Making art out of dead things

Last night, I was listening to one of the Alan Cross “Ongoing History of New Music” shows on my iPod whilst drawing in my studio. The topic of discussion was the seminal rock band Radiohead. One of the arcane facts that Cross unearthed in this program was that the video for the Radiohead song “There There” was greatly inspired by the dioramas of a nineteenth-century taxidermist named Walter Potter. One of the anthropomorphic dioramas for which Potter is best remembered is Kittens’ Tea & Croquet Party, in which thirty-seven kittens enjoy tea and mouse tarts at a garden party. That’s thirty-seven dead and stuffed kittens. Having tea.

So, this has me thinking about making art out of dead things which, as it happens, is a well-established and time-honoured tradition. One of the best known examples of this is the church of Santa Maria della Concezione in Rome, in which the bones of thousands of Capucin monks were used to decorate the vaulted walls of this Baroque church. Richard and I made a special pilgrimage to this site when we visited Rome, and it remains one of the highlights of our trip. The impression that I came away with was just how baroque the skeletal ornamentation appeared which, when you consider that almost all art forms are based on shapes found in nature, really should come as little surprise.

Jennifer Angus, detail from the installation "A Terrible Beauty", 2007.

Contemporary examples of “dead things in art” abound as this macabre media appears to have undergone something of a renaissance. Most notable in this category are the bisected and formaldehyde-preserved animals of British artist Damien Hirst. The plastinatized human bodies of German artist Gunther von Hagens received a great deal of media attention a couple of years ago. My personal favourite in this most rarefied of art forms, however, are the exotic bugs of American artist Jennifer Angus’s exhibition A Terrible Beauty. Not surprisingly, Angus draws heavily on the art of the Victorians and their taste for the “exotic yet grotesque”. Her work is nothing short of brilliant.

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One thought on “Making art out of dead things

  1. Pingback: Making art out of dead things, part II: The dioramas of Frederick Ruysch « Lady Lazarus: dying is an art

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