WATCHING THE FALL
I was surprised when I red on the Guardian Week End an article by Oliver Burkeman, claiming that nowadays we should need “a revival of the artistic genre known as memento mori ” which was, in short, the continuous presence of a skull and a still life to remind us that our time on Earth is precious because we all shall return to ashes, one day or another.
In fact, contemporary art seems to be all about it now, everyone can confirm: from Damien Hirst’s skulls to Rachel Whiteread casts’ of time’s traces, from Polly Morgan’s taxidermy sculptures to Andy Warhol’s own pop skull to culminate in Chinese artist Zahng Huan wearing a meat suit. There is a continuous referral to the inevitability of death and decay by a long list of other living artists.
I won’t be saying that the subject is starting to bore a bit, especially in the hands of a talented young artist as Amelia Whitelaw. A graduated from Chelsea College of Art and Design, Whitelaw is certainly bringing Process Art back to its old glory, with a sprinkle of the old beloved vanitas we seem to always be so much in need of. In Whitelaw’s sculptures, art is not a finite product to sell like too many around at this time, but a creative process, a displayed page on which several different paragraphs can be written.
This is about the first time I saw Amelia Whitelaw’s performance: The Courtauld Institute of Art, February this year, a group show called, incidentally, Time and Time Again. Whitelaw was commissioned an installation for the five-storey stairwell and produced one of her now renowned dough sculptures. The images show 200 kg of dough starting a descent from the ceiling into four different sized nets, which limited and conditioned its vital movement. The dough was captivating; its fleshy-like, slow movements seemed to belong to an organic being trapped by unanimated structures built by men. At the beginning, its advancing through the first net was nearly imperceptible. Only tiny bits were lost, falling into the second net like a sketch of a left trace. And I found myself mesmerized by that moment, holding breath at each falling. I felt part of it, I saw time unfolding, and I saw the beauty of a simple yet powerful symbolic thing as the dough. Flour, water and salt, equally proportioned. Nourishment and matter. Effort. Effort to reach its goal, the last net, guided by the force of gravity and, why not, Fate.
After a couple of hours, the dough freed itself into a stalactite-like shape, longing for its next stop, while other bits of it were already reaching the end of the journey. But time was too short for it, water evaporated, mixing with people’s breath, and the dough dried out.
Dust to dust.
End note: Amelia - Newton - Whitelaw's recent show reviewed on Dazed Digital.