10 Contemporary Artworks That Confront Mortality


“Have you ever heard a death rattle before?” the neurotic Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter) asks Edward Norton’s character in David Fincher’s Fight Club. It’s a morbid, but amusing moment in the film that we thought of when looking at the work of Saskia Moore this week. Reality Sandwich featured the artist’s sound piece Dead Symphony, which we discuss past the break. It explores the sounds of near-death experiences. Artists have pondered mortality for centuries, and we’ve singled out ten contemporary artworks that confront the subject head-on.

We’ve read about people who have had near-death experiences who see a bright light or a tunnel, but apparently those folks sometimes hear music. Melbourne artist Saskia Moore explores this phenomenon in her sound project Dead Symphony by recreating those sounds. “It’s a digital, synthetic sound — that’s how a lot of people describe it. Very beautiful, often like a choral sound but with sustained notes. Some said it was melodic, almost like chimes but not like church bells and not religious. It has a cascading pattern, almost like a vibraphone dueling with itself in an endless pattern,” the artist explained.

Candy Chang’s Before I Die installation series started on the side of an abandoned house in her neighborhood in New Orleans. She painted a wall with chalkboard paint and stenciled the words “Before I die I want to….” The response was overwhelming and touching. There are now many Before I Die walls around the word (in 30 countries), which you can explore on the project website.

London’s Wellcome Collection hosted an exhibition that explored mortality called Death: A Self-Portait. The exhibition featured over 300 works assembled by former antique print dealer, Richard Harris. Art, objects, and other rare ephemera “devoted to the iconography of death and our complex and contradictory attitudes towards it” were displayed. The exhibition website is a great resource for those who missed the recent show and includes an interview with Harris. His morbid collection originated from an interest in anatomy.

Photo credit: Robb Quinn

Installation artist Beth Lipman believes glass (the primary material she works with) is the perfect conduit for an exploration of life and death. “Glass has a perpetuity, or immortality to it. Even though glass is fragile, it mimics the life cycle. It has a duality to it. It’s fragile and perishable, but also perpetual,” the artist explains. Her One and Others was commissioned by the Norton Museum of Art and featured a glass still life balanced on top of a casket, which was fitted to her own body. The objects included fruit, gazing balls, flowers, and other ephemera.

Photo credit: Emma Kisiel

Emma Kisiel’s At Rest series confronts our fears of death, particularly looking at the dead. She photographs road kill (never moving or posing the animals) surrounded by a makeshift grave. “By surrounding the subject with living and fake flowers and stone markers, I elevate the often ignored and overlooked dead animal to the level of a human being and impart the beautiful grace of their fallen bodies,” the artist states. “My photographs convey the sublime, the grotesque, and the lure of the macabre; we can hardly bear the visual of death, yet we cannot tear our eyes away.” Animals in various states of decay arouse a spectrum of emotions. Some images may be difficult to look at, but the series is worth your time.

Christian Boltanski’s colossal installation No Man’s Land transformed the Park Avenue Armory into a symbol of death, survival, and the human experience. The highlight of the work was a 40-foot mound of clothing, which represented the human body for Boltanski. “In the mountain, everyone is mixed,” he said of the piece. “There is no identity. Everybody is dead there.” An industrial crane, representing God (according to the artist), descended into the pile of garments, raised them above the mountain, and then released them.

Félix González-Torres’ carpet of shiny, wrapped candies invited viewers to eat the sweets, symbolizing their participation as a “patient” taking a blue placebo pill. However, a prescription can’t ward off the inevitable (death), as the work demonstrated when more people ate candy and the installation vanished before their eyes.

Photo credit: Jodie Carey

Image credit: Jodie Carey

London artist Jodie Carey’s In the Eyes of Others featured massive, low-hanging chandeliers composed of thousands of handcrafted plaster bones. The idea behind the work is that we tend to look at death as something that happens to others and not ourselves in order to cope. Chandeliers are meant to hang in the air, but Carey’s sink to the ground expressing our fate.

Marina Abramović really knows how to throw a funeral. The performance artist’s The Life and Death of Marina Abramović, fronted by avant-garde stage director Robert Wilson, combined performances and narration from actor Willem Dafoe, a soundscape from Antony Hegarty and William Basinski, and striking theatrical tableaux inspired by Abramović’s diaries. “The opening scene is a funeral scene with the dogs [several Doberman Pinschers] eating the bones of my body,” the artist told Nowness. “It is very macabre but incredibly poetic at the same time.”

Photo credit: Phil Fryer

In a darkened gallery, artist Marilyn Arsem inched two glasses of water along a wooden table, slowly and gently pushing them toward their demise. The seven-hour long performance piece was part of a Boston exhibit called Near Death. “[It] is a moment of absolute existence, where one receives life and death equally and finds themselves out of body and out of the standard structures of time,” curator Vela Phelan said of the work.