The deathly silence in the Art Mûr gallery is broken only by the intermittent mechanical whirring of one of its installations, Brandon Vickerd’s “Champions of Entropy” – a pair of antlers locked in a perpetual struggle, the non-existence of the rest of their bodies both surreal and nightmareish. Art Mûr’s exhibition this month, Bone Again, is very much reminiscent of a bad dream – a celebration of the imagery that haunts our subterranean consciousness.
Surrounded with images of bones and skulls, one can’t help but feel alone as the only living avatar amidst this morbid dreamscape. Yet the repulsion one might expect to harbour towards these emblems of death is curiously absent. Instead, the pieces exert a fascinating pull: a certain solemnity and dark charisma in the staring eye sockets and the elegant lines of bone, seen in Bevan Ramsey’s “Bone China” series and Karine Turcot’s dreamlike “La vie en rose.”
The exhibition itself is an exploration of the way contemporary artistic thought tackles the theme of memento mori – a Latin phrase that translates roughly to “remember that you will die.” The exhibit program states that the phrase dates as far back as Ancient Rome, where it was whispered in the ear of a triumphant general to remind him of his mortality. Art with this cautionary theme, ranging in terms of visual aesthetic from openly confrontational to quietly philosophizing, became popular in medieval and Renaissance art. It’s appeal was influenced largely by the moralizing Christian prescripts of living virtuously, and the miasmatic spectre of the Black Death that hung over Europe.
In a long-running tradition of memento mori artwork, Bone Again surveys the concept of death in art under the purview of contemporary society. “All of the artists who did the work are still alive, and the pieces were made in the last ten years,” says Rhéal Olivier Lanthier, one of the two founders of the gallery.
A few themes thread through the collection, most notably a comment on the vanity of indulgence in the face of inevitable death. Christoph Steinmeyer’s “Disco Inferno” hangs in the front window display looking onto the street – a pair of fake skulls tackily studded with mirrored tiles evocative of disco balls. This gaudy appropriation of death surfaces again in Damien Hirst’s “For the Love of God, Laugh,” a silkscreen print of his famous diamond-encrusted skull – which Hirst claimed he sold for £ 50 million – and Laura Kikauka’s cheeky parody-homage made of dollar-store plastic skulls and rhinestones, “For the Love of Gaud.”
“Images of skulls were used by people like the Hell’s Angels,” said Lanthier. “They represented something fearful and scary. The image of the skull used to be thought of as disgusting, but now you see it on dresses, t-shirts, videogames. It’s like a fashion object now.”
These artworks embody this contemporary nonchalance towards depicting death and the grotesque. The traditional imagery of death has become, for us, contrived and abstracted due to death’s tangible absence from our ordinary lives. Advancements in medicine, technology, and our sanitized cultural infrastructure have ensured that unpalatable reminders of death – such as the bodies of the dying and the dead – are absent in the day-to-day. The disappearance of religion as a governing authority in the Western world has also contributed to our disappearing concern with the afterlife.
“In this day and age the threat of eternal damnation informs the daily lives, and acts of precious few Westerners. Furthermore, in Quebec, the number of believers has plummeted so that its inhabitants particularly give little credence to this threat,” writes Ève De Garie-Lamanque in the exhibit catalogue.
Though the collection deals with the theme of vanitas which was traditionally the domain of Christian art, religious imagery is scarce in Bone Again. The only explicit reference is in Al Farrow’s “Humerus of Santo Guerro,” a sculpture of bullets and bone crowned with the figure of Christ on the cross – a criticism of religion’s history of war.
The historical gravity and solemnity which death once demanded has given way to a wry, ironic, and increasingly detached treatment of it in today’s society and art. As religion and the fear of mortality gradually disappear from the modern consciousness, the way that we view bodies and their skeletal remains – both animal and human – seems to have changed. Exhibits like Bone Again illustrate this growing disconnect between our conceptions of our bodies as alive and dead, and the aesthetic journey of our remains, from the earth to the gallery.
“Bone Again” runs until April 23 at Art Mûr, 5826 St. Hubert. For more information see artmur.com