THE DEAD AND THE DYING
by Henrik Sputnes
In art and literature death is forever present, a ‘memento mori’ which spans centuries and media and includes works by Warhol, van Utrecht and Mann, together with netsukes, bronzes and architectonic arrangements of human bones. The representation of death and dying has assumed endlessly diverse forms and shapes: friend, enemy, or lover. Death can also be a disappearance, as in the last few sentences in Marguerite Duras’ last book, No More (C’est tout). “I will go to another plane. Nowhere. February 28. It’s over. Everything is over. It’s appalling. February 29 I love you Goodbye.”
In 1819 Francisco de Goya moves to a house outside of Madrid; it’s called Quinta Del Sordo, the deaf man’s house. Shattered by the many horrors he had witnessed, he paints the giant Saturn devouring his own son. The head is already eaten and the Titan is in the process of swallowing his son’s left arm. Art becomes reminder that you and only you can die your own death.
Ernst Jünger was the writer who wrote while ready to again go into battle, his rifle comfortably slung over his shoulder. Fascinated by the transcendence, Jünger chose the magical path and it was in intoxication and war he sought his deliverance. Throughout both World Wars, death dances around him on the battlefields. In his writing he studies the war as an inner experience, a work that results in the autobiographical description of war, Storm of Steel, perhaps the most beautiful book that has ever been written about the war.
In the 1960s Unica Zürn experiments with the surrealistic painting technique automatism, a technique with the purpose of freeing the language of the unconscious. Her paintings tends increasingly towards the portraying of aggressive creatures and uncanny places filled with dark miracles. One day she meets the poet Henri Michaux and is instantly convinced that this man is identical to the fantasy figure of her childhood, the Jasmin man. The encounter results in a psychosis from which she never recovers. On October 19, 1970, Zürn ends her life by throwing herself out of a window of the apartment she shares with her husband, the artist Hans Bellmer.
In 1975, only 19 years of age, Thomas Silverstein is introduced to the federal American prison system. Later, Silverstein becomes a Christ figure for interns all over the US when he and another intern together kill two prison guards in one of the most secure prisons of the nation. Since 1983 Silverstein lives in a specially designed cell, under the strictest conditions that has ever been implemented on behalf of an intern. The light is on twenty-four seven in an isolation where he’s deprived of all human contact. In his sketch, A Study of a Head, with the renaissance artist Andrea Del Verrocchio’s study with the same title as master, he had given the woman’s face a fragile, almost spectral appearance. Death as a cool and lulling drift towards the underworld.
In his desk drawer, the French philosopher Georges Bataille kept a photography of a torture scene. The condemned man in the picture is tied to a wooden stake while a group of men is cutting out small bits of flesh from his torso, in accordance with an ancient Chinese execution method called lingchi, translated into English as Death by a thousand cuts. The slow and prolonged cutting keeps the victim in an act of dying, in the moment between life and death. Bataille describes the vision that the photo conveys as unbearable and yet he can’t stop looking at it. His hands are shaking and through the nausea which floods him again and again he experiences a feverish intoxication. The face of the tortured man is like a flash of lightning over a dark sea at night.
Oskar Nilsson’s work appears to be disconnected illustrations out of a book of fairy tales where repressed experiences and wishes unfold before our eyes. An unintentional violence permeates Nilsson’s imagery, threatening to break forth at the first opportunity, as in Midgets at War. It is a violence which is reminiscent of the fairytales by the brothers Grimm. For those who only know the Disney film versions, the original tales may seem quite brutal. In the original fairytale, Cinderella’s stepsisters cut off their heel as well as a toe to make their feet fit the glass shoe. And in the tale about the Juniper Tree a stepmother cuts a small boy into pieces and makes a stew, serving it to the unsuspecting father.
The nationalism that the Brothers Grimm wanted to conjure up through their tales was embraced by Adolf Hitler, and the Nazis would make their own interpretations of the stories. In the filmed version of Little Red Riding Hood, the evil wolf was meant to symbolize the Jew, and Little Red Riding Hood herself, with a swastika on her clothing, symbolized the duped German people. In several of Nilsson’s works, we meet the showering Nazi. The nudity combined with the swastika and the rubber ducks lend an underlying tone of naïve and simultaneously perverted evil to the pictures. In Disaster training, one of the rubber ducks is introduced to the Nazi’s anus. A moment of non communication arises as the anus stares back with its inverted gaze, devoid of meaning. The lack of linguistic structures is a recurring theme in Nilsson’s paintings.
Nilsson’s figures insist on existing only, in a forever repetitive staging of death. It comes across with extra clarity in Fullmoon Exercise, where a figure dressed as a ghost communicates through and with glove puppets in the shape of phantoms. There is no acknowledgement of death as meaning the end of existence.
Even that which lacks substance has a prominent place in Oskar Nilsson’s world of pictures. Impure substances like blood, sperm and soft drinks are perpetually set circulating. The subject experiences the strongest feelings of disgust and nausea before the sticky, Jean-Paul Sartre writes. The sticky eliminates the border between ourselves and the surrounding world.
Nilsson’s pictures open up a sewage system of references, a labyrinth of possibilities. Yet, these references don’t offer any exit or way out from among themselves. Maybe that’s Nilsson’s artistic intention. To show our time as it has become; a time which, while clinging to its rigid conception of life, drives us towards the death it denies. A life where people are driven by a yearning to escape the fundamental conditions of human existence, to a world where the living life and the other’s gaze no longer is present.