Photography and Death
Death is a natural part of our life cycle. Not only humans are affected by this phenomenon, the whole universe is comparable to a vast organism. Let’s take for example, our sun: at its core, the sun is made up of hydrogen and helium, the Lego building blocks of nature. It currently fuses about 600 million tons of hydrogen into helium every second, converting 4 million tons of matter into energy every second as a result. Paradoxically, the sun becomes hotter and brighter with age. Our star is now about 30% brighter than when it was born. In the future the sun will continue to grow and be divided in two parts: the tiny, white-hot core that sits deep in a cool shell and the so-called red giant – inflated to monstrous size the heat rising from the core. The phase of the sun being a red giant will only last a relatively short time. After about five billion years, when all its hydrogen reserves are gone, the sun will settle down as a white dwarf.
Photography may not be the first means used to vanquish, endure and protest against death. Yet since its invention in 1839, photography, its visual strategies, and its technologies have grappled with death like no other medium. For example Thomas Demand is known for making photographs of three-dimensional models that look like real images of rooms and other spaces, often sites loaded with social and political meanings. He is a conceptual artist for whom photography is an intrinsic part of his creative process. Demands contribution for the exhibition reminded me of a situation before death, like the last dinner in a hospice. Thanks to his conceptual approach even the setting looked unreal and dead, which made the images even emotional stronger.
Living and dying, loving and letting go—images, films, books and music about death tap into our deepest fears about the finiteness of existence and our own mortality. Much of this links to photography’s unique traits: photographs are seen as cutting across both space and time to capture a moment, and are also considered direct records of reality. Some photographers’ works depict dramatic moments of killing, dying, and death with such intensity and complexity that the dead seem almost still to live. Other photographers working in a medical or forensic context produce detached and emotionless documents in which the dead body appears to be little more than an object. In their work, photographers create allegories of Death in which Death itself is not to be seen or, on the contrary, is almost unbearably present. Some of these images are so intense that we feel we are looking our own mortality in the eye.
A more poetic approach took Erik Kessels, the Dutch art director photography curator. It was quite a shock for him to discover that his dad had suffered a stroke. Indeed, Kessels Sr had spent much of his later years restoring classic Fiat 500 Topolino cars. He had completed four such restorations, and had a fifth vehicle in progress, when his health took a turn for the worse. And it was this final, incomplete restoration that formed the basis of Erik Kessels’ exhibit.
While the photographic merits of the show might not be immediately apparent, Kessels Jr did display both the unfinished Fiat alongside photographs of car parts and images that were taken by his father, to express the lack of closure one often finds when a close relative’s health declines. “For me, this work is about a man who — like his vehicle — will never be complete, but will remain unfinished,” Kessels explains. “While films and stories teach us that endings are neat and often happy, the truth is that everything ends abruptly, more or less half-done. No matter how carefully we plan and how precisely we execute those plans, there is no guarantee that they will reach our hopes for conclusion.”
On Earth, death strikes with the regularity of a metronome. Comet impacts are obviously to blame. The Oort cloud experiences a shock at regular intervals, so that a whole swarm of comets opens in the direction of the sun.
C/O Berlin presents the exhibition The Last Image. Photography and Death from December 08, 2018 to March 09, 2019 at C/O Berlin.
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