This week I’ve been tasked by my tutor to create a pared down, simplify sculpture, whilst still capturing the essence of my work. So I have considered an artist who has made incredible, minimalist works dealing with an enormously complicated and traumatic event.

I first saw Miroslaw Balka’s ‘Kategorie’ (2005) at the White Cube (Mason’s Yard) in the exhibition ‘New Order’ (April 2011), and it left a deep and lasting memory. The installation consists of a tunnel, or corridor, constructed of plain, gray-matt concrete, slightly taller than it is wide. Down the centre of the ceiling runs a row of five lights and five motors. From each motor hangs a single (barely visible) piece of thread which slowly rotates, each strand is dyed a different colour.

The simple design causes the viewer to wonder what it is they’re looking at, first I noticed the artist’s name, which sounds eastern block, European maybe? I thought that it was possibly something to do with the Balkan conflict, a direct leap from the name I suppose, but no he was from Poland, it said so alongside his name.

I read on and learned that : –

“The colours of the strands – red, violet, green, pink and black – are the colours assigned to uniforms identifying different categories of prisoner in the concentration camps (red for political prisoners; violet for Jehovah’s Witnesses; green for criminals; pink for homosexual and bisexual men; and black for Romany people, alcoholics and individuals with learning disabilities, among others).”

Susan May (2011) ’New Order’, White Cube, London

It’s clear to me from this and the rest of the catalogue text that the artist processes his cultural trauma from the wartime atrocities through his post-memory (being part of the “generation after”) generating this response. The work is strangely beautiful, and alluring, yet it is not until you read about the artist and his references that the true nature of the work is revealed. Therefore with all it’s aesthetic simplicity it is actually an extraordinarily complex piece which requires a codex to decipher, that is the galleries catalogue…

So what is my work about, and how can I simplify it’s appearance?

My art contains self-referential metaphors which are about my illness, prognosis, and my awareness of my own mortality (something typical of nearly all people at one point in their life or another, but my experience is earlier than that of most, at the age of 32 I was given 8 years to live). I’m now 42, therefore living on borrowed time and hoping for a breakthrough cure before I have to have a risky bone marrow transplant. Like Balka, I consider threads in my work, well at least the mythological threads woven by the fates. Time is also critical. As is existing in a state of limbo. The materials lead and gold leaf tend to feature in my work, which is a hint towards transcendence.

So maybe I’ll make a sculpture with a bobbin, or a reel, wound with lead thread or tape. It would be jammed so that it doesn’t turn, or possibly snapped from being jammed, and the end would be gilded…

I created this maquette this afternoon, I call it ‘Allotted 14/9/14’ indicating the day my prognosis ran out, normally I hate to miss a deadline but…

The wire needs some more work, I left it looking a bit like a walnut whip…

This is a better look… what do you think? I guess I’ll find out my tutor’s opinion tomorrow.


Many may consider my degree project to be about death, a memento mori or a vanitas work, however I am not so sure, yet I guess it is whatever the viewer want’s it to be. To me the work, is more about possibilities and existing at a crossroads of uncertainty, where the sword of Damocles hangs (as it does with everyone in reality, but) with a haunting prolepsis, that of the overdue nature of it’s pending swipe. However there might be a reprieve, a stay, as in the movies (‘Dead Man Walking’, or ‘The Life of David Gale’ which opens with a vista across a ploughed field, [SPOILER ALERT] “not that Gale gets a call from the warden at the 11th hour!”)

But first let’s consider the vanitas, a term used to describe a memento mori, latin for “Remember you have to die”. Vanitas, which is also latin, and literally means “emptiness”, from the Latin vanus, meaning empty or without substance. This references the christian view of a terrestrial existence (that of goods and earthly pursuits) as being worthless. The connection of vanitas to death probably derived from Jerome’s translation of the Greek and Hebrew Scriptures (405) Biblia Sacra Vulgata, Ecclesiastes verse 1:2 which states “Vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas”, in the King James Version (1611) this became ‘vanity of vanities; all is vanity’. In this case the meaning of the word vanity derives from the old english sense of futility, pointless, or in fact meaningless.

Therefore I’d argue that this was the opposite to what I was trying to represent, which is the possibility of cheating the inevitability of death, at least for the moment (whilst pausing to reflect on the past and future).

Anyway many artists have considered mans mortality using more ‘out of the box’ (excuse the pun) ways of thinking, such as through surrealism: –

In others’ work we might see death through the knowledge that he is actually lurking in the background, as described by Roland Barthes as the punctum (for more see link) such as in van Gogh’s ‘Wheatfields with Crows’ (1890) which he painted shortly before his suicide, or the photography of Francesca Woodman who committed suicide at the tender age of 22. Not forgetting Bacon’s ‘Triptych’ depicting his boyfriend in the very throes of death (which is probably more about after-memory than punctum)…

Rene Magritte referenced the art of past masters in a series he called Perspectives, in which he replaced the characters in the composition for  coffins, such as in ‘Perspective II: Manet’s Balcony’ (1950); which is full of black humour.

Others have depicted death through mythology…

Or through religious iconography…

Whilst some have used literary references…

Many artists have been far more direct, depicting skulls, skeletons and corpses as memento mori…

Others hide death’s presence or even try to capture a thought of it as Kahlo does…

Here’s an example of an artist who has taken a more tangental approach to the topic…

After all that death (in the spirit of T2) why not choose life… several artists have captured actual life in their art. For instance a collaboration led by Ken Goldberg created ‘The Telegarden’ (1995-2004) a remotely accessible garden (by a webcam), which could also be tended over the web by a robot… you can now download STL files which will enable you to 3D print a version via their website. Then there’s Wim Delvoye who built a machine called the ‘Cloaca Original’ (2000) which processed food like an organic creature, where a series of vats bubbled and parped away, creating stools at the end of the chain, and not unlike Piero Manzoni he managed to sell his waste… then there are the Harrison’s et al.

Here are a few images and links to relevant articles.

The Telegarden Link

Artists come Avant-Gardeners at The Royal Academy

Nature in the Barbican

After reflecting on all of this, I’m considering titling my piece ‘Ceci n’est pas une vanitas’ ,“This is not a vanitas”, or should that be ‘C’est une vanitas’, “this is a vanity”. It’s important to get the correct double (negative) meaning.

Magritte’s famous painting was titled ‘This is Not a Pipe’ but it was a symbol of a pipe.

My art is not a vanitas, and it remains a symbol which is one that is not a vanitas, so it does not flip and become a vanitas, such as in a double negative therefore…

Ce n’est pas une vanitas’ – “This is not a vanitas”

Or possibly in the spirit of Marcel Broodthaers (who likes a play on words and straight puns)

Ce n’est pas une vanité’ – “This is not a vanity” so this is not empty.

Or I could possibly be referencing a friend who described my pursuit in education as an indulgence, in which I think he meant “a non-essential luxury”, or a means to pamper such as one might if they were vain?

Anyway, is anyone still reading this drivel? If so here’s an update on my wheat trays: –

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