Death comes to town
The Cultural Center explores the intersections of art and death
02/01/2012 10:00 PM
Richard Harris deals in death.
The art collector and dealer has amassed a mammoth collection of art and artifacts exploring the iconography of death and mortality. The selections are astonishing — 1,500 works stretching the length of recorded history, from a carved jade skull dating to 2000 BCE China to works by contemporary artists and photographers.
Chicago has a rare opportunity to experience Harris’ brushes with death with Morbid Curiosity: The Richard Harris Collection, which presents highlights from Harris’ collection through July 8th at the Chicago Cultural Center. Housed in the upper galleries on the Cultural Center’s top floor, the collection is divided into two distinct halves: The Kunstkammer of Death and The War Room.
The Kunstkammer of Death in the Sidney Yates Gallery has the feel of a posh Victorian salon. This is intentional.
The room is presented as a traditional Kunstkammer, or “cabinet of curiosities”—status rooms maintained by wealthy Europeans full of random, exotic artifacts gathered from worldly travels. With its towering ceilings, ornate colonnades and warm red walls, the massive Sidney Yates Gallery was made for such replication.
Like a Kunstkammer, the Yates Gallery is crammed with ephemera from around the world revealing varying depictions of and reactions to death. It’s an overwhelming gathering.
Rows of plaster Day of the Dead skulls from Mexico. A case full of 19th century Dance of Death figures. Two skeletons dressed in dandy, pre-Napoleonic French attire. 19th century medical charts showcasing vivisections of the human body. A headhunter’s trophy from India. The list goes on and on.
There are absolute standouts, however, particularly pieces that bring an ounce of levity to the morbidity.
Jodie Carey’s “In the Eyes of Others” hangs from at the center of the gallery. It’s a massive, beautifully constructed, blindingly white chandelier weighing over one ton. Or is it? Close inspection reveals that it is made entirely from bones. Well, the plaster casts of bones, but the replacement doesn’t minimize the brilliance.
Near the back of the gallery sits a grotesque, very realistic, life-sized man made of wax. His face has been eaten away revealing skull and tissue. A lone ear hangs. Bones are exposed through torn flesh. Only one leg remains. Intestines spill out onto the shipping crate upon which he’s perched. Artist John Isaacs hilariously names the piece, “Are You Still Mad at Me?”
Such levity is largely absent in the adjoining Exhibit Hall where The War Room, a collection of prints, sculptures and installation pieces that explore the artists’ relationship to war, is set up.
Harris’ prints by Jacques Callot, Francisco Goya, Otto Dix, the Chapman brothers and Sandow Birk depict horrors experienced both on the battlefield and on the homefront, running through the Thirty Years War (Callot), the Napoleonic invasion of Spain (Goya) and World War I (Dix) through the Iraq War and other recent engagements (Chapman brothers and Sandow).
The prints are absolutely fascinating. They depict wartime at various stages in history, but uniformity exists. Regardless of time, place or technological advancement, there’s universality to the wartime experience. Simply put: it is hell.