The Far North Coaster
The art of death and dying
October 21, 2009
PICTURE: Nic Plowman’s Birth of Mortality.
"Nothing is more certain in life than death, yet it’s an experience that’s commonly hidden from our everyday reality.
A new exhibition brings the mystery out into the light and provides an opportunity to celebrate the loss of our loved ones.
In Mexico, November 1st is celebrated every year as the Day of the Innocents or the Day of the Little Angels.
November 2nd is the better-known holiday, the Day of the Dead, when large groups of family and friends invade graveyards en masse, to celebrate and commune with their dear departed.
By comparison, Western society often makes very little of death, hiding those we have lost away in eternally quiet cemeteries.
Sadness and grief are individual pursuits largely dealt with behind closed doors, or in clinics where grief-ridden family and friends boost already frightening statistics concerning Australia’s depressed population.
Byron Bay personality Zenith Virago is part of a small committed group who are trying to change this aspect of our local culture.
A celebrant of life’s most momentous circumstance, she has for the past 15 years specialised in the fields of love and marriage, and death and dying.
Since 2007, Virago has organised an annual event, where people come together to honour their dead, in a bid to make death more familiar.
Held in Mullumbimby on the second Sunday in November, it’s a step towards a healthier community that allows people to deal with bereavement.
Art is a really big part of that process, she believes, and has therefore become a major element of her celebration.
The first hour of the event is an opportunity for people to make something as a memento of those that they miss – a prayer flag, clay heart or anything they want, and inscribe it with a message.
Bree Delian from Retrospect Galleries Byron Bay agrees that art plays an important role in bridging the gap between life and ‘the other’.
Concerned that a lot of the ritual surrounding death in other societies is lost in the West, she has decided it’s time for a reminder.
“Although we are confronted by death and violence in the media every day, we have shunted it away in our society,” she comments.
“In pagan societies there was a much stronger connection and a much more outward display of death, which was beautiful and beneficial to people.”
“Looking at Mexico’s Day of the Dead, it’s so alien to us that people dress up, go to gravesites, take food for their ancestors, sing them songs, take part in parades and festivities.
“But looking at other cultures and how they deal with death and give it purpose, can give life a new purpose too.”
This year, for the first time, Delian is organising an exhibition that gives artists the opportunity to explore the boundaries of religion, death, magic and mystery.
Featuring works by more than 20 established and emerging international, national and local artists, she hopes that The Day of the Dead will give people a glimpse into the realm of mystery, and make us rethink the importance of ritual.
Well-known local artist James Guppy is amongst those who have agreed to be in the show, which he says deals with a theme he has been painting for decades.
“Once we have a consciousness of death, we live our whole lives with it,” Guppy said.
“Very early on in my career, one of my earliest works was a painting about the death of my father.
“These days I often allude to death in my work and sometimes quite explicitly, using symbols such as flowers, in an effort to imbue the mystery of our passing to this ‘amniotic other place’ with a sense of poetic significance.”
Guppy has known Zenith Virago for years and says they are both striving to give death meaning.
“Zenith’s work is about introducing rituals that make it easier for the survivors to find sense in all of this,” he says. “I’m just trying to find meaning for myself, and hopefully that will help others.”
Brisbane artist Nic Plowman has been practising successfully for years but has largely come to public’s attention since his sellout 2008 Magic Sex Death exhibition.
31 years ago Plowman was born with a congenital heart disease and has spent his whole life in and out of hospitals and on medication.
Whilst the concept of death isn’t something that a lot of young people even think about, he says he can’t remember a time when those thoughts weren’t part of his reality.
Magic Sex Death is a collection of searing self-portraits in which skeletal figures and symbols such as crows frequently appear, surrounding the artist, as he appears attached to a variety of medical equipment.
“In trying to convey my experience of life and death to the viewer, I’ve realised that the most personal art is sometimes the most universal,” Plowman said.
“I know that one of the people who has bought a lot of my art is an open-heart surgeon. You never know who’s looking at your work and what life experience they’re bringing to it.”
Zenith Virago, James Guppy and Nic Plowman will share their experiences of art, death and modern ritual in a panel discussion to be held on Halloween eve at Harvest Café, Newrybar, Saturday, October 31st.
Limited tickets are available at $60 per person, which includes a two-course meal and drink on arrival. Bookings at Retrospect Galleries, Byron Bay, 6680 8825.
The Day of the Dead exhibition opens 6pm-9pm on Sunday November 1, until November 22.
It features works by local Northern Rivers’ artists James Guppy, Hilary Herrmann, Michelle Dawson, Christine Wilcox, Katka Adams, Stephen Phibbs, Anna Nordstrom, Cornelia Burless, Craig Martin, Alberto Sanchez and Cornelius Delaney, Brisbane’s Nic Plowman, Jan Van Djirk and Aileen Timbrell, Sydneysiders Andrew Hmnelinsky and Luke Taffe, Californians Harry the Hat and Kelsey Brookes, Tokyo based Aoife Tamura.
Dress in the style of Mexico’s Day of the Dead celebrations and join the artists for an evening of art, wine and live music with Mexico Lindo.
More information, www.retrospectgalleries.com"
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