Death: Be Not Proud

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I suppose it was bound to come to this. The German artist Gregor Schneider is looking for someone terminally ill who would be willing to die in public, in something like a gallery setting. The next sound you hear will be critics and columnists, including me, chewing over the ethical implications, reminding you of art’s long fascination with death, and wondering whether it’s different when you move from the imagery of death to presenting the thing itself as a kind of living theater. Throw in a mention of Kafka’s “The Hunger Artist”, about a performer who starves himself to death before an indifferent public, and you have a well rounded little essay.

This is another way of saying I don’t have an answer to the question of whether Schneider’s project, should it happen, is an outrage or a public service. I don’t think it’s worth belaboring the question “Is it art?” The development of performance and conceptual art long ago laid that question to rest, if you will. Any activity undertaken in a gallery setting becomes art.

That leaves the more important question — is it a good thing? And here will be my helpful addition to that conversation. The single most powerful work I saw at the Venice Biennale last summer was a video that the French artist Sophie Calle made of her mother’s very peaceful death at home in bed. At some point during the 13-minute video her mother simply stops breathing, though it happens so gently you can’t tell just when that moment is. A wall card explained that Calle’s mother had consented to the taping.

I visited that piece twice, and on both visits people in the gallery were wiping their eyes. I was one of them. Who were we crying for, Calle’s mother, whom probably none of us knew personally, or ourselves? And did our tears validate our voyeurism — meaning, did our sympathetic response acquit us of the charge of ghoulish curiousity? Even better — could ghoulish curiousity have its morally beneficial side, by leading us to watch a video that impressed on us the power and mystery of death?

Then again, is that what the video did? Did it matter that most of us probably moved on from that gallery to whatever art we were going to look at next? This is what I did both times. What that might mean is that however tender our response to what we had seen, we still somehow weren’t according it the respect — would that be the word? — it deserved. Among the many spectacles of the Biennale, it had become one more.

Would it have mattered in that case if, after seeing it, I had left the grounds of the Biennale and, say, sat outside staring at the water for an hour, as you might do after witnessing a death that occurred in your own presence? By watching that video, had I helped myself come to terms with death, or just confined it to the realm of manageable spectacles?

To put it another way, is awe the only appropriate response to death, and is that a response you can ever hope to summon in the face of death offered as a performance?

As mentioned, I’m not in answering mode today. Just putting those questions out there.

And tomorrow I’ll try to write about something more uplifting.

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