Lucy Willow- The Last Portrait: A microscopic view of death

The Last Portrait – Lucy Willow c-type photograph


Conversation moves between the personal to the universal, the microscopic to the macroscopic, from the effect of one individual loss to a philosophical inquiry into the vastness of death and the possibility of returning to the stars. It is always fascinating to witness the discussion an image provokes. The image is a meaningful one as it lays to rest as the last portrait of my son. It details the obsessive need to know the last living moments of a life lost, examined up close, in microscopic detail.

It is interesting to see the response an audience has to such a personal image. What do others see reflected in his last portrait? How are we affected by the personal stuff of other people’s lives? Can an image become something more, stand for something else? We discuss the act of photographing death as a contemporary taboo. In hindsight I wish I had felt able to photograph my son at the time of his accident and in the days that followed. I wonder whether the act of photography enables you to stay witnessing an experience, to be present, to digest, to give shape to something that it too much to bear with the naked eye? Perhaps it gives you agency in the face of such powerlessness and devastating loss? As an artist and a mother my deepest instinct was to photograph my son. What is it that leads us as artists to want to recall the events of our lives through photography, painting, video, sculpture, performance, re-examining them from different angles? I wanted to bear witness from behind the lens of the camera. I felt the lens had the power protect, creating a screen from which to observe the contours of the body with distance. But the post mortem photograph has become a taboo considered morbid and macabre. Why is this? It felt wrong and secretive as though I would be betraying the trust of my family and friends. They were used to my art practice but not in this context. I behaved according to what I felt was socially acceptable. Why does death no longer shares a space with the living?

The lens of a microscope acted like that of a camera. I was able to confront the uncomfortable, to bare witness from a distance. I wanted to see into and beyond his death.  I saw a future through the microscope that day. Following death, certain aspects of the other person’s life come sharply into focus. I wanted to know all the facts, examine them, and draw them up into my consciousness. All the last details, the last food that was eaten, the last conversation, the last clothes worn, the last objects touched, the last people seen, the last journey made, the last breaths taken. In the early days of grief the details of the other’s life is scrutinized, drawn into microscopic focus, imagined and re imagined. With telescopic vision nothing else is allowed in. Words are not enough to communicate what is felt following death. A photograph can be passed on and witnessed by another, in silence. Empathy and shared experience passed between each other without words. The image speaks without words in a profound and intimate way revealing what we sometimes close our eyes to.

“When he shall die, take him and cut him out in little stars, and he will make the face of heaven so fine that all the world will be in love with night and pay no attention to the garish sun.” Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare.

Kerry Foster- Presenting the Uncanny

Kerry Foster video still

Today was my CAFÉ MORTE. I opened with a passage of text by Christian Boltanski (see below). It speaks of how with a photograph, there is always an absence of people/ the lapse of time – photographs echo death. This element interests me with my own art practice, as I enjoy having the absence of a human within my work. It is often this that helps my audience place themselves with my films. I played a film of my diorama mountain and lake, where it opens with a view of everything and then slowly, the camera moves into the water and you become submerged. This film was played over two shopping bags of stones. This scene is based on a place in the Lake District, Wast Water. However, this sculpture, although based on this place, was constructed out of my memory – it is probably not a direct replica when placed next to a true photo of the original. The places that I create are all from memory. This one was constructed from what I remember at the age of seven driving past the place, my mother telling me about how people commit suicide there. Murders in woodlands, that I have seen on tv as a child with my family ( Midsummer Murders). These places have almost been forced upon me and have henceforth been preserved in my mind. People said they found my work arresting, part of it – and this is what I want them to feel. Like these events were put onto me, I want to somewhat pass them on for others to experience and see.

Interestingly, some spoke of how, as children, they too had had imprinting moments. Someone spoke of how their mother would take them  to a grave yard, and how he would play with the goat there. Another mentioned, how the ashes of people would be held in their house over night and how she and her dad would go dig the place for the ashes box in the graveyard. I recalled how dad first told me that our old gravedigger would sleep in the graves the night he dug them, ready for the next day. In each of these experiences, there is something very innocent and naïve happening. It is no wonder we have a heightened interest in death.

With this film in particular, you get the sense that you are being taken on a journey to death, the slow progression making it almost calming, ritualistic, like it is washing over you. This piece is intended to focus on suicide. The two heavy shopping bags, almost in the placement of Justice Scales, are heavy enough to keep you under water. We then discussed that how some religions believe that those who commit suicide will end up in limbo. I feel that my scenes are a good reflection of this limbo. They are in a state of reality, yet they are not. They are uncanny.

We spoke about how this piece could be more inclusive of its audience. There were the ideas of projecting the film lower to the ground and having water on the floor. There was also the suggestion of a heavy item of clothing being worn by the audience to again be inclusive. Finally there was the idea of the condition of the room – making it cold, dark, damp etc. This would involve more senses and further the audience feeling apart of it.

There was the thought that some actively seek places of suicide and graveyards. In Paris, Père Lachaise Cemetery is a huge tourist attraction, and some people even eat picnics at graveyards!  Needless to say, most suicides happen at beautiful places, like cliff tops, quarries and bridges. When people go to these places there is almost a sense of being grounded. By seeing “RIP” written on little crosses and flowers laid down, you gain a strong sense of your own mortality. You can clearly see that human form is not strong and existent and, but frail and mortal. It is a confirmation that death is evoked through the absence of people, hopefully just like in my work.  (Written by Kerry Foster, level 2 Fine Art, Falmouth University)

Christian Boltanski
Christian Boltansk

The First Meeting of Café Morte- 01/12/14

December 1st 2014 marked the first meeting of CAFÉ MORTE – A non hierarchical research group made up of senior lecturers and undergraduate students from Falmouth University.  It was established to create a platform through which we could discuss death within the context of our creative practice.

Adopting the model of the recently popular Death Café’s, which have sprung up worldwide as a meeting place in which to discuss death over a cup of tea, raising awareness of issues relating to the often tabooed subject of death- CAFÉ MORTE focuses on the themes of death found in art and literature. It is a way for us to develop our thinking through discussion with others working in art, writing, performance on death related concepts. The blog was created as a place where we could document our meetings, discussions and share our body of research.

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I believe that everybody dies twice; the first death when the body dies 
and the second when the last person remembers you...

Chris Slesser: My relationship with death concerns an obsessive fear of being forgotten after I die. I constantly reference the realm of death in my work as a way of furthering the state of living, in acts of transformation to bring awareness of mortality. I use the abstract idea of death to create a reflection of one’s own limit of control in regards to their own mortal existence, while dually creating events of personal healing and release.

I just want to cause no pain by my death. Every time I go to another funeral 
I am reminded of all the ones I have been tobefore that, there is a 
stronger sense of loss each time.

Tabitha Tohill Reid: I have always been fascinated by death and “dead” objects and collected them from a young age. I am interested in what the term itself can mean, it’s connotations and different types of death; death of self, sexual deaths and the more literal death. I am interested in how death allows us to truly see something and focus on it and the illusion of life in dead things created through taxidermic practices and the uncanny sensations that can arise from such things.

There’s an alienation with death in relation to that, 1 is a tragedy, 
1 million is a statistic.

Andy Ross: My interest comes from personal experience. I want to make death a comfortable permanent presence that is not in a miserable or morbid dialogue. By permanent presence I mean that death is such a transient thing, it is an event, not a thing, it only happens once in someone’s life and after that, death doesn’t exist to that person, as they aren’t living anymore to die.

I use metal and solid materials to create a permanence that I can control and handle, to confront what the taboo is that I feel is hanging over me. I am interested in making work that is relatable to everyone, be the person a millionaire or a homeless, the subject needs to be familiar to as broad a spectrum of people as possible, Life and Death is one of these subjects.

There are huge cultural differences when it comes to death. 
I imagine a lot of them are to do with religion.

Jess Russell: I don’t directly address the theme of death in my practice, but there are certainly many areas of the subject that interest me and feed into my work. I have always been drawn to the aesthetic of decay, of aging and degeneration, where nature overrides all. I think my artwork deals with life, more than death, but with a view that everything is cyclical; growth and decay are one and the same.

I am also interested in participating in these conversations because death is such a powerful subject that prompts people to discuss their deeply held emotions, and beliefs about the nature of the world. My pursuit of art is perhaps also a pursuit of this sincerity and open inquisitiveness about life. There are few platforms in society where talking openly about death and philosophy is encouraged besides art.

Take something as transient as dust, for me highlights the absolute
 extremities of death and the process of dying.

Kerry Foster: I am interested in why we are scared of death and the psychology behind that fear. We are not born with this fear, so where does it stem from? Is it born through a culture itself not wanting to speak of it, the way death is portrayed through TV (murder dramas) or because it is an unknown thing that is out of our control, in a somewhat control driven world.

In Christianity death isn’t the end. We have spiritual bodies that 
don’t decay. I find it really difficult to understand why people fear death.

Polly Maxwell: In my art I work with death in a metaphorical sense, in the ‘small deaths’ of life. La petite Morte for example referring to semi consciousness after orgasm, is a small death. Loss of innocence, elevation to experience. The things we ‘kill off’ in order to grow/progress. The death of the self. Death itself as an end is not something I explore, as a Christian death is not finite in my beliefs. That’s not to say it doesn’t affect my work because I believe it is hard to make the work I do without every element of my experiences seeping in somehow.

But we die all the time, as we grow a different part of us dies and 
we have to “kill off” our parent’s views in doing so.

Joanna Hulin: I am interested in death based on my own personal experiences but this is not reflected in my work. My work is inspired by the media and reports on death. I am interested in how people confront their own death. It is a fragile and inevitable thing and there is a lack of acceptance around it but it can be beautiful.

I’m taking these deaths and using my work as a way to “repair” them 
or the situation, like a coping mechanism.

Mercedes Kemp: My work deals with mourning things that have past: industry, community. It deals with the similarities of mourning the loss of a person and the loss of a way of life. It looks at how these are similar through people and place and how that which is gone is remembered or reconstructed. I feel everything has two deaths; the first the literal death and the second the point when the very last person remembers that thing or being.

Some people believe in life everlasting and to them 
that is beautiful and others believe in death being the absolute 
end and to them that transience is beautiful.

Lucy Willow: I have always been fascinated with death and dead materials – Dust for instance and how it relates to death. Later in life I had my own personal experience with death, which furthered my interest as regards to trying to make sense of how life is reconstructed following loss. I believe that visual art allows us to navigate those things, the ideas of transience vs. permanence.

It’s the interesting thing about a creative practice. It allows us to 
question these things and understand how our personal experiences as 
well as our subconscious feed into our work.