In The Frame: Life, Death, and Other Lessons Learned from Art

For me, art isn’t just about finding something pretty or intelligent, or wishing I could paint as well as someone else. It’s about looking at a piece and knowing that it’s taught you something and you feel better for having seen it. You understand the world a little better afterwards, and you can’t wait to rave about it to your friends. Here are three lessons I’ve learned from artists that I’d like to pass on:


It’s My Body – Marina Abramović takes it to the limit

black and white still of Marina with her eyes closed and her mouth open

[Still from Marina Abramović, Rhythm 4, 1974].

black and white still of Marina brushing her hair black and white still of Marina holding combs up near her face

[Stills from Marina Abramović, Rhythm 5, 1975].

Let’s face it; performance art was always going to be a little bit about showing off. The artist is acting, giving us a character or a side of themselves that was desperate to be seen. Marina Abramović is what we’d call a “Marmite” person in the UK—you either love her or you hate her, like Marmite spread—and you’ll find that there aren’t many people who sit on the fence regarding this kind of art. Some of it seems like Jackass outtakes, such as the piece where she sits naked in front of a hairdryer and waits for the air to make her pass out, or the time she sat in the middle of a burning cross lost consciousness. You might think both of those are examples of great bodily experiments or signs that women can make their mark in the art world. Personally I wasn’t that impressed by either, but there was one performance that caught my attention for the right reasons. Rhythm 5, or “Art must be beautiful,” is a short video in which Abramović castigates herself and chants: “Art must be beautiful, artist must be beautiful,” continuously whilst brushing her hair wildly. There’s a strong sense of ritual and purpose which is engaging, but also there can be a dual meaning in the art and artist’s need to be “beautiful.” Is this a demand from the artist or from the public? Whose expectations must Abramović live up to? This piece says a lot about the public’s demands as well as the personal demands we place upon ourselves in our desire for perfection.


We’re All Mortal – Sally Mann deals with death

black and white photo of a body obscured by glass black and white photo of a body lying on the ground

[Photographs from Sally Mann’s series, Body Farm, 2000-2001].


One of the best exhibitions I ever saw was Sally Mann: the Family and the Land at the Photographers’ Gallery in London. It was one of those shows that came with a warning about the sensitive material that lay inside, which could be pretty disturbing stuff, but I was more excited than unnerved. Mann took photographs in a scientific body farm at Knoxville, Tennessee, where corpses left to medical science are given different conditions in which to decompose and the results are recorded. The massively important work that this research facility conducts (thanks to Dr. Bill Bass) will ensure that more murders are solved as we continue to learn about the effects and variables of heat, cold, rain, and indoor or outdoor sites on the body.

Sally Mann chose to photograph these subjects as part of a book called What Remains, which dealt with mortality in different forms, from the death of her dog to a fatal accident that occurred close to where she lived. The images from the body farm added weight to these situations and they are more beautiful than ugly or scary. Mann often uses old-fashioned photographic techniques to make her exposures look dated, but she really emphasized it here with rips, blots and blurs. The shots themselves seem to be decaying and diminishing beneath our eyes. I know it’s not exactly an attractive prospect, seeing what we look like once we’re dead, but it’s something I believe we shouldn’t hide from. Death is unalterable and we’ll all face it, but if there’s a way of normalizing the process and making it more acceptable then I think we should celebrate it. I really hope that Mann returns to this subject in the future.


Sometimes Words Are Enough – Fiona Banner gives an alternative view of life drawing

black and white words make a pyramid

[Fiona Banner, Nude 2, 2004].

black and white words on a poster that looks like it's been splashed with paint

[Fiona Banner, Superhuman Nude, 2011, part of the 2012 Olympics poster series].

Textual artist Fiona Banner writes long and detailed observational notes from studies of bodies, whether they are life models, adult film actresses, or Vietnam War film characters. Her work feels incredibly intimate without being as exploitative as some of the situations she depicts—essentially you’re getting subtitles without seeing the original picture. Some of it is crude, but most of the language is matter-of-fact and it works well. We meet a woman whose face “looks stretched,” “wrinkles under her eyes” and with “colors bleeding through her thin skin” in Nude (2002). Nude 2 contains a similar visual onslaught of text, but this time in a long, triangular column. Whatever form her words take, their capital letters and large, spiky writing is really arresting. The use of text is inventive because it causes us to think about images in a different way, and examine how easily we can create a mental picture without having a physical one on hand. Words can be incredibly powerful and sometimes we forget how important they are.

Are there any artists that have changed the way you think about life, or even death? As ever, I’m open to suggestion, so if you’ve found a piece that’s made sense of your world then please share it with Bitch readers below!

Previously: Female Photographers Telling Stories, Giant Spiders and Stuffed Birds

by Polly Allen
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