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Art Macabre – The Dying Art

25 May 2015

From the Royal Academy of Arts to the Freud Museum, from Barts Pathology Museum to Somerset House, Art Macabre has staged sell-out creative events at prestigious venues across London. In the week from 18 to 24 May, they returned home to present a special group exhibition at the Round Chapel in Hackney.

In their own words:

Since 2010, Art Macabre has run ‘death drawing’ salons: theatrical life drawing events that invite participants to explore themes of death and dying through drawing and art. Art Macabre’s Director, Nikki Shaill […] wanted to curate an exhibition as part of Dying Matters Awareness Week to stimulate conversations about death and dying, inspired by the Dying Matters philosophy that the more we talk about death together, the more we dare to look it in the face and plan for it, the better our lives will be until the time will come for us and our friends, families and communities.

Art work has been selected from open submissions invited in March 2015 and the chosen art comes from artists across the UK, as well as artists from States and Moscow. All the art explores the themes of death and dying, survival and loss, memory and memorial; whether from personal experience of bereavement or illness, or trying to bring historical figures back to life, or personifying the universal figure of death. The exhibition can be seen as a collection of contemporary memento mori.

A ‘private view’ celebration event was scheduled for 6:30pm to 9:30pm on Thursday 21 May. I was invited along to view, contemplate, mingle and converse with other guests. Later, as the week drew nearer, I was also invited to life model as part of the evening’s diversions. I gladly accepted both invitations.

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© Art Macabre, The Dying Art, 2015

My face was to be painted as a sugar skull so I arrived well before the 6:30pm start. Nikki was certain to be busy with all aspects of staging the event so I wanted to be ready and available for whenever she got a free moment. While waiting, I had time for my own private view – a pre-‘private view’ private view – of the exhibition.

Exhibition

This was not simply a succession of skulls, skeletons and the dead-undead. Although these were well represented, there was also much variety. It would be hard to imagine a visitor not finding anything unexpected, or failing to be held by any of the works and their accompanying stories. 25 artists were featured (26 including Nikki):

The Artchemist, Lauren Baker, Herald Black, Lozzy Bones, Laura Brett, Christina Rose Brown, Drucilla Burrell, Lucinda ‘Lux’ Chell, Olina Divisova, Rachel Harmeyer, Karen Harvey, Jason Alex Hill, Aaron Jacob Jones, Marie-Louise Jones, Inky Layla, Lizzie Learman, Clare Lowe, Valeriya N-Georg, Antonia Rolls, Nikki Shaill, Joanna Shears, Jo Tedds, Natalie Thomas, Linsay Trerise, Karina Yazylyan, Wolf Mask Art.

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Self-portrait – Lucinda ‘Lux’ Chell.
© Art Macabre, The Dying Art, 2015

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‘Hairy Mary’ – Marie-Louise Jones
© Art Macabre, The Dying Art, 2015

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‘Skull Dolls’ – Karina Yazlyan
© Art Macabre, The Dying Art, 2015

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‘Ann’s Corset Liver’ and ‘Nettie’s Phossy Jaw’ – Lozzy Bones

Amid the weird and wonderful, mad and sad, I was fascinated by the extraordinarily fine detail of three monochrome drawings by Lozzy Bones; I was warmed by the skill of Aaron Jacob Jones, who I rate high among the most exceptionally talented artists I’ve ever met; and I was touched by the work of Lux, an Art Macabre founder who died tragically young but whose name, artworks and memory live on as an inspiration and dedication for this exhibition.

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‘The Red Shoes’ – Aaron Jacob Jones
© Art Macabre, The Dying Art, 2015

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Edible Anatomy Posters – AVM Curiosities – given to 20 lucky visitors

Private view

Like a fine gourmet chocolate, I found the exhibition small, rich and delicious. On completing my view, I retreated to Nikki’s busy, colourful office to await her paints. While waiting I was joined by Gee, a fellow veteran of Art Macabre salons. Together we would provide the death drawing sideshow.

As the time approached 6:30pm, I realised London’s beautifully grim people would be arriving at any moment. They came as a trickle at first, but by the end of the evening they’d spilled out onto the streets. In total, 115 people and one small dog joined us for the evening. This was a hot ticket event.

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© Art Macabre, The Dying Art, 2015

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© Art Macabre, The Dying Art, 2015

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© Art Macabre, The Dying Art, 2015

With breathless serenity, Nikki glided into her office and shut the door on the hubbub behind her. It was time for my face to be embellished – a speed-painted skull, if ever there was one, but Nikki has done this so often that perfection emerges in moments. Before disappearing again she taped an Art Macabre rosette to one of my nipples (I’d taped the other myself, thinking one was enough) and bid that I follow when ready.

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© Art Macabre, The Dying Art, 2015

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© Art Macabre, The Dying Art, 2015

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© Art Macabre, The Dying Art, 2015

Death drawing

I was to start modelling solo, then Gee would join me a few minutes later. I waited a while to create an air of suspense that was probably apparent only in my own mind, then stepped naked from the office into the crowded main corridor of the exhibition. Not one eyelid batted: this was London, after all; this is Art Macabre.

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© Art Macabre, The Dying Art, 2015

Nikki had created a pose space near the refreshments. A crimson sheet bordered with candles and guarded by ‘Stanley’ the skeleton marked our area. Some chairs, paper, and various other drawing materials had been set out but there was no announcement or ceremony to accompany our presence.

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© Art Macabre, The Dying Art, 2015

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© Art Macabre, The Dying Art, 2015

The philosophy was: if we build it, they will come. Nikki started the drawing as if to give permission for others to follow suit. Soon all the chairs were occupied and with Gee now posing too, we had a popular sideshow under way, entertaining for artists and onlookers alike.

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© Art Macabre, The Dying Art, 2015

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© Art Macabre, The Dying Art, 2015

There was no-one to call the start and end times for our poses. Gee and I altered our positions when the time seemed right. This could be judged either by the fidgeting of artists, or by measuring pose lengths against the number of track changes on the evening’s playlist.

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© Art Macabre, The Dying Art, 2015

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© Art Macabre, The Dying Art, 2015

We had been asked to model for only half an hour each, but why stop when things are going well? Gee took a break to chat with our mutual friends among the guests, while Nikki passed me some red wine. I was comfortable, people were still keen to draw, so I simply carried on.

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© Art Macabre, The Dying Art, 2015

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© Art Macabre, The Dying Art, 2015

As one comes to expect with Art Macabre events, wonderful drawings were produced from relatively short poses. Among those capturing us were a few of the artists whose works were exhibited. Artwork ranged from sprawling outlines on the floor to exquisite portraits in private sketchbooks.

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© Art Macabre, The Dying Art, 2015

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When all done, before returning to Nikki’s office I wandered behind the now-abandoned snacks table for a cheeky feast of sweets. This seems to have coincided with a brace of functionaries from the upstairs church descending to a store room and spying me through a doorway. Apparently they made some minor show of moral outrage, which was rightly greeted with blank indifference.

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It had been a fantastic evening, way too wonderful to be diminished by self-righteous gatecrashers. The response to the exhibition from guests was universally positive; emotional at times, thoughtful at others, engaging throughout and utterly enjoyable.

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Talking about death

Belatedly, on coming away from the event I realised I’d immersed myself in every way except that which the exhibition was intended to inspire: I had not talked about death. To make amends, I’ve shared some rambling thoughts below. These are personal to me and not intended to upset or offend.

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© Art Macabre, The Dying Art, 2015

I have no religion. I do not believe in any form of god or afterlife. I believe death is a finality, not a transition. We leave behind a legacy of works and memories, and that should be enough.

For me, the most awful concept is that of reincarnation: starting all over again without the experience, knowledge or wisdom we’ve previously – often painfully – acquired.

Funeral rites are a horror to me. Everything that’s important to me about a deceased loved one is in my memory, not in their grave. I much prefer quiet personal reflection to collective social ceremonies loaded with behavioural and emotional expectation.

I try to be a good person in life and do the best I can within the curious psychological framework of limitations I seem to have constructed for myself. I have no pressing desire to face my own death, and certainly no urge to take my own life, yet on any given night I would be content simply to fall into a deep, black, painless slumber and never again awaken, as long as the circumstances caused no distress to others.

Sometimes human beings appear to be the most over-abundant commodity on the planet, yet an individual life can seem the most achingly rare and precious wonder in the universe. It’s likely that I’m nearer to the end of my own life than its beginning yet I still haven’t worked out how best to live it.

The meaning of human life is to achieve happiness, and the highest happiness is felt through love. Art, creation, invention, knowledge and laughter are what I have come to cherish the most. I love to be in the company of those whose lives burn brightest with these gifts.

Death is an end to our living existence; life is for the brilliance of moments.

Death means simply that we will have no more of these moments; let us share them generously, while we can, with those we love. Those we have loved and lost continue to warm us with their afterglow. Only death itself can take that from us so, ultimately, in a sense, we leave life together. Memories that stay happily with the loved ones who outlive us are our own warm legacy.

I’ll drink to that. Cheers.

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© Art Macabre, The Dying Art, 2015

See more from the evening at: Art Macabre – Dying Art Exhibition Event.
Poem by the curator, inspired by the work in the exhibition:

Their absence felt,
Their shadow cast,
Whilst memories melt,
Our relics last.

Memento Mori.
Remember you, too, will die.
Death awaits us all,
In her arms we’ll lie.

We dance with Death,
Swing from trapeze.
A tightrope walk,
Death’s long striptease.

Death brushes past.
Death holds our gaze.
Death may arrive fast,
So make the most of your days.

– Nikki Shaill, May 2015

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