Author interview: The Rapture of Death - Art Collector

In this series of highly personal essays, Prue Gibson explores the role of death in art. Fascination and disgust can coexist, she tells Jane O’Sullivan. And if the art currently being produced in Australia is anything to go by, she’s not the only one to think so.

Death in art seems like grim subject matter. What sparked the idea to write this book?

I’ve always been attracted to the macabre. I gravitate towards the darkest painting in an exhibition, towards gothic stories that have an unexpected or ghoulish twist. But the initial spark for the book was a basic response to what was already happening in Australian and international art: there has been a strong deathly sensibility for nearly a decade now.

Your first chapter concentrates on taxidermy – which is probably fitting because I feel like 2010 was a year of taxidermy. Why do you think we are seeing more artists using these rather grisly techniques?

The animistic power of wild creatures is appealing, as is the thrill and sorrow of the souvenir. These are dramatic forces – wonder, beauty, grief and natural curiosity. Taxidermy allows us to examine an owl, a bear or deer, close up. The idea of the copy or the fake is also interesting to contemporary artists who grapple with concepts of authenticity and colonialism. And it has become something of a fashion to incorporate creatures that are in danger of extinction because of anxiety surrounding climate change.

It’s interesting you point to Marina Warner’s No Go the Bogeyman in your introduction, which among other things took issue with how fear has been expunged from storytelling and modern day life. What role do you think this fear of fear has played in the growing interest in deathly topics in art?

Marina Warner talks about stories being the “weapons of the weaponless”. I think this desire among artists to use their art (and some of the formidable narratives embedded within) to fight the fearful elements of life is a noble cause, worthy of a life’s work. In our increasingly sanitised lives, it becomes a huge relief to be able to speak, write and make art about the darker sides of life. Warner says: “Horror and laughter are appropriate responses; fascination and disgust coexist.”

You also talk about the Wunderkammer and its return to the gallery, for instance in the recent exhibition Curious colony: a 21st century Wunderkammer. Why are we seeing the revival of this 19th century idea?

I tried to get to the bottom of that question in Rapture. Perhaps the 150th year of Darwin’s birth compounded a revived interest in natural history. Or perhaps our environmental despoliation has stimulated interest in rare species that are no longer extant. Either way, the idea of the Wunderkammer or wonder room reflects our collective desire for small spaces, like memory theatres, puppet shows, miniature dioramas. Scale is very attractive to us: small and enclosed objects allow us to contemplate the vast.

Has writing this book changed any of your own attitudes towards death?

I’m relieved I’m not the only morbid person around. But I wrote Rapture as a kind of inoculation against deathly fear. I thought if I wrote about these ideas, I would become less afraid. Unfortunately, I’m as frightened as ever of dark shadows.

Jane O'Sullivan

The Rapture of Death is published by Boccalatte.

This interview was first published in Australian Art Collector, issue 55 January – March 2011

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