curated by Colette Copeland
March 31 – May 27, 2007
The inspiration for the exhibition came from reading Mary Roach’s darkly humorous best-selling book, Stiff—The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers and my own fascination with the macabre.
The project Death Bizarre features eighteen artists, whose work examines people, places, and objects associated with death from a conceptual and metaphorical perspective. The artists’ work utilizes death as a catalyst to demystify human experience and the fascination with human mortality. The artists employ different strategies in order to access the theme; some use the trope of beauty; some use dark humor. All engage their work with seriousness befitting the subject matter.Continue Reading…
Andrea Pickens, Adriane Little, Anita Allyn and Lauren Simonutti’s work emanates from personal tragedies. Andrea Pickens’ father was brutally murdered when she was a child. Following the murder, the artist frequently dreamed of flying. This reoccurring dream and devastating experience permeates her work. Snapshot Series features digitally altered family photographs, in which Pickens inserts herself ‘flying.’ Eerily hovering above the heads of oblivious, smiling family members, only her legs are visible. Ironically, the figure appears not to be flying or floating, but as if she had hung herself with a noose. The images represent the simultaneous act of fleeing and remaining rooted in personal history and memories.
Adriane Little’s digital photographs derive from her mother’s death when she was seven. Marking the barren landscape of upstate New York, Little’s digital ‘billboards’ serve as a site of both mourning and renewal. Using the syntax of advertising, the work references the death or absence of the maternal body.
In 1986, Anita Allyn’s best friend in art school was killed–the resulting investigation unable to determine whether it was accidental or intentional. For Allyn, the event activated an ongoing epistemological debate on the subjects of accidents, circumstance and predestination. The video Melancholy Object recreates the mise-en-scene of death, serving as homage to friendship.
A serious accident in the mid 1990’s left indelible scars, which Lauren Simonutti channels into her artistic practice. Her photographic installation and book entitled, Drowning, Not Waving presents case studies of suicide victims and the objects/artifacts left behind. In the absence of a note, these objects create a narrative, speaking for the deceased. Each composition contains a snapshot of the victim, the victim’s signature, a concise report of the mode of death and photographic documentation of the contents of the victim’s pockets, what was found clutched in their hands or arranged to be the last thing the deceased would see on this earth. The larger scale of the object image vs. the portrait image suggests that the objects carry more meaning or history than the snapshots. The series challenges established notions of truth and the construction of history.
Both John Mann’s and Brian Moss’ work also address issues of truth and absence in photography. Incorporating letters documenting deaths of his ancestors, John Mann’s platinum print series, Silent Elegy examines traces of lives lost to memory. Rather than giving information regarding the lives of the loved ones, the notes comprised only the names and dates and detailed causes of death. Mann’s recollections become inextricably linked with the manner of death. In the absence of photographs, Mann constructs and documents a cairn of branches/logs serving as a memorial to those lost souls.
In the series entitled, Absence, Brian Moss explores death on both a figurative and literal level. Scanning historically significant documentary war photographs and digitally removing the dead or dying bodies expunges the literal representation of death from the image. The work also alludes to the metaphoric death inherent in photography; death of a moment as frozen by the camera, death of the image as it is altered, death of the author and originality, further compounded by digital technology. Through the absence, the viewer contemplates the context and supposed neutrality or objectivity of documentary photography and its relationship to history.
Nadia Hironaka and Delmira Valladares use the cinematic language of horror and suspense films to explore urban myths of murder in their respective cities. Intrigued by rumors of murder in a house in her South Philadelphia neighborhood, Nadia Hironaka creates a fictionalized account of the murder, reversing the gender roles of the typical horror film genre. The title of the video, Scared To Death refers to the femme fatale character, which is often portrayed with a split personality—an object of both desire and horror.
Based on a trio of fantastic, but true stories occurring in Union City, NJ, Delmira Valladares employs minimal, straightforward story-telling devices to delve into the underground, urban Latino mythology of her city. Stories from the street involving murder, suicide, kidnapping and forcible hypnosis form the narrative of this three channel video work.
Sourcing images from visual culture including film, news and the media, artists Karina Skvirsky, Patrick Craig Manning, Robert Hirsch and Matt Weed examine the manifestations of violent imagery, its distribution and ultimately its consumption by the mass public. In Karina Skvirsky’s Blowback, appropriated b-roll news images of victims of war and natural disasters promenade through Central Park slowly materializing in the landscape. Caught in the crossfire of cameras, they transmogrify into symbolic zombies, wavering between life and death. The video considers the xenophobia that infuses the news and internalized by our culture. Coined by the CIA in the 1950’s the term “Blowback” describes the ‘unintended consequences of the US government’s international activities.”
Patrick Craig Manning’s Danse Macabre consists of 21 endlessly looping videos, composed from secondary characters extracted from major motion pictures. The figures re-enact the motions they made in the two seconds before their so-called deaths. Stuck in their ceaseless motion of purgatory, the deaths melt from our memories as soon as the next scene commences.
Using the process of recycling as way to re-examine history, Robert Hirsch’s World in a Jar: War & Trauma reflects upon visual cultural memories involving death, evil, tragedy, and trauma over the past 400 years. Through the course of selection, re-photographing, editing, and distilling, Hirsh presents the images in glass jars, specimens of our violent history. The large-scale installation in its form presented at CPW, consists of 96 stacked glass jars speaks to our obsession with violence and death.
The video, The Killing Fields by Matt Weed implicates the viewer as a consumer of violent images. Using video clips from International news and terrorist organizations found on the Internet, Weed manipulates the images, distilling them down to nearly abstract, sometimes beautiful images. His work questions how visual definitions of violence are constructed and how the media uses the divisive cues to elicit shock, pleasure and/or sympathy. As image consumers, do we play the role of perpetrator, victim or something else?
Corinne May Botz’, Lucinda Devlin’s, and Celia A. Shapiro’s work considers the process of criminal investigation and subsequent ‘justice’ in our legal system. In The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, Corinne May Botz photographs a collection of eighteen crime scene models that were built in the 1940’s and 50’s by a progressive criminologist Frances Glessner Lee (1878 – 1962). The crime scene models, which were based on actual homicides, suicides, and accidental deaths, were created to train detectives to assess visual evidence. Framing the haunting details of the murder scene dollhouses, Botz’ noir fiction images explore the dark side of domestic life.
Surveying the psychologically complex domain of interior spaces, Lucinda Devlin’s photographic series, The Omega Suites documents the execution chambers in the US. The large-format color portraits provide unique cultural readings on how spaces, objects and artifacts imbibe meaning. The work was not intended as a polemic against the death penalty, but as an examination of the institutions, accoutrements and rituals of death work.
Celia A. Shapiro’s photographs entitled, The Last Supper meditate on the violent paradox of justice and retribution. Recreating the requested last meals of executed prisoners, the work reflects on the symbol of the meal as life-giving and the subsequent execution as life-taking. The body politic is giving sustenance to the body condemned.
Employing the syntax of scientific observation, John Pinderhughes’, Nate Larson’s, and Talia Greene’s work investigates the relationship between the natural world, science and the human body. John Pinderhughes’ black and white photographic series Burnt Offerings, involves the saving of social detritus, the study of borrowed time, the stripping down of a physical object to bear its soul and the graphic interplay of light and line with emotional scrutiny. Outwardly, each image is a diary, a borrowed moment, a suspended fragment, a holding close of time and social involvement. Each object, stripped to its essence, invokes the chorus of human relationships.
Nate Larson’s photographs reveal what is unseen to the human eye. Invented in 1939 by Seymon Kirlian, Kirlian photography is a process that passes electricity through an object to produce an image on photographic film or paper, without the use of light. The photosensitized material records multicolored electrical emanations from the object, which some refer to as auras or biofields. Some experimenters believe that the photographs give physical form to psychic energy. Others believe that it reveals the etheric body, one of the layers of the aura thought to permeate all animate objects.
Examining the tenuous relationship between observation, preservation and the human desire to control nature, Talia Greene’s digital prints question the ways in which we interact with nature, our attempts to study and ultimately destroy it. In the series Observation/Preservation, the artist highlights vulnerability, and the implicit violence inherent in the urge to observe and control. The prints portray an unsettling juxtaposition of bugs before and after their dismemberment, asking the viewer to empathize with the insect, as well as with the urge to scrutinize it.
Together the works on view evoke a vivid glance into human existence and the symbiotic relationship between the corporeal body and its place in nature and culture.
– Colette Copeland
Colette Copeland is a multi-media artist who teaches visual studies, art writing and photography at University of Pennsylvania and critical theory at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. She received her BFA from Pratt Institute in New York and her MFA from Syracuse University. She is the recipient of a Leeway Foundation Award for Art & Change. Her photographic and video installations have been exhibited extensively both nationally and internationally. Copeland writes a column for the photography journal Fotophile Magazine and contributes to Exposure Journal and The Photo Review. In addition to her other activities, Copeland is the Chairperson of the Mid-Atlantic Region of the Society for Photographic Education. She lives in Media, PA with her husband and two children. She has been obsessed with the macabre and death since childhood.