Rewind: Mortality

Annika von Hausswolff, Hey Buster! What do you know about desire?, 1993 (detail). Courtesy the artist and Moderna Museet, Stockholm

By Julia Powles

"Tomorrow, when I wake, or think I do, what shall I say of today?"
– Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot

Mortality is the recognition of inevitability. As we know, all things pass and our mortality outlines a journey along which there are certain markers, or stages, that we all pass through. We are born; we are infants, children, teenagers, adolescents, and young adults. We grow and at each stage there are unique opportunities for understanding, contemplation and reflection, as well as moments of sheer wonder, phenomenological experiences that form our deep, unspoken human knowledge.

In October 2010, as part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival, curated by Juliana Engberg, ACCA held the epic exhibition Mortality. Designed to take the viewer on a journey from birth to death, 48 artworks from 31 artists were presented in a sequence based on the ideas of the well-known developmental psychologist Erik Erikson’s seven stages of identity. Commencing with Fiona Tan’s 2002 video Tilt, in which a baby is lifted, chuckling with joy, into the air by helium balloons, and concluding with Tony Orsler’s lone, dangling light bulb, the exhibition explored and exposed the true nature of our mortality, where the contemplation of life’s journey necessarily and inevitably acknowledges our inability to hold control.

When the baby carried by balloons grows, and in turn becomes a parent she will understand in her very being the risk involved in setting one’s children free, and will feel the same conflicted ambiguity that I felt when I watched the video, a mix between hopeful optimism and fear for an unpredictable future.

Fiona Tan, Tilt, 2002. Courtesy the artist

Photography formed a considerable component of the exhibition, and this is no surprise. Photography is our medium for remembering. What family does not have a family album, and who does not love to look at photos of themselves when they were younger? However, as Susan Sontag points out in her essay, On Photography, photography in fact aids in our forgetting as much as it does our remembering, with unpleasant family events, such as divorce and illness rarely recorded.

An exception to this was Melanie Boreham’s use of her parent’s divorce as the subject of an artwork. As a ritual of separation, Boreham filmed her father cutting off lengths of her mother’s hair, which was then carried off by balloons. The landscape in which the couple stand, a rocky platform on the edge of the sea, acts as a metaphor for the ‘unknown’ into which they are now passing. Life, Boreham reminds us, holds uncertainties, things that were once rock solid become amorphous, as impossible to define as the changing shoreline.


Peter Kennedy, People Who Died the Day I was Born – April 18, 1945, 1998. Courtesy the artist and ACCA Archive

Throughout the exhibition, as the viewer journeyed through rooms signalling developmental milestones various, visual motifs recurred – balloons for example, as mentioned, and in many artworks we encountered flight. There is perhaps no more perfect tale than that of Icarus, who flew too close to the sun, to illustrate the desire we have to transcend our mortal condition. Landscape with The Fall of Icarus by Mark Wallinger involved a series of short films, each showing men attempting, but failing, to lift themselves off the ground. Often comedic in their predictability, the men pit their feeble wits against the law of gravity to no avail. By locating Wallinger’s work in the ‘mid-life’ section of the exhibition there may have been a wry nod to the hard-won wisdom that comes with maturity, as it is in our middle age that we grapple with the reality of our limitations, hopefully able to avoid the folly of hubris, yet still daring to dream.

Although conceived in our minds as a linear journey, for our own lived experience of mortality begins at one point and ends at another, life and death in fact coexist and there are times in life that our inability to control the world around us is frightening. I found myself turning away from the horror of the horse standing still in the middle of a highway, cars indifferently speeding past on both sides. Time After Time, Anri Sala’s video work reminds us that life isn’t kind to the vulnerable and disaffected. A powerfully metaphoric artwork, the image of the horse stamping its hind leg in confusion has stayed with me, in the way that only art can linger.

Towards the end of the Mortality journey was Charles Anderson’s installation of a room filled with objects from the past. Ladders, shovels, suitcases, chairs and desks were all partly bandaged, lit up in places by spots of neon suggestive of an afterglow. An infirmary of sorts, or possibly a repository for objects still yearning for human touch, I was reminded of Anderson’s work again recently when I saw that my father had cleaned out his shed, for the final time. ‘What should I do with my grandfather’s hand tools?’ he said to me, ‘they haven’t been used in years’.

Charles Anderson, dis/appearance: repatriation  1992 – 2010. Mortality installation view, ACCA, 2010. Courtesy the artist and ACCA Archive

Death, of course, formed the conclusion to Mortality, although it was also there at the beginning with Peter Kennedy’s neon work, People Who Died On The Day I Was Born. Both a sad and hopeful work, the simplicity of Kennedy’s list of names suggests the possibility of a greater human connection that extends beyond the constraints of the corporeal. Not until we are lost do we begin to understand about life, ourselves and the world around us wrote philosopher Henry David Thoreau.

Reflecting back on Mortality, remembering the meandering labyrinth of rooms one moved through I wonder if our journey from birth to death is not merely a journey towards understanding, but also a journey towards compassion.

8 October – 28 November 2010                     

Artists: Charles Anderson, George Armfield, Melanie Boreham, Bureau of Inverse Technology, Aleks Danko, Tacita Dean, Gabrielle De Vietri, Sue Ford, Garry Hill, Larry Jenkins, Peter Kennedy, Anastasia Klose, Arthur Lindsay, Dora Meeson, Anna Molska, TV Moore, Tony Oursler, Neil Pardington, Giulio Paolini, Mark Richards, David Rosetzky, Anri Sala, James Shaw, Louise Short, William Strutt, Darren Sylvester, Fiona Tan, Bill Viola, Annika von Hausswolff, Mark Wallinger, Lynette Wallworth, Gillian Wearing

Julia Powles is a curator and educator. In 2014 she has been working on ACCA’s First 30 Years archive program.