In: Art Monthly, n. 401, November 2016.
'All this sounds like a society obsessed with death , not one that denies it.' That is Tony Walter, describing the curve from the late 19th century to the late 20th, from rumours of death's death (Joseph Jacobs) to the 'revival' of his own title: The Revival of Death, published in 1994. His doubts about the taboo status of death were not new. Allan Kellehear w rote 'Are we a "death-denying" society?' in 1984. His answer: we are not. Grief expert Colin Murray Parkes wrote a congratulatory letter to the publishing journal. But The Craft of Dying, by Lyn H Lofland, had already poured scorn on the taboo in 1978: 'One might consider it somewhat odd that the statement that death is a taboo topic in America should continue tobe asserted in the face of nearly a decade of non-stop talking on the subject.' Her target is w hat she calls the 'happy death movement '. 'The importance of the "conventional view of death" - of the conventional wisdom about death - as propounded over and over by movement intellectuals , is not its "truth" but its utility.' In other words, if you want to promote a death project, it helps if you first persuade your audience that what you are doing is new and against cultural norms. Unfortunately, it also involves ignoring the facts.
Lofland takes us back to 1972: 'As many scholars have pointed out, the empirical evidence for all these assertions [that death is taboo] is something less than overwhelming .' She cites Richard Dumont and Dennis Fass, and Peter J Donaldson (a book and a paper) both published in that year. Philippe Aries's books on death run from 1949 to 1983. His insistence on a modern death-denying society was being contradicted even as he wrote.
Nevertheless , Deborah Boardman, when she curated 'Mortal' at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2001, could say: 'I curated this exhibition to fill what I experienced as a cultural void.' I do not think she would write that now. Ran M Brown says in the preface to his The Art of Suicide, also of 2001, that some of the inst itutions he wrote to for images 'expressed horror or disgust at my topic, some even hinted at a morbid desire on my part'. I do not think that would happen now. I was not aware in 2001 of much contemporary art about death. But by 2006 that had changed. Looking back now, I see a gradual growth of art and exhibitions on death. And death has become more and more fashionable.
Boardman died in 2015. In 2014, in the publicity for my 'Death and Dying' exhibition at MAG3 Projektraum in Vienna, I quoted from what she had written in the catalogue for 'Mortal': 'Why make work about death? In my own life a fear of death compelled me towards art projects that would comfort and assuage it.' I was impressed with this. lt was brave. No one says this when they curate a death show, and rarely when they make art about death. But it is a natural motivation - even if I was then criticised: 'fear shouldn't be a motivation for curating anything'; 'there is no need to be afraid of death' etc.
Boardman made a unique artist's book, Picturing Death, in 1988. Picturing Death became a whole project, with further manifestations in 1999, 2001 and beyond. I am going to take 1988 as my own start date for a revival of death in art. lt is not entirely arbitrary; of definite significance is that in 1989 in Kassel the foundation stone was laid for the Museum für Sepulkralkultur. This, the Museum of Sepulchral Culture, opened in 1992. lt is 'the father of funeral museums '. But the Zentralinstitut für Sepulkralkultur, the Central Institute of Sepulchral Culture, was founded in 1979, a year after the publication of The Craft of Dying.
Why is there so much art about death now? I asked a few likely sociologists, artists and art historians. 'lt's the baby boomers - they are dying'; 'art fills a void left by religion'; 'the internet'; 'artists sense the coming death of the art world'; 'we are in dark times'.
Jenny Hockey (emeritus professor of sociology at Sheffield U niversity and one of the fou nders of the Association for the Study of Death and Society) compares changes in the areas she has worked in with those in art. 'The turn towards death in art seems to coincide with other shifts,' she says, and she gives a graphic example: 'A good "foundational fact" for our project was the change in the removal of individual sets of ashes from crematoria for private rituals of disposal. Very few were removed in the 1970s but the graph shows a clear upswing through the 1990s and into this century.'
Canadian Kathryn Beattie co-curates an archive of contemporary art about death. 'In the past decade or so there has been a new openness towards death,' she says. 'Death conversation is everywhere on some level or other.' British artist and death scholar Toni Maynor thinks that art has started to focus more on the personal experience of death .
On religion, I like what Boardman's 'contributing writer' Tim Porges says in the 'Mortal' catalogue. lncidentally, the harmony of his ideas with Walter's is extraordinary, although I am fairly certain Porges had not read Walter . 'The most frequent complaint I hear about death these days is that it is too Modern,' he says. Then his ideas flow as follows : death may be too modern but we are modern enough to want not to return to the old rituals. 'What we want is to write our own vows.' In this, art and the art world might help, he says: ' In a way ,this makes art into religion, but there's nothing particularly new or bad about that.' No, and of course the lass of religion and the consequent role of art have been talked about since the Enlightenment. Then he comments that 'a religion made out of art is probably even less likely to suit everybody than the ones we already have'.
The way curators wrote about death in art changed between 1990 and 2010. In the catalogue for 'Images of Death in Contemporary Art' of 1990 at Marquette University in Milwaukee, the curators write carefully, almost nervously, admitting that they do not know why there is - as they nevertheless observe - a significant amount of art about death. What follows is precised slightly: 'The presence of familiar icons, skull, skeleton and cross, and references to ritual in these late-20th -century works , recall representations of death in the past.' They ask, with continuing trepidation , 'are the symbols appropriated for their formal, compositional worth? Or, are they raising in a new cultural context the hope of rediscovering values that link death to life in meaningful ways? Are they artistic conventions? Or symbols of hope for a spiritual triumph over death? Viewers of this exhibition are invited to ponder such questions.'
Twenty years on, all this had changed . In the catalogue for 'Dead Lines', a show across two venues in Germany in 2011, Oliver Zybok is ready to categorise, to classify. Contemporary art about death does not, he says, deal with 'a comprehensive death symbolism' - at least not in 2011. lt is a question of 'a melancholy mood'. This still sounds a little vague, but this distinction , and the rejection of the idea of symbols, is much more specific. And he goes on to outline three areas of focus : '1, violence. 2, yearning and melancholy. 3, places and tools associated with death, and anatomical relics.' And he adds, 'all combined w ith a general questioning of reality'. The list is not important , for my purposes; what is important is his confidence in describing and categorising, which the 'Images of Death' curators feit unable to do. In the preface, by Zybok and co-curator Gerhard Finckh, we read: 'it seems impossible to contradict the assertion of a "new visibility of death".' That was certainly true by then.
Walter sees a move from 'modern' death-denial to an individualistic -postmodern - attitude. 'One should not underestimate the force that has been unleashed as people have taken dying into their own hands .' He is speaking of end-of-life care and the right to die (which Thomas Laqueur says is a new thing in history) and he adds the qualification that people still depend on experts. But he is also making a general point about society, and would agree I think that it is reasonable to see a harmony between these changes and developments in art: from the reworking of 'past representations of death' to 'a questioning of reality', for example.
But I do not really have any definitive explanation for the rise of death in art. I favour: wars and rumours of wars, the death of nature, politics; perhaps some more formal issues internal to art itself. The AIDS crisis was important, and that might suggest that my 1988 date is rather late. Zybok and Finckh write of 'another (almost hidden) theme of death art - fear of the loss of productive capacity and thus of the collapse of the bourgeois lifestyle'. Which we can connect, perhaps, with Eva Reimers.
At the ninth Death, Dying and Disposal Conference in Durham in 2009, Reimers, a cultural theorist from Sweden, gave a paper on memorials . A society produces memorials, builds monuments, because it is afraid of dying. Because it remembers Ozymandias. That civilisation may not sink, its great battle lost. The monuments say: look, we have been through terrible things, and we are still here, we will survive. They are not about the past, but the future.
In the published version of her paper, Reimers cites 22 sociologists, anthropolog ists and philosophers of culture as sources for her ideas, starting with Emile Durkheim. The spoken vers ion included references to other memorials and monuments (one to those who died in the Estonia shipping disaster, for example) but the wr itten version is ent irely devoted to the paper's central subject: the televis ing of the funeral of a Swedish woman, Fadime Sahindal, killed by her father in a so-called honour killing. The funeral , and its presentation on television , was 'close to a State funeral'. lt was an 'officia l mediatised death ritual'. So the paper is about ritual theory. 'Enactment s and articulatory practices ... are not about different events, norms and ideologies, but actually bring about, make, or construct, events, norms and ideologies,' Reimers says. These values, therefore, are each time slightly different, somewhat new. But they are - in the case of memorials such as this - the values required to reassure,to say 'we will survive'. These events happen in significant places (this one was in the cathedral in Uppsala) . 'The place of the ritual performance is central ... such ritual spaces are places set apart ,they are out of the ordinary and also, in a way, outside of time.' (Victor Turner,Tom Driver and Judith Butler are significant among Reimers's citations here.) So it might easily be possible - perhaps too easy - to imagine art as the same, whether we are speaking of performance, video, photography or painting (the first three have been significant media for contemporary death art). And it happens, indeed, in places set apart and outside of time, such as galleries or museums. There is a lot of art about death because we are afraid of what is coming. And perhaps the art attempts to construct new norms. That is a step further than 'a questioning of reality'.
Reimers writes offear ofthe other, who threatens, for example, a nation's identity. But the threat does not have to come from outside, it can rise out of a nation's internal politics. One artist, Goia Mujalli, suggested to me that we can no longer plan our lives, and that this is a reason for an increase in death art. And Austrian band Bis eine heult may have hit on something with the ir 2013 song Tür Daneben (roughly, The People Next Door). The people next door are vile, order everyone eise around and are gaining power. 'Are you looking for the hero of the hour? The voice of the epoch? That'll be the people next door.' The refrain runs: 'Unfortunately we did nothing against them.' As the song goes on, you realise it is about Nazism . But by the end, you realise it is really about something eise: a current political situation.
I have deliberately avoided talking about artists or exhibitions, performances, societies, webs ites or even monuments. This is because: 1, whoever you name then seems very important; 2, it would be a long list; 3, I would probably miss someone important; 4, at issue are not only artists, but many phenomena; 5, this article is trying to attend to issues wider than that of who is making what; 6 - this is a longer point, as follows: doing my own bit of death studies, and especially the curating of 'Death and Dying', has been revealing. lt is unusual to hear a conversation like the one I heard between artist Assunta Abdel Azim Mohamed and a viewer. Viewer : 'What is your work about?' Mohamed: 'Death.' But one in three artists will say, 'I have made a work about death', and one in five, 'death is a major theme of my work'. These are rough estimates of my own, but ones 1 feel are accurate enough. We should not be thinking about a corner of the art world that does death . You have to slice death-in-art head to toe to analyse it properly, not just anatomise one part. Death is apart of many artists ' work, there are many ways of making work about death, many works have death as part of their content . These formal issues alone constitute an entire subject area . Someone is about to say, 'all art is about death'. That might be true , but it does not teil us why particular artworks have death as all or part oftheir subject-matter.
One of my favourite death artworks is Pierre Garnier 's book, Totentanz, of 1990. lt includes ,among its many drawings, the simplest possible drawing of a gravestone bearing the inscription 'ICH HATTE GRAU-GRÜNE AUGEN' -I had grey-green eyes. (ph143)