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The meaning of death in postmodern vanitas imagery

Jung, Hun-Yee 1

1한성대학교

Accredited

ABSTRACT

This study deals with the images of death that are prevalent in postmodern art, it is not an iconographic study on death images though. The purpose of the study is to investigate and question the aesthetic meanings hidden behind the impossible task of representing death. Death has been one of the most important subject matter throughout the history of western Art. From the stick like figure of ‘the shaft of dead man’ in the cave art of Lascaux to the ‘memento mori’ images of the Middle Age, from the ‘vanitas’ images of 17th century Dutch paintings to the sweet candies presented by Felix Gonzales-Torres, all these images ask the meaning of death, and by doing that question the meaning of life. What I concern is the facts that art has been a beacon that marks the resistance to death, although it is doomed to be failed, so that it has been encircled in the repetitive performance of representing an original absence. It was Andy Warhol who re-presented the theme of death in the post modern art scene. Whether his attitude toward death is neutral and indifferent or cynical and critical was the main issue in interpreting his ‘death and disaster’ series. Yet, when it comes to the case of Damien Hirst, we witness the ‘return of the real’, the actual dead bodies that are sacrificed for an art exhibition. The audience are expected to actually observes the decaying process of corpse in the gallery space. What does it mean? What is the aesthetics behind this “return”?It seems to me that the ‘death’ Hirst conceives stays only in the level of its materialistic dimension. It does not step a inch forward from the shocking spectacle of the corpse that is returned to an inanimate object. That is how he conceives art and what he earns from his speculation on the relationship between his art and death, yet this model of objective,bodily death can not suggest any meaning of death except “nothing”. Death can presents us the possibilities of something more than the shocking phobia of its marks of decaying process. A representation of death always accompanies responsibility within culture. As Felix Gonzales-Torres made his point on this subject, we should ask a question with responsibility; what is the relation of our art to the death of others? In this question, death is not a mere limit but a way that can affect us by the way that others have died before us, and by the way that we ourselves shall die. This is the political aesthetics of death that our art of today should reconsider.

Citation status

* References for papers published after 2022 are currently being built.