The theme of the Walker Art Center’s exhibition “The Quick and the Dead” got personal, quickly, when I observed that an On Kawara date painting near the entry was the same date as an uncle’s birthday. Made by Kawara to mark the passage of time, the ongoing series implies its own end in the artist’s death, just as birthdays imply to many of us that there are only so many left. This exhibition announces its’ intentions to examine The Big Questions of Life at the outset in the title, but coincidence, along with the work on view, brought this home in an obvious and poignant way.
The exhibition title utilizes a Biblical phrase from the King James Version of the Bible, and the introduction of the exhibition guide acknowledges that in addition to science and philosophy, “religion . . . help[s] us explore that which transcends or exceeds everyday experience.” Interestingly, religion makes almost no other appearance, instead the emphasis here is on science and philosophy as ways of knowing and transcending. While a few galleries away are abstract expressionist artworks exploring notions of transcendence, this exhibition is comprised mostly of conceptual art, a mode of production that works well with an epistemology of science and philosophy. The emphasis on conceptual art makes this a cerebral show with slight objects that have large implications. No doubt casual visitors to the Walker who are unfamiliar with conceptual art will be slightly off-put by the exhibition, which leads to the slightly humorous concession in the guide that “[c]onceptual art can seem to demand a lot from us as viewers.”
Kris Martin. Still Alive. 2005. Silver-plated bronze; edition 5, 1 AP one-to-one of the artist’s skull. Edition 5 + 1 AP. Collection Andrea Welschof and Volkmar Kölsch, Bielefeld, Germany. Courtesy Sies + Höke, Düsseldorf. Photo: Achim Kukulies, Düsseldorf.
From the initial Kawara date painting that greets visitors, time and our existence within it, becomes a primary subject for the works on view. While Kawara recorded time in paint, other artists consider their place within it and what happens after they cease to exist in it. Kris Martin’s Still Alive (2005, above) on view nearby could reference Kawara who in the 1970s sent out telegrams to his friends bearing the notification “I am still alive,” and most certainly references the memento mori tradition, a skull placed within a painting as a reminder of one’s mortality and the fleeting nature of earthly pleasures. However Martin creates this skull in a way that could only be done in our current era. Using medical-imaging technology, Martin made a three-dimensional scan of his skull; from this, he was able to cast a to-scale bronze of his skull. If looking at an anonymous skull is a reminder of mortality, then looking at one that you know to be yours must be quite unsettling. After the revelation wears off one notices how impersonal this very specific skull is; a skull is a skull, and to the living they all look the same.
Maurizio Cattelan, Untitled, 1998. Taxidermied dog, life-size. Promised gift of Virginia and Bagley Wright in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum. Courtesy the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, and Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin, Paris/Miami.
Elsewhere in the exhibition Maurizio Cattelan’s Untitled (1998, above), takes up the issue of mortality. Placed in a corner next to a doorway is a taxidermied dog, curled up as if in rest. In both form and placement it is meant to be mistaken momentarily for a real, living dog, but the illusion lasts only for an instant. The kitsch quality of the object is evocative of how we hold onto things we know cannot last or have long since passed, and should let go of. Stuffed dog or skull, nothing lasts forever.
The function of art is many-fold. It can be about visual stimulation, as exemplified elsewhere at the Walker, and it can be about mental stimulation, as exemplified in this exhibit. Art can even be both at the same time, despite some critics’ claims to the contrary. Avoiding cliche, the work on view attempts to express our eternal human questions about existence in terms of our own current era. “The Quick and the Dead” gathers artists and works that are asking the questions without pretending to have the answers.
(All images courtesy of the artists and the Walker Art Center)