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Images of the dead: ethics and contemporary art practice

By Mary O'Neill


In this chapter I will discuss death in the museum in the form of exhibitions of photographic images of the dead focusing on ‘The Morgue’ (1992), by Andreas Serrano, and ‘Life before Death’ by Walter Schels and Beate Lakotte, exhibited at the Welcome Collection (WC) in 2008. In recent years there have been a number of exhibitions that have presented us with photographs of the dead that have instigated and contributed to discussions concerning the role of art and the appropriateness of photographing the dead, and have highlighted cultural sensitivities concerning the treatment of the corpse. These exhibitions are often discussed in relation to ethical considerations; however, I will posit the argument that the ‘ethical turn’ in discussions of contemporary art is often an avoidance of difficult subjects rather than an engagement with them. To elucidate some of the issues involved in public perceptions of the ethical issues involved in the display of the dead and images of the dead, I will explore two exhibitions that took place in Manchester in 2008. Gunther Von Hagen’s ‘Body Worlds 4’ exhibition took place at the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI), while at the same time the Manchester Museum (MM) (in the university) covered some of the mummies in their Egyptian display - the unwrapped mummy of Asru and a partially wrapped child mummy - in order to raise issues about the ethics of showing human remains. Both exhibitions had a stated educational purpose though these were framed differently. In the longer version of this chapter I also discuss the appropriation of the dead through a discussion of the funeral in Uppsala Cathedral in 2002 of Fadima Sahindal, a 26 woman of Kurdish decent who was shot by her father because she persisted in a relationship of which he disapproved, exemplifies Durkheim’s assertion that public ritual reinforces common values and social integration. It is precisely the concept of integration that was one of the principle elements of ‘social glue’ that was being preserved in the Swedish establishment’s response to the murder

Topics: W100 Fine Art
Publisher: Inter-Disciplinary Press
Year: 2011
OAI identifier:

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