitled (2005) presents a tiered fountain, a picture which, Patel later discovered, held an uncanny correspondence with an actual fountain located in a cemetery in Tehran (built, it turned out, as a monument to the dead). Fountains can readily symbolise life, energy, the perpetual renewal of sources and resources. Patel’s imagery also includes other natural fluids, as well as animals, landscapes chemical elements, together with the features these components combine to make, namely earth, sky, the sun and the sea. Such ciphers are open to a wide range of interpretative possibilities. The line between figuration and abstraction in Patel’s paintings can be at times virtually absent, a feature that gives the viewer more rather than less to do when engaging with them. The fountain turns into an abstract pattern on the canvas whilst remaining a depiction of a symbolically rich object; in another painting pieces of broken glass form a smiling face. Unlike advertising or propaganda, these (and other) artworks tend towards openness and a collaborative exchange between artist and audience. Anything less would be dogmatic, too narrowly delimited, a literalism at best bleak and unimaginative.

In the photographs by Robert Ball, of second-hand guns of and pacemakers taken from the bodies of the deceased before cremation, two sophisticated technologies are productively contrasted. The former machines were explicitly designed to remove human life, the latter to extend it.  That the guns Ball records, laid out on a dark background as though in a museum display case, are used rather than “pristine”, untested instruments of death reminds us that photography’s history is closely tied in with the development of evidence-gathering. Ball’s work draws on an aesthetics of plain display, of a no-nonsense presentation of the object, an approach whose (false) neutralisation of the thing recorded strangely forces one to concentrate upon the weapon’s functional attributes. [9] Almost everything about these firearms looks to be “about” the carrying out of the act for which they were designed, though the placing of the guns on a dark backcloth might be not so much a museological conceit as a metaphor for the weapon’s hidden power, the way that the firing of a gun “can change a hundred lives in a split second” (Ball).   

With the pacemakers, the niceties of their workings are hidden away, firstly in their active life whilst operating inside a human body, and, secondly, even when one sees the revealed object, a generally rare sight of something that is today a quite commonly employed device. It as though Ball is visually staging the claim that whilst it is easy to take away a life, preserving and extending it, for all our scientific and rational understanding, remains one of the most technically complex and morally convoluted issues we face. 

I will conclude with a few more words from Georges Bataille, whose intricate reasonings on death seem more than a little apt in the present context: 

as we break through the barriers, as we die, we strive to escape from the terror of death…We invest the breaking of our barriers with some tangible form…Beyond death, in fact, begins the inconceivable which we are usually not brave enough to face. Yet the inconceivable is the expression of our own impotence. We know that death destroys nothing, leaves the totality of existence intact, but we still cannot imagine the continuity of being as a whole beyond our own death…We cannot accept the fact that this has limits. At all costs we need to transcend them, but we should like to transcend them and maintain them simultaneously. [10]

   

Peter Suchin   

 

 

Notes

1. Andre Breton, Nadja, Grove Press, 1960, p. 160.

2. Georges Bataille, Eroticism, John Calder, 1962, p.44.

3. Bataille, ibid, p. 143.

4. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, Jonathan Cape, 1982, pp. 95 & 96. 

5. On the interchanges between photographs and texts see the important essay by Roland Barthes, “Rhetoric of the Image”, in Barthes, Image-Music-Text, Fontana, 1977.

6. In the painting the shepherds are seen discovering a terrifying inscription, Et in Arcadia Ego, on a tombstone in what they had hitherto considered was an idyllic and untainted place, Arcadia. There are a number of possible translations of the phrase, the most relevant here being “Even in Arcady I, Death, hold sway”. See Erwin Panofsky, “Et in Arcadia Ego: Poussin and the Elegiac Tradition”, in Panofsky, Meaning in the Visual Arts, Penguin 1970, especially pp. 358 - 359.  

7. Sir Leonard Wooley, A Forgotten Kingdom, Penguin, 1953.

8. T S Eliot, “The Waste Land”, in Eliot, Collected Poems 1909-1962, Faber, 1974, p. 71.

9. The long-running debate around the aestheticising of politics “versus” the politicising of aesthetics is relevant to many works in this exhibition. The issues are convoluted and the discussion extensive, and there is no space in the present essay to engage with them. The key text, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936) is by Walter Benjamin and is included in his Illuminations, Fontana, 1973.       

10. Bataille, ibid, pp. 140 - 141.

Legacies of the Engaged Image:

The Redemptive Beauty of Life after Death