Art and Mortality, a Symposium at the Centre for Art History and Art Theory at ANU.
My research/novel Fellowship with the Australian Prime Ministers Centre at Old Parliament House is all about art, death, secrets, truth, discovery and power, so this symposium was a must-see for me.
It was fascinating. Some quick notes (mostly written in the dark due to slide shows!)
The symposium was opened by Professor Paul Pickering, who told us all about Jeremy Bentham. At the mention of the name, the audience responded, so I guess they’d heard of him. I hadn’t. Had you? He believed in the concept of the Auto Icon, meaning he thought that great people (men, let’s face it) should be preserved at death. Turned into statues. He willed this to happen to his body and it still sits (head at one time between the feet, apparently) in University College London. He suceeded in his quest; he is remembered.
Rebecca Scott Bray is a crimonologist. She spoke about ‘artists who work in the aftermath of fatal violence’. This was absolutely fascinating and I’m listing some of the artists mentioned. All of them sparked ideas and thoughts.
In Muri di piombo (Walls of Lead) Eva Frapicinni took a series of photos at the same time of day and same time of year at the site of murders.
Stephen Chalmers took on exhaustive research to identify the ‘dump sites’ of murder victims. He took photos of the sites and these are universally serene, with no evidence left of what occured.
Angela Strassheim photographs houses were people were killed. Sometimes inside, sometimes out. These again mostly have a serenity about them, but she titles them with the weapons used, bringing the violence to us quite shockingly.
Teresa Margolles creates visceral works that Rebecca Scott Bray describes as ‘stinking’. These pieces actually reek of the violence, because they ARE the violence. In one, the blankets that executed men were wrapped in. In another, the water bodies were washed in is dripped onto a hotplate.
The next speaker, Joanna Gilmour, had some interesting things to say about the National Portrait Gallery. Did you know that they mostly only show portraits painted while the subject was alive? Very few posthumous portraits. Burke and Wills are notable exceptions. Of course now I want to see an exhibition that is ALL posthumous portraits.
I was a bit vocal when Joanna showed us a photo of the death of Joe Byrne, one of Ned Kelly’s gang. There was Julian Ashton, one of the people I’m researching for my project, in the foreground! I gave a little yip of excitement, and this was interesting; others in the audience made noises, too. I don’t think they knew why. They were following my lead. Fascinating.
Patrick Pound collects photos and things and displays them in the most curatorial way. Just gorgeous stuff. He has a collection of photographer’s shadows. A collection of people holding things up to show them. A collection of things with holes in them, photographed. A collection of ‘people who look dead but probably aren’t.”
The symposium ended with a paper from Geoffrey Batchen, speaking about photography and faith but really about the nature of time and how it is captured in photographs. Photography captures the absolute present at the moment the photo is taken, but also the past. What’s gone. This gives photos a certain melancholy, because what’s gone is gone and cannot be recaptured. He talked a lot about Roland Barthe’s “Camera Lucida”. I’m going to track down a copy of that.
Lots of inspiration there. My wells are truly refreshed.