An exhibition exploring creative responses to mortality, transience and ritual.

Untitled (Damned Spot) by Falmouth BA(hons) Fine Art student Joanna Hulin at the 2015 3rd Year Exhibition, Falmouth University, Woodlane Campus, Cornwall, 04/06/2015
Untitled (Damned Spot) by Falmouth BA(hons) Fine Art Graduate Joanna Hulin


Deadline: Friday 13th November 5pm

Please include the following information on proposal:





Please submit a short proposal (max 200 words) and up to 5  images of your work (JPEG each file no bigger than 1mb) and how it addresses themes of mortality, transience or ritual.

Email submissions to: cafemorte13@gmail.com

Postal submission: Lucy Willow/ Mercedes Kemp Falmouth Campus, Woodlane, Falmouth, Cornwall, TR11 4RH

or delivered by hand to Falmouth Campus reception and marked for the attention of Lucy Willow/ Mercedes Kemp

Deadline for exhibiting artists Friday 4th December for work to arrive at Falmouth University project space.

Cafe Morte are curating  an exhibition to showcase creative responses to  themes of mortality, loss, absence, grief, immortality, transience, endings, transgressions, death, memorial, ritual, mourning and resurrection. The exhibition will run at the same time as a symposium organised by MOTH (a graphic design research group) where invited guest speakers Stephen Cave, Dr Tony Walter and Joe Macleod will be presenting their research in this field.

We hope that the response to the open call will include a wide range of practitioners from different fields and be made up of artists, writers, musicians, architects, performers, film makers and fine artists. The exhibition will form a platform for discussions to take place addressing some of the often tabooed issues of death in creative practice.

Joanna Hulin- What makes painting (or the act of painting) important when depicting death or dying?

To start with, I established why painting (out of all the choices we have today) could possibly be the medium of choice when expressing death. Through numerous pieces of prose by other painters and my own experience, there are various points of discussion to be had, particularly the questions of What aspects of it make it individual, and how is it different from a practice such as photography? How does one ‘read’ a painting, and what makes it successful or interesting?

As host this week I focused specifically and deliberately on painters of varying technical skill throughout the 20th/21st Century who had experienced grief and loss, and whether this had affected their work. A question I wanted to open up for discussion was, “if they were affected, how did it change their way of painting?” Painters that were brought up in the discussion included Edvard Munch, Francis Bacon, Marlene Dumas, Picasso, Justin Mortimer and briefly, myself – which gives an idea of how varied I wanted the work to be. It is notable to point out that each of these artists have all experienced loss in a completely different way, under various circumstances. Munch lost his sister, Bacon his partners, Picasso his friend, and Dumas her mother.


These all turned out to be pivotal in deciding the direction of their artistic careers. Munch experienced the death of his sister very early on within his career, and this would then turn out to be an incident that would haunt him for the rest of his life. This has been portrayed in the work ‘The Sick Child’, the composition of which was constantly revisited throughout his entire life. The piece is a portrayal of his sister, Sophie, sitting up in bed at the time of her illness. Munch seemed to want to recreate this scene just before her death ‘perfectly’, but apparently never could, as seen by his numerous attempts. At this point it should be noted that more traditional methods of making art (sculpture, printmaking, painting) were the only things available to make an image, however this did not stop Munch straying from the norms of ‘classical’ painting at the time, as we can see through his fluid, rapid brush marks.


This hurried, expressionistic style is also seen in Picasso’s painting of his friend Casagemas lying in a coffin, after committing suicide at the age of 20. It is argued that this event heavily inspired his ‘blue period’, with Picasso noting that “Thinking of Casagemas being dead makes me paint in blue“.

Here we can see a (perhaps obvious) correlation beginning to present itself – a single, substantial traumatic event resulting in loss, which proceeds to resonate with the artist, changing the way they think and work. Francis Bacon often said that he was chased by bad luck (or “furies”, as he named them) – and was constantly surrounded by the threat of extinction. His attitude towards life was usually commented upon with dark wit and dry humour:

I am a painter of the 20th century: during my childhood I lived through the revolutionary Irish movement, Sinn Fein, and the wars, Hiroshima, Hitler, the death camps, and daily violence that I’ve experienced all my life. And after all that they want me to paint bunches of pink flowers.” 

Though many of his friends and colleagues died over the years, the ones that most notably affected him were the deaths of his lovers, Peter Lacy and George Dyer. Dyer’s suicide the evening before the opening of one of Bacon’s exhibitions left him distraught. Though Bacon was often cynical and did not speak particularly openly about his many losses, this changed with the production of ‘Triptych May-June 1973’.

Other painters that were touched upon throughout the session included the work of Justin Mortimer, Jenny Saville and Daphne Todd, whose works are all, in some way, commentaries on mortality. Many of these use transference to create a discussion around mortality: Mortimer and Saville’s most well-known works do not use any references in which the artist is familiar with the subject being painted. Many are extremely detached – which creates an interesting discussion into whether this ‘barrier’ is a product of over-saturation of troubling news articles, as well as the almost chronic fear of death in today’s society. I noted that despite this trend, Todd in particular is interesting due to her literal painting ‘Last Portrait of Mother’, for which she won the BP Portrait prize in 2010. This image seemed to resonate quite intensely with the rest of the group.


In 2007 my mother died at noon.
[The exhibition] was about loss
and departure, but also about transformation and freedom.
A spirit set free. My grief and her relief.

So I made the (film)stars and the gods weep for her.”

Marlene Dumas ‘For Whom The Bell Tolls’ –


I touched briefly on my own experiences with personal deaths being integral to my work; and I stressed the importance of anonymity. The conversation then turned to moral dilemmas in visual art, particularly when talking about personal themes in work.  At what point is it ‘acceptable’ to introduce who the sitter is, particularly if they are the person who is facing the realities of being mortal? Upon writing this post I realised that the anonymity could possibly be essential in the work due to the mystery – the tantalisation of the audience, leaving them wanting to know more. In my case it was both this and feeling uncomfortable with the thought of something personal being so open, which many artists find a difficult obstacle.

Andrew [Ross] and I also spoke about why we feel art relating to death needs to be made at all. I was asked what I would like from making the work, and whether it is something for myself or for the audience. My own opinion is that if the work was merely for myself, there would be no point in being a practising artist, as I would not be showing anybody my creations. I personally place an importance in the feeling of being ‘connected’ with others – that is, to be able to relate or empathise with certain situations or people, and in this case it is being able to ‘speak’ to those who have experienced grief, or being able to inform those that have not necessarily been as affected by it.

Joanna Hulin (Graduate, Falmouth University, Fine Art)

DEAD: A Celebration of the Obvious- 04/07/2015


CAFÉ MORTE meets at the Saatchi Gallery. The exhibition is Dead – literally. A sculptural pile of dead mice greets the audience on entering the space. Artist David Falconer titled the work Vermin Death Stack, which is exactly what it was: a floor to ceiling stack of dead mice. As a child I would have been enchanted by finding a multitude of death piled so high. My adult mind however finds it only mildly entertaining and I require so much more from art. Nothing is left to the imagination, nothing to contemplate and certainly no space for the viewer to enter the work. It’s all very literal. Titled Dead a celebration of mortality, a question is raised as to what if anything Charles Saatchi would like the audience to consider when viewing the works in this exhibition?

IMG_3775Jordan Baseman’s skinned cat and dog (The Cat and The Dog) hang on the wall like hunting trophies. The trophies of death collected by artists. Meaningless conversations emerge between the works. We wonder how the artists felt to have their work presented in this context? If Saatchi had wanted to curate a powerful dialogue around the tabooed subject of death he could have selected any number of poetic works from his collection that address ideas relating to mortality such as Belinde De Bruyckere, The Black Horse, or Marianne Vitale sunken gravestones made from reclaimed wood or perhaps Sun Yuan and Peng Yu Angel. I have had numerous encounters with death at the Saatchi Gallery that have, left an impact on me emotionally. I felt I was able to question the deeper issues of mortality in the midst life while in the presence of these powerful works. Instead we encounter the somewhat humorous Littlewhitehead’s It all Depends on Ones Fantasies as a Child, a pile of corpses emerging from black rubbish sacks.

Many of the works seem to reference a sinister desire, a dark place of the imagined horrors of death, a place perhaps reminiscent of childhood anxieties. I am reminded of the experience of riding on a ghost train and the delight in knowing that the gory exhibits were not real. The pleasure to be found in dark fantasy can be seen in Daniel Brajn’s black melting dripping figure clinging to the floor. We know it is not real. It occupies the space of the nightmare. The associations with Gothic narratives in literature, the darker side of human nature are present if you are searching for a context, though somewhat limited.

In the heat of a  summer day in the city we left feeling cold, unmoved, unchanged, untroubled and a little disappointed.

Hoping it would reveal  something I had missed or not understood, a deeper level to the exhibition perhaps, I bought the book. However it was lighter than the exhibits- Presented in the shape of a slab of marble, gimmicky and full of entertaining stories, such as the story of James Campbell who was run over by his pet dog. Apparently he left the car running and jumped out to open the garage door when at that moment his pet dog jumped into the front of the car and sat on the accelerator. He was killed outright. His wife was unable to do anything, surely must have laughed a little? The book illustrates this point with a photo of a dog sitting behind a steering wheel in case we missed the content in the text. I wonder if the words have been generated  by stories of death found in the Sun newspaper?  I laughed a lot when reading the book. This must be the point. The unspoken language of death brought to us in a coffee table style book, light and entertaining, perfect in fact for our CAFÉ MORTE discussion over tea and biscuits. We were genuinely able to avoid any serious questions relating to mortality. Not sure if this kitsch and humorous exhibition is in fact a ‘celebration of mortality’ or could have more appropriately been tilled ‘a celebration of the obvious’. It certainly did make the often, heavy subject of death light and entertaining.

Lucy Willow

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.

Screen Shot 2015-11-19 at 16.14.20

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.