pertwee anderson and gold


The stated aim of this exhibition is supposedly to bring ‘together both historical and contemporary artworks which ask the viewer to contemplate their own mortality’, which essentially is the whole point of a memento mori. I can’t say however that I got anywhere near to contemplating my own inevitable terminability during the exhibition.

Apart from two or three fairly thoughtful works, the show seems to be more of an exercise in how many different things one can do with a human skull, to which the blame lies largely on the part of the artist. Most have taken this regretfully uninspired and overwhelmingly over-clichéd route. The image of a human skull, often doctored or adorned in some way, is nowadays such a widely reproduced one that it has become completely meaningless and devoid of metaphor. To this extent I am reminded not of death or mortality by some of these works but of tired and uncreative popular culture.

Tom Gallant has drilled some holes in a skull, turned it upside down and set it in a wooden mount of GCSE Design Tech quality, Bj Cunningham’s effort is crass to the extreme and Mat Chivers’ is baffling in its futility. Suffice to say none of them get close to exploring the true nature of mortality, and therefore fall at the first hurdle in the memento mori qualification stakes.

I went to the George Bellows at the RA on the same day last week and saw something that truly made me contemplate death. A doomed man sits blindfolded in an electric chair, surrounded by the usual people at an execution: the chaplain, witnesses, family, executioner and so on. Unlike the empty metaphors of before, here the viewer is hit by the stark and ugly realisation that this most certainly is the end. Why does a memento mori always have to be a skull? Obviously not everyone plans on being executed, but I feel that Bellows here reminds us of what death really is - an ending. There is no hint of any afterlife, nothing to represent decomposition and the forming of new life; there is just blank and irrevocable finality.

Tom Gallant, The Extraction of the Stone of Madness (detail), 2013

Bj Cunningham, Too Bad You’re Gonna Die, 2013

Mat Chivers, Limbo, 2013

Chapman Brothers, Migraine, 2013

Jim Skull, Soir de Paris, 2009

Dr. Viktor Schroder, Memento Mori with Azure Magpie, 2013

George Bellows, BELLOWS: EXECUTION, 1925. ‘An American Tragedy’, 1925