Flesh. York Art Gallery

I found the exhibition Flesh challenging, especially pieces which looked at decomposition or what’s on the inside. The exhibition looked at how artists have portrayed bodies and necessarily, mortality. I found myself averting my eyes from

Fig. 1 Berlinde De Bruyckere, Romeu (mu deer), 2011. Photo by Anthony Chappel -Ross

Berlinde De Bruyckere, Romeu (mu deer), 2011. Photo by Anthony Chappel-Ross.


Fig. 2 Ron Mueck, Youth 2009, Photo by Anthony Chappel-Ross

Ron Mueck, Youth, 2009, with Dr Jo Applin, Courtauld Institute of Art, Co-Curator of Flesh. Photo by Anthony Chappel-Ross.


Fig. 3. A Little Death, Sam Taylor Wood

There was a sense of unpleasant queasiness in the air – you didn’t know what horror you would be presented with next.

I was drawn to a small still life by Chardin.

Fig. 4. Still Life. The Kitchen Table. It is beautiful. The colours, composition and light are just perfect.

Chardin is doing something very different in his picture to Sam Taylor Wood in “A Little Death”. Her video challenges us to look on death and decomposition. In her own description of the video she describes it as “shockingly violent” and “frightful” which makes me feel better about not wanting to look. Is Chardin thinking about death? The eggs could refer to life and birth and the salmon to death – or is he just thinking about dinner?

I thought about why decay in particular is so difficult to look at. Does it provoke fear? It certainly provokes disgust which is a natural reaction to something which is related to disease and ill health. Should we overcome our disgust and look closely, or should we accept it and move on?

I have been thinking recently about artists whose work appeals to me and have come to the conclusion that they are often skilled at evoking a mood or atmosphere – not necessarily a happy mood – but something that pulls you into a different place. In this case, being pulled into a world of death and decomposition was never going to be a particularly happy experience. It did provoke a lot of thoughts about why we like art and what art we like and also thoughts about death and decay as a subject for art.




2 thoughts on “Flesh. York Art Gallery”

  1. It’s fair enough to be interested in death and decomposition (I am myself – its my focus for both assignment 2 and 3) and I like Sam Taylor Wood’s video of fruit decomposing, but it makes me really angry that she should make this video of a hare – she wouldn\t be allowed to get a human body from a mortuary for this experiment because it would be disrespectful and debasing to the dead person – so why does she think it is ok to do it to a non-human animal? Ethics need to be applied to art just as much as to research in the areas of science and the humanities. In my view something that calls itself ‘art’ that is at the same time unethical (as I think this is) is not to be admired or given respect.


    1. Thanks for the interesting comment. The exhibition featured a striking series of 17th century Japanese drawings of the decomposition of a noblewoman – apparently Buddhist monks used the drawings to contemplate death and possibly the revolting nature of the female body. It might be possible to show the human body’s decay in the way Sam Taylor Wood did if the dead person had given their consent. For example, the Bodyworks exhibition featured plasticised human bodies of people who had given their consent before death. There is a massive area for debate about artistic ethics – I tend towards freedom rather than control but completely see there are boundaries which can’t be crossed, but which are not fixed and change, often rapidly, through history.


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