Overkill: art rising from the dead

aurel_schmidt_body_swallows worldThings have gone rather quiet on the mortality front since queues stretched around the White Cube block in Mason’s Yard for a sight of Damien Hirst’s £50m sculpture For the Love of God. In those days of skulls and diamonds, Paul Wilks wrote a letter to The Jackdaw lamenting the morbidity of contemporary art, wondering why two horrific world wars had produced “art infused with LIFE” while a record period of peace and prosperity had left a legacy of art obsessed with death.

He had a point – there was a lot of it about. From Ron Mueck’s Dead Dad and the Chapmans’ Hell to Sam Taylor Wood’s time-lapse films of decomposing fruit and furry animals and Marc Quinn’s endless stream of Blood Head selfies, the art world mood music of the turn of the century was the bells of hell going tingalingaling and the tills chachinging. In those halcyon years of boom before the bust, vanitas, vanitas, all was vanitas. Since then, however, things seem to have moved on. Sam Taylor Wood has graduated from death to sex and Marc Quinn, for his new exhibition at White Cube Bermondsey (until 13 September), has turned his attention from reflections on his own mortality to wider considerations of time and tide in big lumpy sculptures of Frozen Waves à la Maggi Hambling.

While it’s still too early to speak of a full recovery, the morbidity does seem to be receding. We’ve heard less from the media about that ghoulish reincarnation of Joseph Beuys, Gunther von Hagens, still trotting his plastinated corpses around the globe, and there’s been mercifully little mention of his Russian fellow-ghoul Andrei Molodkin and his plans to boil down human volunteers into oil. Either the volunteers got cold-pressed feet or Molodkin dropped off the media radar. Either way, it seems to confirm the surmise that economic hardship promotes positive art. Good news for Greece, where we can now look forward to a revival of the Age of Pheidias.

Meanwhile back in Blighty Charles Saatchi – the former financier of the YBA death merchants who made possible The Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living – has been bucking the trend with a silly season exhibition Dead: A Celebration of Mortality at the Saatchi Gallery, timed to publicise the launch of his book of the same title. Bound like a mini-tombstone between fake marble covers with incised gold lettering, this tasteful little tome relays a selection of the Evening Standard newspaper columns in which Saatchi has been jotting his weekly musings on life and death in that strangely disjointed style that makes you think of a clerk in a green visor tapping away at a vintage telegraph machine. Either that or it makes you wonder whether there might not be some connections missing in his brain.

All the same, he does have a tinder-dry sense of humour (though if he’s advertising for the next Mrs S, ‘DSOH’ may not be enough to swing it) and his chapter headings are chuckle-worthy. Some are laugh-out-loud funny in a Seth MacFarlane cartoonish sort of way – ‘Run Over by Your Own Car, Driven by Your Own Dog’. Some are on the Goyaesque side of macabre – ‘The Answer to Population Expansion and Food Shortages: Eat Children.’ Some are sensibly practical – ‘If You Want to Murder Your Spouse, Use Arsenic’ (don’t throttle her in public).