Death: art's final taboo

While artists have always explored aspects of mortality, there has been a recent surge in exhibitions – from starving dogs to photographs of terminally ill people – that dare to examine the subject as never before. Andrew Johnson reports

It was, perhaps, only a matter of time before contemporary art's obsession with death led to its natural conclusion: an exhibit featuring the act of dying.

The German artist Gregor Schneider is looking for volunteers who are willing to die in an art gallery for his latest work, according to the Art Newspaper. And in Nicaragua, a Costa Rican artist has created a storm of hostility by apparently tying up a dog in a gallery and leaving it to starve to death as a work of art. Schneider, who is known for his macabre sculptures of dark, foreboding houses and bodies lying prone with plastic bags on their heads, and who has represented Germany at the Venice Biennale, said: "I want to display a person dying naturally in the piece or somebody who has just died. My aim is to show the beauty of death. I am confident we will find people to take part."

The modern public's appetite for real death can be seen in the runaway success of Günther von Hagens's Body World's exhibition – in which real cadavers are preserved in varying states of dissection and which has been seen by 25 million people globally. It is currently showing in Manchester where it has already pulled in 100,000 visitors since February.

At the Wellcome Collection in London there is currently a moving display of portraits of ordinary people pictured before and after death by the German photographers Walter Schels and Beate Lakotta.

Meanwhile, animal rights activists have been in uproar over the fate of Natividad, a street dog captured by the artist Guillermo Vargas, otherwise known as Habacuc. Natividad was allegedly tied to a piece of string in a Nicaraguan gallery without food or water and left to starve to death late last year in a work called Eres lo que lees (You are what you read). The artist said the work was a comment on the thousands of street dogs that starve to death in Central America each year, but the US animal rights group the Humane Society said, as far as it could establish, the animal was fed and watered, and displayed for just three hours before it escaped.

Artists' interest in mortality can be seen in work from Hans Holbein's 16th-century The Ambassadors, in which a skewed skull comments on the vanity of the sitters, to Damien Hirst's recent diamond encrusted skull.

The art critic Brian Sewell said: "Schneider's idea is part of a new examination of death, following on from Günther von Hagens, which has popularised the macabre and bizarre. There is no doubt that the photographs at the Wellcome are based on sculpture, however. People say that death is the last taboo, and we talk about it in euphemism. It has very long roots in art, but is not as celebrated as the examination of beauty or youth."

And writing this week about Schneider's planned art work, Sewell wrote: "Can such a disquieting thing be art? Should it, indeed, be done in a civilised society? Perhaps so."

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