As we find ourselves advancing into the New Year and all of the promise that this holds, I decided to take a slightly unorthodox approach to slicing-up art history through the lens of film. In fact it was the Michael Powell (no relation) and Emeric Pressburger film1 of (almost) the same name, that inspired me to want to gain some kind of insight into how art has wrestled with trying to express, Janus-like, the passing of time and its corollary concern with mortality. Of course any media-savvy type will tell you never to use the word ‘death’ in a movie or Internet article as it is an audience turn-off. Here we go then.
As stated, my initial point of intrigue was that, standing on the fabled escalator of the Powell and Pressburger masterpiece, are a series of 17 significant (male) statues2, (the semiotics of which are probably best left out for the sake of argument). I was intrigued by the statues given that they were chosen not only for their eminence, (Plato, Confucius, The Prophet Muhammad, Murillo, etc.) but also because they were all believed (largely incorrectly) to have had epilepsy, with more recent evidence that some have these may have suffered from psychogenic seizures, alcohol withdrawal or even acquired brain injury (ABI). Of the 17 figures, 2 are musicians, 5 are what might loosely be determined as philosophers, 2 writers, 3 artists and 5 national leader figures. The artists are the figures that interested me the most: Michelangelo, Rembrandt and Murillo; but what do the Renaissance, the Dutch Golden Age and Spanish Baroque have in common? Well here’s the trick I think. I believe that Powell and Pressburger weren’t making a smart comment on art history here, but on the enduring quality of the art(ists) embodied as statues compared to the utterly mortal Pater Carter (Niven) passes inexorably (it seems), towards the “…other world”3.
Now of course Michelangelo, Rembrandt and Murillo are part of a historical canon of art that is male, pale and well past its sell-by date. If we were to re-cast the statuary and the history to accompany the escalator now I wondered, who might we choose as our top 3 key statuary onlookers? In the light of this question, I offer you the following:
Ulay/Abramović. During the 1970’s and ‘80’s, the performance/installation duo of Ulay/Abramović. (Marina Abramović and Uwe Laysiepen) tested the nerves of audiences with their tense, edgy and sometimes theatrical performances that highlighted the frailty of existence. For me, their work reached a kind of hypnotic/morbid pinnacle with Rest Energy (1980) which took the idea of potential and kinetic energies in the form of a bow and arrow under tension juxtaposed against the kinetic outcome of Abramović’s imminent death and Ulay’s prospective act of murder. I cheated of course as this is two for the price of one.
Sorry but it has to be Damien Hirst. In 1991 Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, gained acclaim and notoriety for, in my view, many of the wrong reasons. Okay so the shark went off in the tank and it became the symbol of the YBA’s, but actually, here was a sculpture that really addressed mortality and our fundamental inability as human beings to grasp the concept of non-existence as well as pre- and post-existential states. Creationists, of course, may well contest this choice.
Helen Chadwick (1953-1996) may be my wild card. In 1984 I had the occasional privilege of assisting Helen through the tribulations of Ego Geometria Sum (lit. I am Geometry) at the then Chelsea School of Art. Beyond my own personal recollections of the making and the artist’s untimely death, here was somebody who understood the body, and the rare distinctions and parallels between the visceral fleshy fruit and human tissue. Whilst Helen hit the negative mainstream press for her Piss Flowers, I absolutely believe she earns a place on that escalator.
1 A Matter of Life and Death – although other titles were used in the US and parts of Europe.
2 Alexander the Great, Ludwig van Beethoven, Frédéric Chopin, Julius Caesar, Confucius, Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, Michelangelo, Moses, Muhammad, Murillo, Plato, Rembrandt van Rijn, Cardinal Richelieu, William Shakespeare, King Solomon and Jonathan Swift.
3 The producers took pains never to refer to "the other world" as Heaven, as they felt that was restrictive.