Birgit Jürgenssen

David Lillington

David Lillington

Death Ltd

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)