A human skull rests atop a modest wooden table flanked by a chronometer, books, musical instruments, an earthenware pot, and swathes of silk. Harmen Steenwyck’s Still Life: An Allegory of the Vanities of Human Life (1612-1656) is emblematic of the vanitas genre, most commonly known for its intimate tabletop tableaux alluding to the transient nature of all worldly goods and pursuits. Upon entering Vanitas – Nothing is Forever Anyway at Berlin’s Georg Kolbe Museum, one immediately encounters an alternative reading of the still life: a tabletop encrusted with old food, utensils, matchbooks, business cards, and receipts.
Daniel Spoerri transformed these remnants of a meal with the Icelandic artist Érro into an artwork when he affixed their leftovers to the table and hung it on the wall. While one could certainly claim that this work shares some of the qualities of vanitas paintings—namely its focus on transience and ephemerality—Spoerri’s assemblage lacks vanitas’ moral and religious undertones. Less a call for moderation in the face of earthly pleasure, Spoerri’s sculpture instead functions as a conceptual portrait of an encounter: a portrait in absentia, rendered in the actual contents of the meal. While this might seem like a fine distinction, it raises the question of how vanitas—traditionally deeply entrenched in the task of conveying moral and religious values—might function in a secular art world.
Paweł Althamer, Fabio, 2013, Plaster and plastic over a metal structure, 167 x 55 x 50 cm; Photo: Jens Ziehe, Berlin; © Paweł Althamer / Courtesy neugerriemschneider, Berlin
The Georg Kolbe Museum exhibition gathers together works by fourteen international artists who reinterpret classical vanitas motifs like skulls, timepieces, rotting fruit, and flowers in contemporary sculpture. Pawel Althamer’s recent sculptural series Venetians (2013) comes the closest to a contemporary manifestation of vanitas. In keeping with Althamer’s interest in mysticism, he cast the faces of Venetian residents for the 2013 Venice Biennial, presenting these beatific looking casts on hollowed out bodies held together by sinewy stretches of plastic. These abstract, haunting figures express Althamer’s assertion that the body is a vehicle for the soul while also reimagining the body as part man, part machine.
Otherwise, the works in the exhibition can be roughly divided into two categories: those that use perishable materials, such as Japanese artist Reijiro Wada’s Freeze (2006/2014) which depicts actual fruit decaying in real-time behind three sheets of tempered glass, and those that celebrate what the exhibition’s curators have called a “poetics of disintegration,” such as Alicja Kwade’s Kaminuhr (2014), a line of neatly labeled glass bottles that contain the finely ground dust of a pulverized mantelpiece clock. The latter fares better than the former in this ambitious, if at times overly literal exhibition, and also seems to propose what secular vanitas might look like. A shining, wall-mounted sphere ticks ominously (another work by Alicja Kwade), reflecting the viewer’s face instead of telling the time. Immediately adjacent, Katja Strunz’s work Crack Initiation Testing (2012) shakes a set of nineteenth century clocks within a Perspex case to the point that they are no longer functional. Elsewhere, Tomás Saraceno’s installation presents a fragile living web that is crafted by spiders over the course of the exhibition.
Vanitas – Nothing is Forever Anyway, Installation view with work by Alicja Kwade, Katja Strunz, Paweł Althamer, and Kei Takemura, Georg Kolbe Museum, Berlin 2014; Photo: Enric Duch
Vanitas—Nothing is Forever Anyway’s emphasis on time and its disintegration implicitly dovetails with current dialogues surrounding crisis, precarious labor, acceleration, and the internet. Yet if the disintegration of time has surpassed the passing of time in the contemporary vanitas, would it stand to reason that the motifs used to express this shift might change as well? What might an expanded lexicon of vanitas motifs include in our current era? A Sad Mac? A half-built apartment block? A refugee raft?
(Image on top: Reijiro Wada, Freeze, 2006/2014, Glass, brass, fruit, 160 x 260 x 30 cm; Courtesy of the Artist)