Playing with Death: The Morbid Obsessions of Contemporary Polish Artists
The Black Angel, the Grim Reaper, Lord of the Cemetery… It goes by many names and has been represented in many ways. In the past, it was a source of terror and fascination, from the Dance of Death to the Art of Dying. Nowadays, it is being driven out or – worse still – is the subject of ‘necroposing’. So what do contemporary Polish artists have to say about death? We present the works of eleven artists contemplating the theme of transience.
Death in virtual reality
In the traditional danse macabre, a carnival parade representing every layer of society is drawn into the dance by the skeleton. The contemporary dance of death is the Grim Reaper smoking a cigarette (the harm has already been done) or riding a black steed through city streets and cemeteries, like a horseman of the Apocalypse. Anna Orlikowska brings mediaeval allegory into the 21st century, or rather a computer game. There is no death in virtual reality – players usually have several lives and even if they do die, they can always restart the game. Terminal Game bucks that trend, reminding us that transience can also be present in imaginary world
In her video, this multimedia artist uses a theme familiar from the series of 16th-century woodcuts by Hans Holbein. His Death character is an ambiguous figure who wears a variety of masks: he can be a jester or an intellectual; he can be dramatic, yet full of vigour; he pretends to be a friend, then turns into an enemy. Both representations are connected by the inevitability of our transience and our equality in the face of death.
Magda Hueckel’s grim photographs emphasise fear of transience in a somewhat surreal manner. The effect of images of a young woman’s body superimposed onto decomposing plants or fruit was achieved using multiple exposures. The artist’s healthy body is ravaged by disease, maimed, or subjected to an ageing process. In Kwartalnik Fotografia (35/2011), Bogdan Konopka writes:
Her works bring to mind the illustrations of mysterious diseases from some retired dermatologist’s journal.
When the enemy comes from the outside, it is hard for us to accept it as natural. Photography metaphorically pauses the body’s decomposition process, providing the necessary distance to overcome or at least mitigate our existential fear.
Death and the Hen, set to classical music
Is it possible to give one’s life for art? This question haunted Justyna Górowska as she implemented a project to document a hen’s posthumous convulsions. In 2008, she filmed a video in which she edited one shot to make the hen rock in time to classical music. Górowska then created an object representing the skeleton of a hen (a different one, but from the same uncle who gave her the first) with its head replaced by a disproportionately large feather. The artist, who turned vegetarian after working on the skeleton for two weeks, explains:
It was due to be killed soon, but since I wished to create an object, I accelerated the process. Back then, I still ate meat and seriously wondered, since it is possible to give one’s life for food, whether the same was true for art. Could something disgusting and plain ugly be aestheticised?
This piece not only concerns death as a phenomenon, it also ignites a debate on the very definition of art, but the answers to that question remain ambiguous.
An existentialist documentary
Zbigniew Libera was active with Kultura Zrzuty (Pitch-In Culture) in Łódż, and drew inspiration from their so-called private and embarrassing art. These ideas were incorporated into Obrzędy Intymne (Intimate Rites), a record of the 24-year-old artist looking after his dying grandmother. Her illness required round-the-clock care – she needed to be fed, changed, and washed. As depicted in the film, death is somehow shameful, painful, and hidden away. Via the mediation of the camera, Libera allows the audience to enter this intimate world as voyeurs.
The overlapping sacred and profane, shockingly inappropriate images and scandalous language are merely manifestations of Bakhtin’s carnivalesque, giving rise to a ‘world upside-down’. The fact that Obrzędy Intymne is in a gallery may be seen as a product of that culture, since something repulsive has been ennobled. Moreover, carnival time focuses on the body and its requirements. This is the mediaeval Ars moriendi transplanted into modern times with a different, more human face.
Woman – dynamite – self-destruction – (re)construction… This is a concise summary of the performance presented by Aneta Grzeszykowska in her short film Ból Głowy (Headache), a contemporary existential choreography. Firstly, we see a naked woman with a dynamite fuse in her mouth. An explosion ensues, and her body self-destructs, but not completely – its fragments strive to recombine in a harmonious whole. Order turns out to be impossible: the arms, legs, torso and head rebel and begin to live a life of their own. The music of Krzysztof Penderecki provides a soundtrack to this pantomime. The final act of creation is terrifying, and the result is more of a monster than a human.
Grzeszykowska treats her body as an object for experimentation, and is not afraid to cross the threshold of good taste. In an interview for Magenta magazine, she said:
(…) I tend to work a lot with identity, and actually believe there is no such thing. Humans are more of a process; their past is a collection of used, useless incarnations. I think the real need to retain identity only arises when we die.
Pleasure tinged with death
‘Mais où sont les neiges d’antan?’ (Where are the snows of yesteryear?), asked Francis Villon in La Ballade des Dames du Temps Jadis (Ballad of the Ladies of Yore). Andrzej Wasilewski’s series of beautiful images, mostly containing scantily clad pin-up poster girls (in 1940s’ and 1950s’ style), promises a return to the olden days. The enjoyment is marred, however, by bad taste and revulsion at the decaying fruit in the background. Lacanian psychoanalysis helps explain this dualism of delight: carnal love and the satisfaction of desire are inextricably linked to the death drive, which would seem to be the most attractive aspect. The creator of Pin-Up Fruits is rebelling against pop culture, particularly advertising, by making things we would rather forget seem alluring. Who wouldn’t be tempted by such images of decadence?
‘We do not live to experience death’ (Wittgenstein)
Traditionally, the photographic medium does not serve to show transience, but acts as a record, a trace of death itself, as described by Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag. Honorata Martin’s photographs incorporate this concept of depicting the moment of death. Initially, a body submerged in an icy river is racked with pain, thrashes about, then soon stops feeling the cold as indifference and solace set in. The water cleanses, silences, and brings sleep. That fraction of a second is what interests the artist the most.
In his work, Martin uses video or, in this case, photo cameras to visualise the indescribable: ‘the fear, doubts, desire for faith, fear of being an unbeliever, indifference to faith, aversion to faith, desire to live, desire not to live, sense of life’s worth, sense of life’s irrelevance, struggle, fear, loathing, pain, and peace’.
Collecting the remains
Przemysław Branas has treated transience more metaphorically than the other artists. He does not show the end of someone’s life or a decomposing body; he does not interpret death; he somehow collects it. To do so, the artist visited a cemetery for several months to forage for partially burnt candles in the bins. His home became a real necropolis: in his kitchen, he melted the wax from leftover candle inserts, pouring it into a large wooden coffin-shaped mould kept in his room, and documenting each stage of the process photographically.
Branas’ installation is entitled Hiena (Hyena), which instantly conjures up grave-robbers (‘graveyard hyenas’ in Polish) and the profaning of burial grounds. Yet the artist is in no way destructive – on the contrary, he is symbolically commemorating the dead.
The devil is not so black as he is painted
In art and literature, the conventional image of Satan is usually apocalyptic. Laura Pawela’s figure – or, rather, creature – is actually unintimidating and even raises a smile. She has approached death in a technical, down-to-earth way, with a sculpture made of wooden chair parts. The artist avoids pompous discourse on dying, and highlights the visual charm of the theme.
Her project is accompanied by bitter thoughts on modernity:
Death is a rewarding theme (…). At the very sound of the word, everyone is terrified and lowers their eyes in sorrow … then they dash off to share their nostalgia on Facebook, in the form of the increasingly popular necroposing. Despite their apparent respect and deep reflection, people still slow down to gape at a fresh corpse, and willingly break Internet viewing records if someone films their own suicide.
Zuzanna Janin began her work on the passage of time with a series of photographs, 7 Śmierci: Corpus Delicti (7 Deaths: Corpus Delicti), depicting her body as if she had been found dead. Not content with such an image of death, the artist then filmed her own funeral. It was shot in a public place, and she went even further by involving the media: obituaries giving the date of her funeral at a Warsaw cemetery were published in the press. Her performance aimed to shatter social taboos. Janin writes:
What really interested me was my manipulation, to show how death is being driven out of culture. I imply death not as the panoply of things that accompany it, memorabilia and funereal objects, but “me and death”, being in the midst of it, i.e. the unthinkable image of your dead body, and experiencing the impossible ceremony of your social absence, including your funeral.
The artist has begun a dialogue with the media, who shock us with human tragedy. Her experiment has had major repercussions in artistic circles, and she is continuing the project using recorded interviews with critics, press clippings and online comments.
From dust thou art…
To round off these contemporary treatises on (the art of) dying – the eleventh commandment according to Paweł Susid. The painter was motivated to address the theme of death due to his experience of dealing with the loss of a loved one at an early age. This provocative addendum to the archaic and somewhat ignored (the artist feels) list of moral dictates is wide open to interpretation. Above all, this ironic warning is intended to help us accept the irreversibility of human fate.
Produced in 1996, the image was posted on… billboards in several major cities. The reactions to this format of presenting art (and death itself) were mixed: inspiring admiration in some, plunging others into thought, while still others believed it was the start of an advertising campaign. The artist recalls:
I remember one woman’s reply best of all. Several years later, she came up to me with her teenage daughter at an exhibition opening and, thanking me profusely, told me how seeing that image had been the deciding factor in her choice to get divorced and start a new life.
And thus the end became the beginning.
Originally written in Polish; based on the catalogue for the exhibition Ars Moriendi / Sztuka Umierania and her own materials, April 2015, translated by MB, Jan 2018