Kirsty and I stopped in on the Wellcome Collection’s exhibit on death a while ago, on our way to a comedy gig about sex. And I wish my whole life was as awesome as that one sentence kinda makes it sound.
Anyway, it was interesting. The ubiquity and variety of art which focuses on our mortality wasn’t really a surprise, but made me think consciously about just how much of everything we do is motivated by the fact that we’re all going to die.
There were a lot of skeletons. A skeleton makes sense as a symbol of death, I guess, because the bones are the most resilient part of the body to decay, so once rot sets in, that’s all that’s going to be left before too long. And pictures like this are used to say all sorts of things about death’s inherent connection with life, and how it’s entangled with our everyday existence despite our efforts to deny or forget about it.
I can see the value in reminding ourselves that life is fleeting and we’re all going to die – not least the simple fact that it’s true, and believing true things is preferable to any alternative. But I can’t shake the feeling that our efforts to “confront” or “face up” to the idea of death, particularly our own, often just obfuscate or ignore the reality.
Our skeletons, and the bones of which they’re constructed, are just as functional and essentially lifeless a part of us as our hair, teeth, skin, or lungs, after all. But in art, they rise up, they walk about, they dance. They’re lively. They do most of the things that the living do, without death seeming to act as any impediment. One of the pictures I saw at the exhibition was called frolicking skeletons. These emblems of death are still sufficiently full of vim to frolic.
It all seems to obscure and evade the point that death is the end. It’s nothingness, it’s an absence, the ceasing of something that was. I know evading this idea happens all the time with stories of an afterlife, but skeletons aren’t in the same genre as loved ones waiting for us in the next world. If death isn’t the end, but just a moving on to another place, that’s one thing – but all this art about death was ostensibly intended to force us to recognise that it is the end. And yet, how can we do that if decay and decomposition gets to seem so bouncy and fun?
(I’ve just reminded myself, incidentally, of the LucasArts game Grim Fandango, where you play a dead guy ushering other unfortunates into the Land of the Dead. It’s a sort of limbo most people pass through before being sent on their way to some sort of eternal reward, but all the dead people still have personalities and walk around and such, much like they did in life (though they’re all skeletons now, of course) – and, relevantly here, you can still die. Or at least, you can be “sprouted” – shot with some kind of dart gun, as I recall, which makes you lie down and stop moving while plants grow out of you. It ups the stakes and adds some tension to the storyline, sure, but it also re-emphasises that the “dead” characters are really still alive, in every sense aside from the label describing their mortal condition.)
It could be that I’m missing the point. Maybe it’s just a way to align the deathly nature represented by the skeleton with the living world, and I’m just looking at art wrong. As someone who’s never studied the humanities in any detail (and barely ever notices things like metaphor in films or art unless I’m well and truly bashed around the head with it), I’d hazard a guess that the physical energy of these lifeless beings represents the machinations of life itself which seek to drag us ever closer to the grave. It’s this which is imbued with energy, not truly the dead themselves.
And yet a lot of this kind of art seems insistent on imbuing the dead with vitality. I suspect creating a truly provocative display, which actually confronts the real blank, empty, ultimate, irreversible deletion of personhood that death really implies, isn’t easily done. But we really are all going to die, however oblivious or unable to conceive of such a thing we might be. All the more reason to be good to each other now, while we still can.
I should really play through Grim Fandango again. That game was awesome.