Post-Mortem Portrait in Contemporary Photography

AES+F (RU), Goran Bertok (SI), Marloes van Doorn (NL), Elizabeth Heyert (USA), Rudolf Schäfer (GE), Walter Schels (GE), Jeffrey Silverthorne (USA)

8 December 2016 – 20 January 2017

The group exhibition The Last Gaze. Post-Mortem Portrait in Contemporary Photography showcases the international selection of photographers and artists who in their artistic endeavour depict the deceased. By focusing on the dead body they question both their own perception as well as socially (un)acceptable notions regarding the concepts, meanings and representations of death in contemporary western society.

Other than pushing a dead body to the margins of social experience, contemporary society leave public interpretations and rituals of death primarily to rather sensationalist media, medicine and popular culture. These often reflect a distorted picture of the nature of death and dying while at the same time the connection among death, capitalism and consumerism has reached an odd peak. Today, the entertainment industry fulfils the darkest of fantasies constructed around death, sexuality and violence, which pushes the boundaries of acceptable relations between the dead and the living. The line between fact and fiction is blurred; corpses “are performed” by actors or manikins, and the dead body has become a glib object of information. As a result, we experience some simulated corpses as alive and real corpses as simulations. In the public discourse of contemporary western society death is a temporary condition and it's only a matter of time before science will succeed in preventing or ‘curing’ it as if it were merely a disease. The dead body represents a sphere of contemporary technicistic utopia with the projections of fantasies about total control (over the body), eternal youth and longevity, which is one of the most desirable ideals of western civilisation.
Historically, photography has participated in the creation of the view of the world and today it is one of those technologies which – similar to embalming – enables the preservation of a timeless human corpse that resists organic decomposition and visual degradation. In the works of artists at the exhibition The Last Gaze who intentionally or spontaneously revive the tradition of post-mortem photography – i.e., the practice of post-mortem portraits, which was at its peak in the late 19th and early 20th century – we can perceive the oscillation between the desire to confirm the subjectivity of the portrayed person after his physical death on one side and his total objectification on the other. The works reflect a basic ambivalence to the dead body which is simultaneously familiar and strange, loved and hated, beautiful and disgusting, sacred and impure. Death and a corpse are not identical, although the latter is acknowledged as a visible sign of death. The photographs of dead people fail to tell us anything concrete about death; they speak rather about the perception of death by those still alive, about our hopes and fears, desires and phantasms.

Jasna Jernejšek