LIFE & DEATH IN ART

The various stages of life as a rhythm and cycle became apparent  through visiting a number of galleries in Liverpool city centre and I have chosen five pieces of art which inspired this topic. Firstly, Keith Edmier’s life-size sculpture of his own pregnant mother, ‘Beverly Edmier’ (1967) and another sculptural piece by Ron Mueck entitled ‘Ghost’ (1998). Both of these pieces were on display in the ‘DLA Piper Series: This Is Sculpture’ exhibition at Tate Liverpool. Another piece that is on display at the Tate gallery is ‘Condition of Women’ (1960) by Arman Fernandez, which represents the middles age of a woman. I will also refer back to the work of Ron Mueck and his piece called ‘Two Women’ (2005) which portrays the ravages of old age. Finally, I will use Adrian Henri’s piece, ‘Day of the Dead, Hope Street’ (1997) to explore ideas about death which was on display at the Bluecoat Gallery.

(Image 1)

From first glances, the soft pastel pink of Keith Edmier’s sculpture, ‘Beverly Edmier’ connotes femininity and fertility, portraying both the pregnancy and birth stages of life. However, it holds subliminal characteristics that represent death and grief. The piece pays homage to the assassination of John F Kennedy in 1963 in Dallas by Lee Harvey Oswald, who was also murdered before he could be put to trial for his crime. The suit that the figure adorns in this piece is an identical copy of the Chanel suit that Jacqueline Kennedy wore on the day her husband was brutally murdered, with the American President’s coat of arms engraved into the buttons. In addition, the unborn baby that rests in her lap is a representation of the roses that Jacqueline Kennedy cradled on the tragic day.

The once innocent image of blooming pregnancy is tainted by Edmier’s choice of medium, colour and overall composition, making this sculpture an extremely ambiguous piece. The piece is displayed on a white plinth against a stark white background creating a clinical atmosphere which is further enhanced by the blood red of the foetus and the visceral quality of the mother’s stomach, holding connotations of death. Similarly, Edmier’s use of pastel pinks suggest tenderness and love but the dental resin that the sculpture is constructed with is actually extremely solid and the tweed of the suit would be rough against her pregnant stomach. To add to the ambiguity of the piece is the position of the mother who has her head bowed down over her swelling stomach. This could originally be understood as a gesture of affection and wanting to be close to her unborn child however; she is wearing gloves, which creates a physical barrier between her and the baby. This compositional arrangement is reminiscent of a pietà in which the mother and child are structured to create a triangular shape, with the mother’s head at the point and her child positioned lower down to create a wider base. This technique is most commonly used in Christian art, as it is symbolic of the Virgin Mary grieving over the dead body of her son, again adding the connotations of death within the piece.

Keith Edmier strongly believed that your own personal identity and childhood memories are greatly affected by certain celebrity figures and events that happen during your mother’s pregnancy. In ‘Beverly Edmier’ he juxtaposes the tragic death of John F Kennedy with his birth and uses his own mother to represent Jacqueline Kennedy, which means that he will be a symbol of loss to his mother throughout his childhood rather than a blessing, due to the events that happened during her pregnancy. This is definitely apparent within the piece as the mother’s body language suggests she is looking down upon her unborn child as a painful reminder of bad memories, void of any affection or joy.

(Image 2)

Body language is also a key element in Ron Mueck’s piece, ‘Ghost’ which displays a seven-foot pubescent girl leaning against the gallery wall. Lifecycle is a common theme throughout Mueck’s work as his sculptures “range from puckish portrayals of childhood and innocence to acute observations of the stages of life; from birth to adolescence, middle and old age, and even death”. This contemporary sculpture is the perfect portrayal of the stage in a young girl’s life when she hits puberty and begins the emotional transition between childhood and womanhood and has been described as “the perfect metaphor for her poignant discomfort with her own body”. Mueck refuses to produce figurative pieces that are lifesize and instead uses scale to manipulate the viewer into understanding the characters situation and feeling the emotions he aims to portray when composing a piece. This particular sculpture has monumental dimensions of 202 x 65 x 99 centimetres, which could be representative of the scale of emotional torment this girl is being put through by the problems that come hand in hand with puberty. Alternatively, the girl is portrayed on an adult scale, which could be a demonstration of how she is having trouble seeing herself as a grown woman and a physical manifestation of the mental anxieties she is going through.

Mueck has meticulously drilled minute holes over the arms, armpits and legs then glued in synthetic hairs to represent the unwanted body hair that every teenager has to deal contend with. The hairs on the head are individually punched into the silicone and each is styled according to Mueck’s intentions. The unkempt hair in this piece clearly belongs to somebody who is oblivious to personal style in comparison to the fashionable sixties haircut of ‘Beverly Edmier’ (Image 1). Similarly, the unflattering swimming costume that Mueck has chosen to dress the figure in only highlights the jutting hip bones, flat chest and overtly long limbs of a young girl who is yet to grow into her own body and develop a feminine figure.

The awkward posture of the girl illustrates her anxiety and her uneasy demeanour makes the viewer feel uncomfortable when observing her, as she is clearly extremely self-conscious and unhappy about being analysed. This is further demonstrated by the way Mueck has positioned the eyes in such a way that they will never meet the gaze of onlookers and made the cheeks a rosy shade of embarrassment. The lowering of her head, clasping her hands behind her back and hunching her shoulders over are all self-effacing ways of making herself appear smaller which is a compositional technique used my Mueck to make the viewer feel as anguished when looking at her, as she feels in her own body. This causes the viewer to sympathise with the girl and feel warmth towards her even though we are being dwarfed by her intimidating size.

(Image 3)

This piece called ‘Condition of Women’ by Arman (Armand Fernandez) is a sculptural representation of the stage in a woman’s life that the character in Mueck’s sculpture (Image 2) is having trouble coming to terms with; womanhood. This piece belongs to an Art Movement called Nouveau Realisme that was founded in the 1960’s by Art Critic, Pierre Restany and derives from an urban consumer society. Nouveau Realisme, the French for New Realism, was considered the ‘European counterpart to Pop Art’ and is described as “the fascinating adventure of real seeing” as it introduced the use of assemblage of real objects that are broken into fragments and then reassembled to create artworks.

Arman was instrumental in this movement with his compilations of debris and this sculptural piece on display at Tate Liverpool is one of his first Nouveau Realist pieces that was originally planned to be part one of two pieces entitled ‘Condition of Women’. The artist collected discarded objects from his first wife’s bathroom in order to create “an indiscreet view of a woman’s private environment” as he was interested in the idea bringing private life under the public eye to question its value. Arman collected items such as a broken mirror, empty nail varnish bottles, toothpaste tubes, tissue, plastic, foil, tampons, Tampax packets, Durex wrappers, loose condoms, migraine tablets, stocking and miscellaneous bottles and containers that belonged to his wife. The piece primarily appears to be a random selection of objects spontaneously tipped into a glass box in a very haphazard manner, resembling the contents of a bin. However, Arman has chosen these objects carefully to represent, literally, the condition of a woman and has deliberately displayed the logos of Durex and Tampax, as both of these are brand names associated with a middle-aged woman. The seemingly chaotic composition of the objects could be a demonstration of a woman’s state of mind during this stage of her life when she is married and fending for herself after leaving the naïve worries of adolescence behind.

The piece is considered an image of women constructed by society but women began to gain more independence in the 1960’s and were not as accepting of prejudice and stereotyping which could explain why Arman’s piece was deemed ‘unsalable’. Arman’s wife was offended by his sculpture and proclaimed, “I am for the ascending metaphor and you obviously, the descending metaphor”, meaning she felt that he was mocking and stereotyping her private life. The title of this piece could also be taken as offensive as it implies that the condition of a woman can be reduced to discarded objects in a box that represent vanity, sexuality and bodily function. The objects are placed in a clear glass display box and are a stark contrast to the majestic plinth, acquired from Arman’s father’s antique shop, which they are mounted upon. This literally elevates the debris making it an artwork to be admired, which is parallel to the attitude men had towards their wives and women in general during the time this piece was composed, treating them as trophies to admire.

(Image 4)

This sculpture, also by Ron Mueck, is called ‘Two Women’ and it is a portrayal of the stage in a woman’s life when they are no longer objects of desire but a haggard, shrunken version of their middle-aged selves. Females are notoriously the more self-conscious sex and are constantly trying to enhance their physical appearance, which stems from the stereotypical attitudes of men through previous decades that is reflected in Arman’s piece (Image 3). Mueck is fully aware of this harsh anxiety that a vast majority of woman have towards their appearance and he plays upon this within his work, being particularly unforgiving to his female figures. Mueck is brutally honest about old age in this piece and does not glamourise the ageing process in the slightest, displaying two pensioners with a copious amount of deep wrinkles, thinning wisps of dull grey hair and arthritic hands holding onto skeletal arms to support their “osteoporosis-ridden backs”. The unfashionable clothes and unattractive, yet practical footwear also creates a sense of despair and ‘given up’. The scale of this piece is as significant as it is in one of Mueck’s other sculptures, ‘Ghost’ (Image 2) which had monumental dimensions to represent the emotional turmoil that the seven-foot girl was experiencing through adolescence. However, this piece has petite dimensions of 82.6 x 48.7 x 41.5 centimetres, which demonstrates the fragility and lack of confidence that comes with old age. Scale is used by Mueck to manipulate the viewers perception of a piece and in this instance it definitely makes the figures much more precious and frangible than the substantial nature of ‘Ghost’.

Body language and facial expression are also characteristics that Mueck utilises to create an impression on the viewer. The way these two figures are turned into each other but have their heads and eyes focusing towards something outside of their conversation creates a gossipy air and heightens the viewer’s self-consciousness. Even though their conversation is inaudible to us, we can gain a sense of what they are discussing through their facial expressions and piercing inspections. This compositional technique was used by Mueck to turn the attention on the viewer so that the figures are interacting with us and scrutinising us rather than being observed as an artwork.

This piece was originally conceived to be part of a trio entitled ‘The Three Graces’, but having only the two women adds to the sense of gossip and scrutiny, enhancing the viewer’s self-awareness and paranoia. The hyper-realistic style that Mueck works in creates an overwhelming ‘pull fascination’ that draws the viewer into the figures and their situation. This ‘wow factor’ initiates an uneasy voyeurism in which the viewer is forced to analyse the flaws that come with old age and look into their own inevitable future, evoking feelings of appreciation for youth and fear for what lies ahead…

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