Science IS Culture (by way of Death: A Self Portrait)

This week I beat the January blues by spending my lunch break at an exhibition about death. It might sound like a strange way to convince myself that being back to my ordinary life isn’t really so rough, but “Death: A Self Portrait” at the Wellcome Collection turned out to be a strangely uplifting experience.

The Wellcome Trust, which hosted this exhibition, is one of the UK’s largest funders of biomedical research. Intriguingly, alongside their core work of supporting scientific research in areas ranging from genetics to neuroscience and global health, the Trust also maintains a substantial outreach programme. This entails not only the fostering of dialogue between medicine and art (see the art and neuroscience series with the Barbican, for instance), but also the management of the Wellcome Collection, which features consistently excellent exhibitions for the ‘inexorably curious’.

The Collection’s exhibitions usually try to place cutting edge science in a historical and cultural context and the current installation is no exception. Death: A Self Portrait displays the collection of Richard Harris, a former antique print dealer from Chicago, who amassed an astonishing collection of objects, prints and photographs relating to death. The exhibition starts with the ‘to-be-expected’ contemplations of death through momento mori and vanitas, but it extends to more recent works, including a bronze skull by Kiki Smith cast from her own head and a photograph of Robert Mappelthorpe’s skull-handled walking stick.

Dance of Death, Walter Sauer (Wellcome Images/The Richard Harris Collection)

Yet the exhibition avoids focussing solely on the morbid, and more playful elements abound: you look upwards in one bit of the gallery to find a grim reaper above your head. I particularly enjoyed the pieces that anthropomorphised death, such as dancing skeletons, a grim reaper picking his victim at random, and a Hogarth print of a wrestler fighting death.

On a far more serious note (but one which did not come across as oppressive) the exhibition also tackles the ways in which artists have attempted to reconcile themselves with violent death through prints by Goya and German expressionist painter Otto Dix. The huge collection of prints by Dix represents his personal reckoning with the horrors of WWI trench warfare. Although some were hard to look at, and others were rather eerie, I was grateful that this ‘self portrait’ of death was an honest one and didn’t simply consider death as a natural process.

Otto Dix, Shock Troops Advance Under Gas, 1924, Etching and Aquatint from the Series Der Krieg (Wellcome Images/Richard Harris Collection)

The exhibition finishes with some lovely examples of the ways that we commemorate those whom we’ve lost (touching particularly on Tibetan and Latin American practices). Death: A Self Portrait provides the viewer with a fascinating array of material that touches on all dimensions of death, reminding us that, try as we might, we cannot escape it—the grim reaper comes for us all whether in circumstances peaceful, unjust, or extreme. Taken as a whole, I was particularly struck by the way that the exhibit highlights that, although death is a universal biological fact, distinct human cultures have chosen to respond to it in uniquely creative ways, both very public and very private (see the ‘Stories from the Hospice’ section of their exhibition blog).

The outstanding content of the exhibition aside, I was left thinking about the formal relationship between art and science within cultural institutions. Death: A Self Portrait is very clearly an art exhibition, but it is displayed in the gallery of a funder of biomedical research and I think that I can reasonably suggest that none of the artists (aside perhaps from the contemporary ones) had the slightest inkling that they were making art about a scientific subject matter. These artists were making art in response to human experiences, and while the death does have a scientific explanation, it is also has enormous cultural resonance. I have to confess (and most press reviewers seem to agree)—this show was profoundly affecting—simultaneously haunting and joyous.

It strikes me that art should have a home in scientific institutions and that definitions such as “art inspired by science” or “sciart” shouldn’t really exist (are they more public engagement monickers?). It’s all art—whether in the form of a cultural artefact inspired by a culture in a lab, or in the form of a landscape painting inspired by the degradation of an environment. Inasmuch as science is something (generally) carried out by humans and for human benefit, there is an inherently personal relationship to it. An exhibition of art related to climate change should not be didactic, rather it seek to capture the myriad ways that we respond to this scientific and cultural phenomenon. The same is true for energy. And for particle physics.

Science is part of our culture and, in fact, it’s an integral part of our culture. Artists should feel to respond and in unlikely and imaginative ways, and our scientific establishments should support them in their endeavours.


Death: A Self Portrait is on display at the Wellcome Collection, London, until 24 February 2013. Admission is free.

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3 Responses to Science IS Culture (by way of Death: A Self Portrait)

  1. Jim Birch says:

    Interesting post. I’ve spent a lot of time recently wondering why so many people just don’t get science. As a result, I’ve stopped thinking of science as a logically separate category of activity to other stuff we do. Science is a big multistranded narrative. Scientific laws are narratives. This is not to say that scientific narratives are equivalent to any old narrative, it’s just to say that narratives are how humans understand the world, and how we communicate our understanding: through these sequences of associations. What makes science science, and homeopathy or the Illiad not science, is simply the practice of testing the narratives against reality. Narratives that do not fit reality are discarded, or honed into a new version that works.

    From an evolutionary viewpoint, becoming narrative-capable represents a massive leap for a species. Individual actions need no longer be generated by the immediate local observed environment, or by habit, but can be driven by retained narratives. Collecting good narratives – that is, narratives that improve your decisions – is obviously adaptive.

    A “good” narrative doesn’t have to be true – and in the Pleistocene it probably typically wasn’t – it just has to enable a better decision than you would have made without it. So we are beguiled by the story-tellers, driven to listen and collect narratives. Narratives can also create power for their power for their tellers: if I tell a believable story about why I am king, it secures my position. Therein lies our fall, we are seduced by the believable story and driven to make up stuff to control others.

    Science provides a radical antidote to our weakness for seductive tales. No matter how beguiling the story, it must pass any test thrown at it to be retained. And for as long as it passes, it is Science.

  2. Amber Poole says:

    Great blog, Johanna. This is an exhibition I’m sad to miss. One of the items on my “bucket list” is to celebrate El Dia de los Muertos in Mexico City. The sociological relationship the Latin culture has with the death, dying and the dead has intrigued me for a very long time: they take it into their bedrooms, into their stories, they make altars out of it, dance and sing with it, make art out of it. Thank you for this post; I’m looking forward to reading many more. A-

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