Proceedings of the Art of Death and Dying Symposium

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The University of Houston Libraries, in partnership with the Blaffer Art Museum, the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts, the Department for Hispanic Studies, the Honors College and School of Art, hosted a three day symposium titled "The Art of Death and Dying" on October 24-27, 2012. Selected papers from the symposium are collected here.


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    Death as Confrontational and Embracing in Symbolism
    (2018) Hartel, Herbert R., Jr.
    Death was hardly a new subject in the visual arts in the late-nineteenth century, having been depicted often in Christian and mythological narratives and symbolically in still lifes, portraits and landscapes. The Symbolists of the late-nineteenth century were fascinated with death, probably more than any earlier artists, and depicted it often.  Death was part of their interest in the bizarre, frightening, morbid, and mysterious. Prior to Symbolism, depictions of death sustained a measure of emotional, spatial and physical detachment between the grim subject and the viewer. Death was depicted with the necessary facts and details and was meant to effect the viewer emotionally, but it was still somewhat remote and safely on the other side of the picture plane. The Symbolists often strove to eliminate this separation between the viewer and the dead, between the living and the dead, as they pondered the mysteries of what death was. They showed death as a profound and mysterious event that was inescapable and always nearby.  Death was regarded as something to be avoided and feared, or accepted, or perhaps occasionally even welcomed, depending on the circumstances of the one who was seen dying.
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    Diane Victor: Ashes to Ashes
    (2018) Allara, Pamela
    Like Goya and Hogarth before her, South African artist Diane Victor is an artist-moralist who has used her virtuosic technical skills to expose the vices of violence, oppression and greed that have caused so much human suffering in pre- and post-apartheid South Africa. However, in her recent Transcend and the Lost Words series (2010-2011), representations of moral failings have transmogrified into the frailties of the flesh. Victor’s recent fragile drawings in book ash and charcoal dust refer, in her words, to the “ephemeral and transient aspects of human mortality.” The two series ask the viewer to question how death erases not only an individual life, but also a swath of cultural history. In this way, these specters bear witness to changes in South African society generally, and offer strong parallels with American culture as well.
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    Redefining the Mexican Tradition of Death: Teresa Margolles and the Embodiment of Absence
    (2018) Salazar, Mónica
    This paper focuses on the work of the Mexican artist Teresa Margolles (b.1963), whose entire oeuvre revolves around the idea of death. She holds degrees in both art and forensic medicine, and in the 1990’s she simultaneously worked on her artistic career and at the Mexico City morgue. Consequently, from the beginning Margolles’s art blended the world of art with that of the morgue by adopting human remains—parts of corpses, blood, skin, small pieces of flesh, and the water used to wash corpses—as her media. Although the criticism of her work is undeniably relevant to its particular context, her work should also be read in the broader context of Latin American Conceptualism, and within the narrative of Mexico’s quest for a truly national art.
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    Objects of Immortality: Hairwork and Mourning in Victorian Visual Culture
    (2018) Harmeyer, Rachel
    Often misunderstood as purely an artifact of mourning, hairwork was exchanged as a living, sentimental token of love and friendship in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Hair was an artifact of affection and a material for memory, and was often made into hairwork objects and jewelry. This function of hairwork can be understood in the context of the visual culture of death and dying in the nineteenth century, which equated beauty with immortality. This paper will show that sentimental hairwork was inextricably linked to portraiture, even when it was not tied to the miniature portrait. For those who created it, hairwork had the capacity to reconstruct the body into an ideal form that could live beyond death.
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    Complete Proceedings of the Art of Death and Dying Symposium held at the University of Houston (TX)
    (2018) Buehner, Katie; Creelman, Kerry; Essinger, Catherine; Malone, Andrea
    The University of Houston Libraries, in partnership with the Blaffer Art Museum, the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts, the Department for Hispanic Studies, the Honors College and School of Art, hosted a three day symposium titled "The Art of Death and Dying" on October 24-27, 2012. This publication includes selected papers from the symposium.
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    Representations of Death in Mexico: La Santa Muerte
    (2018) Oleszkiewicz-Peralba, Malgorzata
    The Aztecs had their representation of the land of the dead—Mictlan—with their respective god and goddess, Mictlanetecuhtli and Mictecacíhuatl. The Spaniards, on the other hand, brought their own medieval imagery of death as a caped skeleton with a scythe. Nowadays in Mexico, some of the most widely known images are those associated with the Day of The Dead. Notwithstanding, a new representation, that of an unofficial saint called Santa Muerte, which started in mid-twentieth century as a private devotion among the marginal population of Mexico City, is spreading rapidly, both in geographical and sociological terms. It expanded to Central America and the United States, and it is practiced mainly among parts of the population that deal with transitions and danger. I examine representations of death focusing on this ambiguous figure that is becoming popular among different segments of Mexican society.
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    The Way She Looked the Day She Died: Vernacular Photography, Memory, and Death
    (2018) Brown, Amanda
    Focusing on a private photographic memorial album held at the University of Colorado Boulder (UCB), this paper explores the relationship between photography, death, memory, and time in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century memorial photography. To date, what little research exists on memorial photography has dealt almost exclusively with single images rather than albums. In contrast, this paper focuses on how memorial photography functions in an album format, with particular attention paid to the implicit narrative of these albums.  In the case of the UCB album, image sequencing and the combination of image and text work together to enact a private mourning ritual and narrative, one in which photography serves to fix forever the deceased in an image of youthful innocence and beauty.
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    Ritual Spaces
    (2018) Kacmar, Donna J.
    There is a need within man for ritual and meaning. Ritual and myth translates meaninglessness into meaningful order. It provides an authoritative account of man and the physical, social and spiritual realms of his existence. Even in contemporary urban areas we need places for ritual. Urban dwellers need to be reminded of the ceremony and the physical quality of life, find a place to reconnect to time, to earth, to the heavens, to life. This paper explores the specific ritual of death and the architecture that supports them, the beauty of life and the paradox that man's life is finite yet still part of an infinite continuum. Death rituals can be both singular and temporal. Burial traditions on the Venice island of San Michele are temporary and typically only involve a ten year stay on the island before being moved to a permanent home on the mainland. Burials in Cuba are also temporary and bodies are reburied after just two years when remains are transferred to a smaller container due to the limited space. These interruptions require a specific landscape and architecture to support the various rituals and ceremonies. The private Brion Tomb and the city cemetery of Stockholm provide two examples of permanent burial landscapes that are linked to their landscape.
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    La representación de la muerte como vida en la narrativa de García Márquez
    (2018) Marrugo-Puello, Cecilia
    In a number of literary pieces in the western world tradition, death has typically been represented as an obscure episode related to mourning and sadness, brought about by ceasing of life or the departure of a dear one. However, in Hispanic Literature we find examples of how death is a symbol of laughter, a carnival, the celebration of new life and rebirth. For instance, this kind of festive representation of death is portrayed in the narratives of Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez. Short stories such as “Big Mama's Funeral” depict the celebration of death in the decease of the “most powerful matron in the world”. This kind of representation is also observed in the narratives of some other Colombian Caribbean authors, which reveal an inversion of values in a Bakhtinian carnivalesque sense of the world: the deceased becomes the center of the spectacle, and mourners the participants and performers of a cirquesque function. In this presentation, I will focus on different literary examples, to explain the illustration of the death as a carnival and rebirth, in relation to the tendency of Colombian Caribbean writers to explore their coastal popular culture.
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    The Postmortem Gaze and Contested Ways of Seeing: Death, Race, and Photography in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century
    (2018) Patterson, Chelsey
    Scopic regimes, or ways of seeing through different time periods, cultures, and locations, play a pivotal role in how different subject positions are viewed through dominant ideologies. Situated within the framework of visual rhetoric, this essay analyzes white viewing practices of the postmortem African American body during the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Specifically, the photographic representation of lynching and medical school portraiture are used as examples of how a particular practice of looking, the postmortem gaze, can function as a means to trivialize the corpse on display based upon a particular heuristic of perception,  including sensory modalities. The postmortem gaze as a practice of looking is also contested by early twentieth century photographers such as James Van Der Zee, who sought to provide sites of resistance through the medium of postmortem photography.
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    The Dead in Wax: Funeral Ceroplastics in the European 17th-18th Century Tradition
    (2018) Ballestriero, Roberta
    The art of wax modelling or ceroplastics has an ancient origin; funeral masks, for example, were produced from an early age and from 300 AD became widely used in the West. The few surviving examples in Europe apply to the culture of the dead are kept in the Westminster Abbey of London. However, this tradition came from the French funeral effigies started in the 13th century. The French model was taken as an example in England and also in Venice there were similar kinds of ceremonies for the funerals of the “Doges” in the 17th century and lasted until the end of the Republic, in 1797. From devotional to funeral effigies wax has played an important role in the power of images because its main characteristic is its capacity to afford a remarkable mimetic likeness far surpassing any other material.