HONG KONG — You have to hand it to Richard Harris, whose collection is currently on view at London’s Wellcome Collection in an exhibition of some 300 works titled Death: A Self-Portrait. As far as collectors go, this is a show that gets right to the core of why a collector collects. It is an answer Robert Hughes skillfully extracted from Alberto Mugrabi in five minutes flat: Immortality.
After all, when the body is gone, what remains is the collection: an assembled image of its maker, which is something reflected in the exhibition’s first room, titled “Contemplating Death,” where a machine-sewn photograph produced by Andy Warhol for the art magazine Parkett in 1987, the year Warhol died, is presented. With the image is an excerpt by writer Glenn O’Brien, who describes Warhol’s works as “souvenirs and relics” or “pieces of Andy,” just as the Mugrabis have become somewhat inextricably tied up to Warhol’s legacy through the very collecting of the artist’s work.
But while Harris’s collection is indeed a portrait of the collector, it is also a portrait of something much more universal in its singular focus. Death is something we all have in common, after all. And this is an accessible collection presented free to the public with no air of conceptual, academic, or theoretical distance, or visual intrigue, for that matter. The show opens with skulls and essentially ends with them, too. One cannot help but admire that simplicity.
Besides, the manifestations of the skull are diverse. Painting, photography, sculpture, print, and installation, from the historical to the contemporary, are all represented, from Adriaen van Utrecht’s “Vanitas Still Life with a Bouquet and Skull” (1643), to Irving Penn’s “Ospelade” (1980) and Robert Mapplethorpe’s black and white “Skull Walking Cane” (1988). There are full-bodied skeletons, too. Presented in a second room deemed “Dance of Death,” where Marlene Dumas’s “Old Fears are Still Valid” (1987) is paired with José Guadalupe Posada’s 1910 woodblock etching “Calavera Huertista” in a moment of curatorial precision that explores how the commonality of death can break even temporal, spatial, even cultural, barriers.
Nearby, the earliest recorded depiction of the “dance of death” iconography painted on the walls of the Saints-Innocents Cemetery in Paris in 1424 is preserved in a series of woodcuts by Guyot Marchant’s 1485 publication, Danse Macabre, one of the Middle Age’s most popular books.
It is an interesting thing to think about death as something eternal, given its experience on the human level is the opposite. Yet it is this very truth, that one cannot know death until one meets it, that keeps death alive in the popular consciousness. Thus, the macabre dance of death is an ideal albeit twisted reference with which to introduce the next room, “Violent Death,” where Jacques Callot’s “The Miseries and Misfortunes of War” (1683), Francisco Goya’s “Disasters of War” (1810-20), and Otto Dix’s “The War” (1924) are united to present an alternative dance that is as gruesome, bloody and relentless as man’s obsession with mortality.
Of Callot’s harrowing observational records, one image looks like a mass lynching: Scores of bodies hang limply from a large tree circled by a gathering crowd. It is this idea of the disposable body and the ease with which man is able to inflict pain on others knowing the body’s fragility that sets a strange tone for the penultimate room. “Eros & Thanatos” focuses on the diametric instincts towards life and destruction that Sigmund Freud, amongst others, have identified as one of humanity’s greatest binary ruts. It is a room in which the perversity of being given the gift of life only to have it taken away, often senselessly, is shown in all its strange and disconcerting moral ambiguity.
Ivo Salinger’s eerie 1920 color etching on brown paper, “The Doctor, the Girl, and Death,” perhaps best sums up our strange relationship to life and death in this context. An Austrian artist sanctioned by the Third Reich, Salinger depicts a surgeon trying to save a young woman on whom a skeleton hangs from rounded hips. Described as a “semi-pornographic struggle articulating the conflict between two basic human instincts — to live or to die,” no wonder this is where a collection of Victorian double image postcards are presented: photographs like the woman at her dressing table that doubles as an image of a skull. Given the range of responses death can incur in humans faced with either death’s image or its imminence, there is no single answer on how to live or die well.
It is on this note that the final room presents artifacts and images representing traditions that surround death from across the world. These are objects like Tibetan burial cups to a wooden Pacific Island “Tau-Tau,” or grave guardian, positioned sitting on a low stool in the center of the room. The Tau-Tau’s presence is uncomfortable — it seems to be marking out a grave in a space where no one has died. Like the skulls in this exhibition’s first room, which also acts as the exhibition’s exit, the grave guardian is a mirror of the future, a reflection of something that hangs over our heads like an unbreakable contract. It is a fate that can drive people to do extraordinary and despicable things.
Death: A Self-Portrait runs at the Wellcome Collection (183 Euston Road, London) through February 24, 2013.