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Media Release Tu 31.10.06

An autopsy of our relation to the dead

Between not-daring-to-look and being-unable-to-look-away

The exhibition Six Feet Under is dedicated to the way we deal with our dead. Violence and death are omnipresent in the media, but direct contact with death is avoided in our culture. Representations of dead people can exert a strange fascination on us: we oscillate between not-daring-to-look and being-unable-to-look-away. Six Feet Under illustrates the fact that death is a universal and ancient theme in art. Works are being presented from the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts Bern covering various centuries, loans from other institutions and artists as well as works that have been done specially for the exhibition. The main emphasis is on contemporary art from different continents and civilizations – Europe, America, Mexico, China, Japan, Thailand, India and Ghana. 

Six Feet Under is a saying that has also become the title of a popular American television series as well as the title of this exhibition. The newly awakened interest evinced by art, popular culture and research in death is an indication that this topic is no longer repressed but that a «new visibility of death» (Thomas Macho) has developed, to which this exhibition would like to contribute. There is no culture that has not depicted death, as the works of art from various epochs and continents in the exhibition Six Feet Under are witness to. The fear of death and the desire to see and to recognize are regarded as the most important driving forces of human action and thought, they are the origin of human culture. In the specific viewing of (a picture of) a corpse, this perceptual inconsistency comes to a head: we are torn between not-daring-to-look and being-unable-to-look-away. Thus, depictions of the dead often exert an unusual fascination on us.

Exhibition in six chapters
The exhibition is divided into six thematic chapters that make a dynamic juxtaposition of art works possible. The first chapter deals with Corpses, Skulls and Skeletons. Artists such as Andres Serrano, Jean-Frédéric Schnyder, Ferdinand Hodler, Karl Stauffer-Bern and Stefan Balkenhol present to our gaze things that we don’t like to see and which therefore exert a particular fascination: the dead and rotting human body reduced to its bones – our body, as we will never see it. In the second chapter Coffins, Gravesand Tears, works of art are shown that deal with burial and mourning rituals. Thus Kinderbegräbnis by Albert Anker, in which death is only seen reflected in the body language of the mourners, is juxtaposed to the work by the Mexican artist Teresa Margolles: the body of a stillborn child is immersed in a small, flat block of concrete. The mother does not have enough money for a burial. Coffins by Ghanaian artists are also being shown that were made especially for the exhibition. All of the works presented in the third chapter, Homages – The Beloved and Honoured Dead, show the bodies of persons who were close to the artists concerned. Claude Monet’s portrait of his dead wife is exhibited as well as a large-format work by A A Bronson depicting his dead colleague Felix Partz who died of AIDS. The Death of the Artist has as its theme the finality and radicalism of suicide. The Estonian artist Ene-Liis Semper makes a series of staged suicides. In contrast, the British artist Keith Arnatt stages his own burial in a series of photographs. Death and Lifestyle alludes to the New Romanticism of the 1980s. One can find the neo-Roman spirit and the yearning for death in the objects and installations by David Altmjed. The discussion with death by the Japanese photographer Izima Karou is based on the tradition of beautiful dead in Japanese art and literature. In the final chapter, Afterlife, the subject is the speculation of what happens after death. In the Berner Allerseelenaltar from 1506, the dead are holding a mass for the benefit of the living. The video works by the Thai artist Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook, on the other hand, are based on performances that were staged in morgues excluding the public. The exhibition is accompanied by a varied programme and a catalogue in German and English.

The exhibition is generously supported by the Foundation GegenwART.