In 1986 I was in my second year at art school when the British photographer, Jo Spence, published the book “Putting myself in the picture”. Spence’s critical documentary practice was a feminist critique of representation and it was an inspiration. In one of the final images in this book she captions one of her photographs with “Someday my prints will come”. For me, maybe as for Spence, art is the prince on the white charger.
I wait for delivery of 3D prints, much as she waited for her silver-based photographs to arrive. When I saw this timelapse of one of the sections my Neuro Memento Mori piece being printed, I immediately thought of Spence, her witty “Someday my prints will come” and her series ‘The Final Project’, made with her long term collaborator, Terry Dennett.
Image copyright Jo Spence and Terry Dennett. Final Project (death rituals and return to nature series), 1991-92
In the last two years of her life, 1991-1992, she made these memento mori works as she thought about her death. One photograph in particular strikes me. The face is a mask with empty eyes, a double exposure that seems to catch a moment of slippage, where the face pitches to one side, revealing the skull beneath. The skull. Always there, the hidden scaffold for our lively expression that remains after our eyes empty and our flesh rots.
Next week Art Basel Hong Kong begins. A good time to “Remember You Must Die” to think about the transience of life and art, its futility. To remember, and celebrate, art’s pointlessness and the inevitable but useless joy of anticipation.
Someday my dark prince/prints of death will come.
I am currently producing live video and computer animations to be projection-mapped onto the 3D printed sculpture. The projection of moving images onto the sculpture animates the 3D object and blends images of the living (MRi data and live action video) with images that allude to the dead (like the skull model). This bringing together of images or symbols of life/the living and death/the dead is typical of memento mori, but in this project it is achieved using contemporary imaging technologies. Some of the animations are derived from the fMRI data showing brain activity whilst looking at memento mori images (see the still image of the video being projected onto the 3D print above).
Left: Arcimboldo Giuseppe (1527-1593) – La Vanita. Right: Yermolai Kamezhenkov (1790) A Portrait of a Young Lady: E. N. Likhachyova
We designed an experiment with me as a subject, looking at representations of memento mori while in a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scanner to record my brain activity via functional MRI (fMRI). For this experiment we used two sets of images. Set ‘A’ comprised memento mori and vanitas works from a range of time periods and featured both paintings and sculptural objects. Set ‘B’ were the ‘control’ images. These were paintings and objects, again produced across a range of times in keeping with the other set, Set ‘B’ were all figurative, with subjects who were very much alive as opposed to Set ‘A’ that featured the dead or images of dead and alive human subjects. Before each image was shown I saw a linguistic cue, a short text, either “Live the now”, or, “You will die”. An image was then randomly selected and displayed for 7 seconds. Though we never used images from each set shown side-by-side in our experiment, I have used illustrated this post with an image from each set.
Welcome to Jane Prophet’s project that explores brain activity during the contemplation of artworks and death.
The questions that underpin this project are:
Can contemporary neuroscience and new imaging technologies increase our understanding of consciousness?
When we look at memento mori artworks are we prompted to contemplate our own mortality?
What parts of the brain are active when we look at these artworks?
What parts of the brain are active when we meditate on death?
Is there any similarity in brain function in these two instances?
“Wax model of a Female head depicting life and death” (Unknown 1701-1800). Image courtesy The Wellcome Trust and Science Museum, London.
Neuro Memento Mori is inspired by the object shown above from the Wellcome Trust Permanent Collection. It shows a woman’s bisected head, the left half apparently a detailed portrait of a living woman, open-eyed, with painted lips and blond hair arranged in ringlets. Her left hand frames her face while the right half of her head is shown in post mortem decay. Resting on her skeletonised right hand, her skull crawls with insects, maggots and worms. A snake emerges from her empty eye socket. As we look at memento mori artworks such as this compelling object, I questioned whether we ‘remember, we must die’? What parts of our brain are active when we look at these artworks, and, when we contemplate death by meditation, without looking at memento mori art?
The project’s art-historical references are object-based Memento Mori (the Latin phrase means “Remember that you are mortal”, “Remember you will die) and Vanitas genres. These works remind viewers of their own mortality, and are epitomised by “Untitled: Model Head Life one half. Death the other”, held in the Wellcome Trust’s Permanent Collection.
Such works became popular in the seventeenth century, when most believed that earthly life was preparation for Divine Judgement, Heaven, Hell and salvation of the soul. These ideas brought death to the forefront of consciousness. Artists produced self-portraits depicting themselves holding a skull, or with a skull nearby. Vanitas is Latin for “emptiness” and alludes to the meaninglessness of earthly life and the transient nature of vanity.
In our project there is a reflexive spiral embodied by the objects that we will produce: vanitas works function to make viewer consider the transience of life, the futility of pleasure, and the certainty of death. We will take such contemplation as central to the means by which we produce the work, and the final work will literally represent such contemplation.
It is not uncommon to find anatomical wax works and vanitas depicting women that are sexualised. This is less unnerving when we look at mannequins like this Victorian 1900 wax boudoir mannequin bust from France. It was made with real glass blown eyes and porcelain teeth. The long blond hair is human and implanted, as are the eyelashes and eyebrows. However, the “Anatomical Venuses” those life-sized wax anatomical models of idealized women made on the 1700s are both seductive and horrifying, arguably more horrifying because they are seductively posed and coloured.
The artist Zoe Leonard’s Anatomical Model of a Woman’s Head Crying, 1993 is one of a series of works made as she tries to capture the desire and horror expressed in these works.
“I first saw a picture of the anatomical wax model of a woman with pearls in a guidebook on Vienna. She struck a chord in me. I couldn’t stop thinking about her. She seemed to contain all I wanted to say at that moment, about feeling gutted, displayed. Caught as an object of desire and horror at the same time. She also seemed relevant to me in terms of medical history, a gaping example of sexism in medicine. The perversity of those pearls, that long blond hair. I went on with this work even though it is gory and depressing because the images seem to reveal so much.”–Zoe Leonard, Journal of Contemporary Art”