Life is short, and we all will die in the end. Sometimes we need reminding of these simple but powerful facts. The vanitas is a genre most associated with religious subject matter. It is included in religious images in order to tell the viewer that since life is short, they have to accept Christ before death, and also to say that there is more to life than just this fragile earthly one. Vanitas can be depicted as something as ephemeral as flowers or rotting fruit, and more often, the skull is used. In our time, art has seen a rise again in this theme, with artists such as Damien Hirst with his famous diamond encrusted skull For the Love of God, and his animals in formaldehyde.
The exhibition The Summer Issue, explores this theme and thus the theme of the human condition; to be aware of death, that in the knowledge of one’s own eventual fatality life should be spend with great care and purpose. The five artists in this exhibit use the vanitas as the theme for their artwork, using unconventional and contemporary imagery.
The first piece that catches your eye upon entering the gallery is Fumitaka Kudo’s Il Presente è Passato, Il Passato è Presente (Present is Past. Past is Present, 2011) a pair of billowing white sails hanging down from the ceiling. On these white canvas sheets are sketchy images drawn with black ink. The images, although separated on two sheets, are meant to be continuous. These images, he says, represent the past and the future. They are a strange blend between the mechanical and the natural; there are organic images that resemble water and others that remind one of man-made structures, and a nuclear holocaust. Gusts of wind, which at the same time look like feathers, engulf the structures. The wind and water seem to move, as the fabric moves in reality.
A fluttering butterfly, ripples in a pool of water, fleeting moments are caught in Stefania
Balestri’s diptych Spirale 1 and 2 (2010), displayed on the wall next to Kudo’s work – which are connected through their subtle sketchy aesthetic and a feeling of movement. “A butterfly is fragile” explains Balestri “One is aware of this small, fragile, and ephemeral life”. The butterfly is the fragility of life itself, while the water underneath is the passing of time; the same ripple will never occur again. This moment, however, is captured by the artist, holding on to a piece of life and nature that we know in reality will not last.
Other works in this exhibit span through different mediums such as photography, drawing, and sculpture.
Jewish Cemetery (2010) is a photographic diptych by Christiana Caro. Her work usually deals with the exchange between nature and humans; the way nature shapes people in specific places, and the way people work with the effects of nature. Her images are simple and direct. Caro describes this work as “a ruined relic, an ode to death, and a reflection on inevitability”. This graveyard, in Slovakia, is located in an area which was owned by multiple countries; the people of the area were subject to nationality changes based on these shifting borders. This diptych is a stark documentation of a place that seems as if it should have a specific identity – given that it’s use is to mark the site of deaths in a certain area, however, it is negated in that the identity of the land and peoples who inhabit the land is now unclear.
Venere (Venus, 2010-2011) is a series mirrors rubbed onto black paper with silver pencil. The artist rubbed so hard that the pencil markings actually become reflective “like a real mirror”, says Raffaele di Vaia. The mirrors are, of course, a symbol of vanity; in the glass you can see the image of yourself. But this image is not one that will last. For this reason it is rightfully named Venus. Raffaele di Vaia also exhibits a video, where the title and name of the protagonist Faustine (2010), resonates without any doubts of Faust, the master of temptation and conseguent damnation for vanity.
Valerio Ricci, who has just returned from an artist in residency in Korea, has made two petrol canisters which have been made into “precious objects” by gilding and chaining them together (Untitled, 2010). Ricci explains that there are certain steps to the vanitas, and that preciousness can be one of the first steps. “After this you find the empty condition [of man]” says Ricci.
The photographs from his residency in Korea (not on exhibit here) relate to the vanitas in another way. In this series of photographs he painted the bottom section of found objects with black dye. It is as if some black liquid flooded the area and left its mark on the objects. This black can be seen as Memento Mori.
-Alex and Becky Chipkin