Art critics/philosophers like Boris Groys and Daniel Soutif have posited that art is alive, until it’s on display. Then, it becomes another funerary object, an icon representing something dead. It demands worship, with the certainty that living beings will finance its perpetual, “vampiric existence,” as Groys puts it. Similarly, when we enter a museum or any kind of setting where an artist’s work is subject to narrative positioning by someone else, we – the audience – become graveyard gawkers.
I saw an under-publicised exhibition back in Chelsea (New York) in 2015. Geoffrey Farmer’s Boneyard (at Casey Kaplan Gallery) was one of the most potent, memorable exhibitions I’d ever seen in a contemporary space. Why? Because it was a celebration, a manifestation of dead things. Delicate cut-outs of ancient angels, gargoyles, deities, idols and saints. Did I ever think I was a “graveyard gawker”? I realised that the kind of works I love looking at are made by artists whose subjects have been dead for a millennium. The artists, themselves, died centuries ago. High Mannerism and Dutch nature morte paintings of intense colour palettes, undulating shapes, and deep, void-like backgrounds are the finest of examples of life at its peak. A downward trajectory towards death. Works like those of Nicola Samorì – who I had the pleasure of spending an afternoon with in his studio back in 2019 – are living beings inverted, with the inky signature of death marked on the surface. If death is beautiful, Samorì is its haute couturier.
No matter where it goes after it’s left the artists’ hands, the artwork is either cast as a vessel of the past, or it’s completely hidden in a sea of unloved artefacts just like it. We put so much value from our active life, here and now, in a thing – an artwork – which is inanimate. Even performance or kinetic art exudes the dim whisper of life only once. After that, it becomes a memory – mute, unable to speak for itself past the point of creation. Its next active moment is completely different than the one that came before, thus experiencing multiple births and deaths, many times over. But to us, it’s the closest thing we have to an “immortal body”: something that will fire our imaginations and give us a sense of living long after we’re gone. Artists are aware of this passage from living, breathing creation into a petrified pillar.
Each time we come into the walls of a museum, we are entering an afterlife.
Featured image: Nicola Samorì, Anulante (2018), oil on copper, 70 x 50 cm © Monitor Gallery (Roma/Lisbon/Pereto), also the Cover Feature for our Winter 2020 print quarterly.