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The Reversibilities of Life and Death (2021)

The Reversibilities of Life and Death: How do Andres Serrano and Doris Salcedo's Artwork induce Positive Mortality Awareness?

by Anna Stevens

Although both very differing artists in their use of materials, mediums and visual language, Doris Salcedo and Andres Serrano’s work induces abjection by highlighting a reality of blurred boundaries, particularly the opposed states of life and death. These ‘reversibilities’, as Maurice Merleau-Ponty would describe them (Cataldi, 1997:229), trouble an audiences’ cultural worldviews[1], which are built on defining borders and, in turn, offends and unsettles the sense of self[2] because it displays the “border of my condition as a living being” (Kristeva, 1982:3). This uncomfortably reminds us that we cannot experience life without death. Perhaps by breaking down our cultural worldviews surrounding death, we may come to re-evaluate our relationship to it and our position within life, to develop our individual selves.

Humans have protected themselves against confrontation with death, so we can successfully function through daily life as a community. This dissertation shall focus on Western culture, but various global Terror Management Theory (TMT) research has shown that, although mourning rituals and the regularity of contact with the dead may differ based on varying cultural norms, the “fear of death is universal” (Solomon, Greenberg and Pyszczynski, 2016:209). As highlighted by Ernest Becker in The Denial of Death, this fear as simple self-preservation, to avoid danger that could result in a premature demise and so “must be present behind all our normal functioning” (Becker, 2011:16). However, Sheldon Solomon believes we have an unhealthy relationship with death in Western culture, where we do not reflect upon it (Solomon, 2015: n.p.). We avoid discussing it, repress our ideas of it, and, in some cases, even attempt to deny it. This depends on whether we side with the ‘Healthy-Minded Argument’ or the ‘Morbidly-Minded Argument’, as Becker addresses. The first putting weight on the idea that not all people are fearful of death, the second believing that it is part of the human condition (Becker, 2011:13-16). However, William James argues the healthy-minded argument is inadequate in discussing mortality awareness because is negates “a genuine portion of reality […] and potentially the only openers of our eyes to the deepest level of truth” (James, 1902:160). Our innate fear of death is such a large part of the human condition, is inescapable, and drives us. This is supported by TMT research, which shows that unpleasant images and death images evoke different emotional responses (Marti-Garcia et al., 2015:198-9). This suggests that images of death, like Serrano’s, are their own category of stimuli, perhaps because they are tapping into such a key human fear. We do not find these images merely uncomfortable, like we would with an image of vomit, instead we have a much deeper awakening to our own death.

“Sacred practices, political affiliations, national allegiance, rituals, and traditions give us systems that promote as an absolute, inviolable truth, that we are enduring, invincible, and timeless, destined to immortality.” (Frederickson, 2015:177).

From rituals in our healthcare system, to our funeral norms, which enable us to avoid contact with the corpse, we protect ourselves from these mortality reminders (Mey, 2016:145). Even the ever-expanding cosmetic industry, the evolution of transhumanism[3] and life-prolonging science displays the blatant struggle against inescapable finitude. As Mary Douglas puts it: “Ritual separates death from life” (Douglas, 2003:217), and humans have certainly adopted their fair share of rituals. Julia Kristeva claims that when moments of abjection occur, such as when our body excretes waste, our conscious minds become aware of our physical bodies - the corpse being the ultimate and final throw-away product (Arya, 2016:107). We avoid contact with organic waste through rituals: keeping the body in the private realm, cleansing it, and disposing of its waste, both during life and after death. We reinforce our immortality through these societal rituals, maintaining a sense of cleanliness and separating us from the mortal, animalistic and decaying natural world. Geoffrey Gorer suggests that society is ‘prudish’ about our natural origins and is ashamed and appalled by death (Gorer, 1955:50-1). The subject has become taboo, which could be the reason why contemporary artists have become increasingly intrigued by it[4] (Mey, 2016:144).

On a more individual level, we also psychological structures that aid death awareness repression. TMT has developed the understanding of death denial as a defence mechanism against existential anxieties. They theorise that the key components to defending against mortality salience[5] are a strong self-esteem reinforced by established cultural worldviews. “Worldviews ground individuals’ values and standards, upon which self-worth is based, in a meaningful reality” (Juhl and Routledge, 2016:3), which serves as “symbolic protection against death” (Solomon, Greenberg and Pyszczynski, 2016). Serrano’s and Salcedo’s work cause abjection by displaying the futility of life (in the inevitability of death) and “reshattering of the viewer’s sense of self” (Arya and Chare, 2016:8). When examining how this artwork creates death awareness, it is first important to state that although we learn from a young age that we will die, and we never unlearn this fact, we are not always thinking of it (Becker, 2011:2). It is repressed into our unconscious and is only brought into our conscious mind through external stimuli, such as The Morgue series (1992) and Plegaria Muda (2008-10). They bring the awareness of mortality to our conscious mind, which we have repressed through social and psychological boundaries. They disrupt the very boundaries of the mind, damaging the belief in a ‘meaningful reality’, because we are faced with our inevitable doom. Both artworks “[disturb] identity, system, order” as they do “not respect borders, positions, rules” (Kristeva, 1982:4). They reject the boundaries between public and private, life and death, audience and subject, nature and immortality. By undermining death censorship and inviting audiences into the abject space, the artists force us to reflect upon one’s fate. The purpose of the dissertation is to explore how this abject exposure of reversibilities make us deeply reflect upon death (as analysed in the first chapter) and whether this has any positive value in developing one’s sense of self (as displayed in the second chapter).

When experiencing both Serrano’s and Salcedo’s artwork, there is a presence of the uncanny and the abject. The Morgue’s corpses are both familiar in their human appearance, and alien in their lifelessness. The same can be said for Salcedo’s changed domestic objects, which are estranged from their homeliness. Both belong to “that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar” (Freud, 2003:195). This uncanniness can be likened to the abjection between ‘other’ and ‘I’. George Bataille and Julia Kristeva theorise that we see ourselves in other people and build our own reality around this. An audience can see themselves in the corpse or the familiar domestic objects, and this bond “unsettles identification and asserts a destabilising effect on the juxtaposition between object and subject, other and I” (Mey, 2016:157). In other words, the artists defy the boundaries that protect us from identifying with the deceased other, immersing the living in death. The abject object in Serrano’s the Morgue series, bombards the audience with awareness of mortality. Kristeva highlights the cadaver’s strange and disturbing familiarity threatens the livings’ sense of self because it is “death infecting life” (Kristeva, 1980:4). By connecting ‘other’ (the image of the deceased) with ‘I’ (the audience), one becomes aware of one’s own finite existence. The photographs show the fact of death right “in front of our eyes, close-up, the various aspects of the dead body, in its physical flesh, right there” (Hobbs, 1994:40). So blatantly a display of death, the subject matter is unavoidable and once brought into consciousness it becomes as inescapable as one’s own mortal fate. It could be argued that the photographs do not cause abjection but merely commercialise or “trivialize death” (Hobbs, 1994:20). However, due to the unapologetic lens and the nature of being within an art context that an audience looks at these as images to contemplate death “as a matter for serious reflection” (O’Neill, 2001:301). They differ to the continuous display of death and violence that we have become accustomed to in popular culture, which Geoffrey Gorer describes as the pornography of death. The less taboo displays of death (for example, in a contemporary context, cinema and video games) encourage a lower level of emotional reflection (Gorer, 1955:50-1). Due to a deeper engagement with mortality Serrano’s images abjectly engage an audience. By capturing lifelessness in photography, unlike the rapid display death in a gore-indulging horror film, the lingering image can be fully absorbed. The camera’s intimate examination creates an extra level of familiarity with the other, their identifiably human features infected by their alien lifelessness from which we are usually protected. For example, in Rat Poison Suicide, details like the body’s goosebumps, which we can feel on our own skin when observing, reinforce identification with the ‘other’. All at once they contrast and resemble the living body, making them unsettlingly uncanny (Cataldi, 1997:231). They become just concrete objects[6], shells, of former life, with all their abstract potentials[7] stolen away from them, completely devoid of the spark and consciousness of humanity. The lifelessness of the familiar other infects the living with the closeness of the death.

Salcedo’s work also plays upon ideas of the familiar and the alien. The domestic realm resonates with the home and the personal, whilst the violent and industrial mutations appear unfamiliar. ‘I’ is connected with ‘other’ through domestic objects (which one most likely owns, transgressing the gallery space and the home) that connect to the body, such as wardrobes (as seen in Untitled (1998)), personal belongs, like the shoes seen in Atrabiliarios (1993), and even bodily materials in Unland: audible in the mouth (1998). All of which create an intimate shared materiality that “propose a dramatic closeness between these implicit visual histories and the spectators” (Alzate and Olander, 2013: 9). Salcedo violently transforms the objects, her actions referencing the atrocities committed to victims of Colombian massacres. This also alienates the objects from their comfortable, every-day context and introduces the political sphere. Columbians are “the second largest internally displaced population in the world” (Kern, 2016:7), making the estrangement from the domestic feel even more pertinent, with the objects being literally relocated themselves. The artist blurs normal human lives and political histories, “intimately [engaging] with the loss of human life and the erosion of both private and public spheres that have resulted from decades of violence in Colombia” (Moreno, 2010:96). By “imparing [the objects’] common usage and turning them into lifeless materials” (Alzate and Olander, 2013:8), the ‘dead’ objects act as surrogates to the bodies of the victims, holding a similar weight of bodily presence as Serrano’s images. The familiarity of the objects creates an intimacy deeply connecting the audience to the absent other.

Like Salcedo’s artwork, the private realm of death is made public in Serrano’s photographs. The exhibition of the deceased other is a “focusing device” (Hegarty, 2000:180) to contemplate loss and decay. It is almost as if one’s own mortal corporeality is being displayed making one feel vulnerable. Death censorship is undermined both visually and linguistically, with the title, The Morgue, highlighting the abject space. Very few living people will ever see the inside of a morgue due to modern rituals of removing the body from sight. It is an ambiguous space that lies between the place of life and the disposal of the dead, with only one purpose: to handle corpses. It “occupies the gap between matter and meaning” (Arya and Chare, 2016:7) as the morgue is all at once the physical space of death, and a symbol of death, refusing to sit comfortably at either defining side. It is everything that we avoid at funerals: it is clinical, unromantic, gory and displays that matter-of-factness of decay. However, it could be argued, that by negating the mortuary (setting the environment like a studio, with fabrics, lighting techniques and carefully calculated camera angles), Serrano allows “reality fall away” (Schjeldahl, 1993: n.p.), romanticising the subject. Nevertheless, it is the inclusion of the space through, and the semantics of, the title (The Morgue) that goes that extra step to symbolise the abject death infected space. The bombardment of inescapable mortality within the photographs are such a heavy reminder of reality that it dominates over the theatrics of the work and even aid it. By covering the morgue in darkness, Serrano “seems to suggest the void” (Blume, 1993: n.p.), a lifeless nothingness that is awaiting us all. The surrounding ‘void’ seems to symbolise their inability to escape death. Salcedo’s Plegaria Muda has a similar effect with the ability to engulf the audience in grief by displaying endless individual deaths through grave-like tables. They appear to symbolise the “the longest running internal conflict in the Western hemisphere” (Kern, 2016:6-7), the inescapable, enduring violence that has dominated Columbia for over one hundred years. The traces left behind on the objects act as signs of human lives lost in the void of time, creating an awareness that the audience will fall to the same fate of absence.

The most obvious difference between Salcedo’s and Serrano’s work is the absence and presence of the human body. However, it is the crossovers of these states within the works that make them feel all the more unsettling. By playing upon these loose boundaries, a haunting terror is born and a discussion of subject and object, mind and body arises. Transhumanism has displayed that scientific theories around prolonging life, or a hope for immortality, do not require the presence of the body. In fact, with all its fleshy flaws, it is believed to be the very thing holding us back from the next step in human evolution, as we take matters into our own hands (O’Connell, 2018:5). “[W]e have this split where we say the intellect is more important than the physical” (Smith, 1991:86), where sense of self revolves around the conscious mind, rather than the physical form. This removes humans from nature and elevates us above animals, to protect our immortality systems. Nevertheless, it is the ‘reversibilities’ between the absence and presence of the living physical form that brings us a little closer to our mortal, natural origins in these artworks. Serrano’s use of the present corpse creates a sense of abject nausea through an over immersed awareness of the mortal physicality of the body. The Morgue series awakens a “dull and inescapable nausea [that] perpetually reveals my body to my consciousness” (Sartre, 1992:362). Much like death, the human consciousness is not always aware of its vulnerable and organic materiality. Serrano explicitly reveals the ‘absent body’: “the whole set of organs hidden under the skin, which functions as an absence, independent of the subject’s awareness or control” (Ross, 2003:285). He presents the corporeality of the body to the conscious mind. It is not just the fact of death that is difficult to digest in these images, but also the attention that is paid to the bodies’ wounds. We can see their internal fleshiness and the process of decay that is taking over. This is exhibited explicitly in Broken Bottle Murder II (1992) and Burn Victim (1992), where the forms are completely torn apart, as if they were easily snapped like twigs, clearly exhibiting the vulnerability of flesh. This is emphasised by how the photographs are individually titled. The matter-of-fact descriptions of how the subjects died, most of whom succumbed to violent endings, enhance the viewers intrigued in examining the compromised flesh. We become nauseatingly aware that death could strike at any given moment. This is especially uncomfortable in a Western society where we are relatively unfamiliar with untimely death. Like Meursault in Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea, we are reminded of the organicness of our body. By connecting our own bodies with those displayed, we become aware of our “own flesh as mere lazy, vegetating fat” (Wood, 2000:10). The body’s potential to bleed and decay disgusts us and unwillingly reconnects us with the reality of fleshy, physical nature. The experience is much like gagging at rotting meat, only to realise that we ourselves “are meat, we are potential carcasses” (Sylvester, 1987:46). Cadavers are “both human and non-human, waste and filth” (Lechte, 2012:160) and so are to be thrown away, along with everything else that rots and disgusts us. When we look at The Morgue series, we see both people and throw-away objects. Although in experiencing the work we are shocked and repulsed by ourselves, we cannot escape our own bodies, once we have made that connection with the ‘other’, we can never quite differentiate our sense of self from it (Ross, 2003:281-2). The artist lays a trap for us to fall into, “[t]he beauty of the color [sic] and the richness of the image seduce us, and are at variance with the literal meatiness of their content” (Crockett, 1989: n.p.). The sensual presentation of the corpses provides a false sense of security to be lured into. This feels particularly relevant in some of the close-up shots, like Rat Poison Suicide II (1992) (see fig. 7) and Death By Pneumonia II (1992) (see fig.8). By drawing us in to examine the bodies, some of which could be mistaken as depictions living ‘models’, we become disgusted at ourselves when we realise what we are looking at, and how morbidly fascinating, and in some cases beautiful, we find the experience. The audience is ensnared by the embrace of death. The corpse is something we feel shameful for looking at due to it being “considered objectionable” (Hobbs, 1994:21), so by viewing the photographs we are taking ourselves outside of what is considered acceptable in a society we strive to be a part of, compromising our cultural worldviews. Our disgust is caught up with the taboo of exhibiting the dead (Hegarty, 2000:177). The intimacy of the images intensifies our sense of repulsive fascination, generating an intrusive sensation. As we closely follow the lines of their wounds, we feel guilty for being voyeurs of their decay. We are rendered powerless in the face of the abject, unable to intervene in a death that has already occurred, unable to stop our own death occurring, unable to cover the corpses, but equally unable to overt our gaze. Perhaps this partly explains the negative reviews of the work, in the sense that it might just be a little too much to handle. One could question whether the dignity of the dead is an issue within the artwork (Fitzpatrick, 2008:33). However, the romanticised, and almost sacred, aestheticization bring a higher dignity compared to violent images of police crime scenes, where dignity is barely contemplated. The beauty of the corpses balances the detailed horror and perhaps give the dead a memorialisation they would have not otherwise received, which shall be expanded upon in chapter 2. The mixture of disgust at our own bodies and our shame at viewing another induces an abject nausea that is completely inescapable because the audience realises that they are one and the same. Their presence exhibits their corporeality, making us aware of our own. Whilst the body of the other is absent in Salcedo’s work, the objects perform as surrogates for their presence (O’Neill, 2011:299-300). Their materials and shapes seem to abstractly mirror the human form, with furniture that “seems most indicative of absence when it is most literally flesh-like, that is when its figurative skin and bones are most exposed, vulnerable, and frail” (Basualdo, Huyssen and Princenthal, 2000:77). The body is both absent and present in its traces and abstract form, making the work not all that dissimilar to Serrano’s ‘exposed, vulnerable, and frail’ present bodies, continuing to connect the body and object, the audience, and the subject. However, unlike experiencing Serrano’s corpses, the connection between the self and the other feels more haunting than horrifying. The physicality of the objects evoke the (often lost) bodies of the victims. The relation to human dimensions is perhaps best illustrated in Plegaria Muda (2008-10) because the individual tables “remind the viewer of dissection tables, and are the size of funeral coffins” (Dahlberg, 2016: n.p.). It could even be argued that Salcedo’s work has a more confrontational bodily presence than that of Serrano’s photography because the objects are physically present, to be experienced from every angle, unlike an image. In the Unland artworks(1995-8), Salcedo even brings the corporeal body physically into the work by incorporating human hair. Specifically, in Unland: the Orphan’s Tunic (1997) (see fig. 10), “[if] the tunic is like a skin, then the table gains a metaphoric presence of the body” (Basualdo, Huyssen and Princenthal, 2000:100). This speaks to the familiarity of the domestic space and the body, which one can relate to with one’s own physical experience. These very human traces left upon these objects causes an abjection that displays the reversibilities of the present self and the absent other, connecting the audience to the objects, and in turn, to the victims.

However, the absence of human life in Salcedo’s objects is the very aspect of the work that is the most powerful. Simply put, “it is the absence that creates abjection” (Hegarty, 2000:180). Much like Serrano’s corpses, the unusable and discarded objects, showing a past presence of life, display a void. “[T]he movement of bodies between the concrete and abstract[8], registering the tension between art’s physical presence and the withdrawal of the body therein.” (Bacal, 201:261). This sense of something missing creates a haunting presence within the space. It is this present absence in these “surrogates for victims of violence” (Kern, 2016:8) that generates an atmosphere of sorrow and grief. An overwhelming sense of mourning for the victims of tragic events, as well as over oneself and those close to us, calls for one to reflect upon inevitable loss in life. “The fear of mortality involves not just the fear of death, but also the fear of the pain of mourning the loss of others.” (O’Neill, 2007:89). The sense of absence resonates within us, reminding us that our body and mind will also one day be absent and long forgotten, as well as those we hold dearly who reinforce our validated worldviews. It is not just the stolen potentials of the victims but the suffering of those left behind that is tragic. Salcedo forces us to “Consider that before long thou wilt be nobody and nowhere, nor will any of the things exist which thou now seest, nor any of those who are now living” (Aurelius, n.d.:11). Much like The Morgue, the immortalisation of celebrities and political figures contrasts greatly from the domestic, every-day objects of average people. It is, after all, the wealthy that will be able to invest (and already are doing so) in mind-uploading and cryogenic immortal science (O’Connell, 2018). Whereas Salcedo’s work discusses and resonates with all, discussing a harsher reality of passing time. She “employ[s] concrete’s formal rawness and imposing physical gravity to fix (or to beg the question, to concretize) the spectral remains of absent bodies” (Bacal, 2015: 261). The absence of the person and the literal concrete solidity of the objects (weighed down by industrial material) feels much like the emotionally heavy process of clearing a deceased loved one’s home. Whilst time will pass, they become a presence through the treasured but disposable domestic material they leave behind. In this sense Salcedo’s and Serrano’s work crosses into the same paths, with the corpse being the ultimate abject waste of life (living beyond the mind and self) and the consumerist waste left behind that displays a past life.

However, it is the artwork’s never-ending presence, that could be argued to be a flaw in the artwork. The use of strong industrial materials and the unlimited lifespan of the photographs inadvertently allude to the idea of immortality because they will physically last forever, much like memento mori or vanitas still life artworks from the 16th and 17th centuries. Although the subject will decay to nothingness, the art outlives us creating a hope for immortality that is detrimental to the reality that is exhibited (O’Neill, 2007:91). Wilde wrote that “[t]he statue is concentrated to one moment of perfection” (Wilde, 2003:1124), therefore, the immortal value and physicality of art is detrimental to the abject features of undesirable waste and decay. One must question whether abject art is fundamentally flawed because its very rawness is removed by its aesthetics. Oscar Wilde displays this in the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, opening with “[t]he artist is the creator of beautiful things” (Wilde, 2001:3), which the audience experiences in The Morgue. The horror of the images is displayed in a stylised beauty, as shown in the rich reds and clean whites of the fabrics. By undoing its own abjectness, perhaps these images become “quite useless” (Wilde, 2001:4) in their mortal horror. However, when reading Wilde’s iconic novel, one would struggle to not consider aging, death and decay, as the very essence of the story. It is the subject of the artworks that is most important here, their abject qualities “[occupy] the gap between matter and meaning” (Arya and Chare, 2016:7). In other words, the abject objects are all at once the object of the dead body (in the case of Serrano’s series), and a symbol of death, and refuse to sit comfortably at either defining side. Through the transgression of other and self, and object and symbol, the subject and audience stick to each other with a viscosity that is inescapable. Death awakening artworks display the key facts of our existences: “that we are not everything and that we will die” (Bataille, 1988:32), revealing the meaninglessness of our individual (and collective) lives. Jean-Paul Sartre addresses the individual experience of awakening to the absurdity of one’s existence in Nausea, where the central character, Meursault, becomes “simultaneously alienated from and over-immersed in reality” (Wood, 2000:10). By becoming aware of our mortality, we feel nausea, where we are both trapped within our insignificant and short existences, and see it from a removed and greater perspective. Sartre highlights that this sensation can be likened to the physical abject nausea that we experience through Serrano’s corporeal displays of the body. Death awareness could be described as a hyperobject[9] for the individual, with mortality reminders (like The Morgue series) being the catalyst to the awakening to reality. Like Salcedo’s victims, by highlighting the untimely and violent death of the corpses, Serrano demonstrates that death can occur at any point. This is exhibited in Fatal Meningitis, which is perhaps the most difficult image to view because it depicts the lifeless feet of an infant, the shortest life out of these corpses. The exposed innards of Serrano’s subjects (displayed, for example, in Burn Victim) become an “actual record of mortality” (Hobbs, 1994:43). We awaken to the fact that life is short (regardless of age) and shrouded in futility, because the outcome will always be the same - death.

It is not just the fear of the demise and decay of the body that frightens us. It is the “fear of loss of self” (Hegarty, 2000:175), or rather our conscious mind that creates self-worth, meaning and our version of reality. The cadavers are familiar to us in terms of their human physicality, but their alien absence of life and consciousness unsettles us. Religions and cults have prescribed more hopeful re-imaginings to the unknown abyss that comes after death. Most of which have created a belief of an afterlife that usually allows the individual to retain their sense of self after death, as displayed in Genesis 3:19: “dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return”. With post-Darwin’s continuous rise in atheism in the West, a new generation of people are born without hope for life after death.

“Without God, the body becomes our only reality, and because our understanding of reality is entirely the product of our own fleshy brains, our understanding of that reality becomes increasingly uncertain the more we think about it” (Huckvale, 2020:3).

Due to this reduction down to the body, a Western contemporary audience could be without a sense of purpose to their living existence. Once aware of the inevitable end to a meaningless existence, existential anxiety “poisons our everydayness and gives our every experience a tinge of futility” (Zaretsky, 2013). However, it could be argued that the modern solution to this has been to fill religion’s role with capitalism (Solomon, 2015). By creating an urgency for money, on is forced to arise daily and go to work to survive the system. It is this same system that supports a meaningful sense of self through cultural worldviews that focus upon goals within the work and social environment. By explicitly displaying our inevitable demise, Serrano undermines the importance of money and the objects it can buy, much like vanitas paintings. It makes us question what the point of our endless struggle through life and work is really for, much like Sisyphus endlessly pushing the boulder up the mountain (Camus, 2013). Salcedo’s immortal domestic objects could be seen as a display of consumerist objects outliving the humans, undermining and rendering the mortal body useless. If creating self-worth through our roles in society is so key to believing in a meaningful reality, then one of the more striking aspects of Serrano’s and Salcedo’s artwork must be the lack of identity demonstrated. It be argued that the abject “can undermine some of the categories we perform to construct identity” (Ross, 2003:282). Regardless of the identity of these people in life, they are unidentified in death, negating a key human politic, which individualism in the West subscribes importance to. We do not know their names, many of their faces are covered, or decaying beyond the point of recognition, and for some we cannot even tell their ethnicity or sex. This is demonstrated in Death By Fire and Jane Doe Killed By Police where the burning and decaying of the corpses make their skin colour unclear. These people are presented as being outside of life in death and also living outside of society in their presumed unwantedness (especially suggested through the Jane Doe title). This makes them abject and ‘other’ even in life. By keeping them unidentified, Serrano almost suggests that they would not be memorialized or remembered by significant others. This is concerning to the viewer, because even if we face the fact of our lives being limited, we all hope that there is someone who will remember us fondly after our passing. As social animals, we are afraid of being outside of the community, and for creatures that feel immortal, we dislike the idea of being forgotten. This is demonstrated well in our fondness of celebrities, with their immortalised legacies living on within society, something we see as an accomplishment that almost defies the ending of individual existence. In the presence of The Morgue series our sense of self becomes more abstract and belittled, while our corporeality dominates, inducing existential nausea.

However, whilst the artists connect the audience to the other, they equally alienate them. There is one key difference exhibited between the viewer’s self and the victims: we are alive, and they are dead. It is the blurred territory between life and death that horrifies us, but they are not the same. This allows the victim to remain a victim, to be ‘other’ enough that we recognise the tragedy of the loss, without being completely overwhelmed by the self’s mortality salience. Whilst Salcedo initiates a communal mourning, “[t]he healing can never be complete” (Moreno, 2010:102), and nor should it be, keeping the audience constantly grieving and culpable. By balancing an intimate connection with otherness, the artist highlights the importance of their difference (their stolen lives) and remembrance. Similarly to Serrano’s supposed ‘criminal’ (which is expanded upon in chapter 2) depicted in Knifed to Death I and Knifed to Death II, Salcedo creates a space for an audience to reflect on the alienated other. For example, before making Plegaria Muda, which is a response to the Columbian massacre of over 2,500 people in 2003 and 2009, the artist reflected upon casualties of gang violence in Los Angeles, who are victims of “social death” (Kern, 2016), where groups are ignored by society because of their estrangement from it. This societal indifference towards others is uncomfortably confronted throughout Serrano’s and Salcedo’s work, displayed in the discarded body and objects, which projects an uncomfortable sense that we could one day be forgotten too, removed from life and society. Works like Shibboleth (2007) embody “the abyss of the contemporary world, too deep and at the same time too obvious, between ourselves and the denied Other” (Alzate and Olander, 2013:12). The work equally connects and removes one from the other, through the familiarity of domestic objects and a distant, negated individual identity, highlighting the passing of time.

Salcedo and Serrano effectively create a nauseating death awareness through establishing a connection between the subject and the audience. In these artworks, the domestic and fleshy waste that have been repurposed for contemplation induce horror and grief in an audience. The “longing for permanence that pervades our culture” (O’Neill, 2007:89) is reflected by how effectively the works abjectly break down the viewers’ immortality systems. We can see that the awareness of the loss of life is not just the physical decay or passing of the body, but in fact an absence of life. One does not simply loose the flesh, but also the very essence of being conscious and being the ‘self’. Death is not just the end for us, but the beginning of a presence that the body can no longer fill – an absence. By using the present object of the corpse, Serrano exhibits the fact of death to an audience, so that they may connect with the other and reflect upon their own mortality. The corporeality and lifelessness of the corpses horrify because they are taboo images, and they cause a physical and existential nausea as our minds become aware of our body and its vulnerability. By observing the dead, we are viewing the concrete, present and fleshy body, but also the symbol of death that infects the living. The heavy presence of Salcedo’s objects, which are haunted by the absence of the physical body, create a mourning that spreads and sticks to the viewers even after leaving the abject space. By It displays not just the fear of death but the fleeting and vulnerable existence of the self. Death and the passing of time makes victims of us all.

Whilst death awareness may induce a negative, futile, nauseating sensation, perhaps this corporeal and existential awakening could have positive effects. By disrupting immortality systems, could one build more realistic cultural worldviews to constructively develop one’s sense of self? Although much TMT research has been dedicated towards proving that mortality salience has negative effects, there is also theory suggesting that mortality awareness can help to increase good behaviours that benefit the self and community. By having secure cultural worldviews, and, therefore, an assured sense of self, one is separated from death reflections. However, it could be argued that this causes an individual to be consistently validated without having to review their beliefs or actions. The heuristic model of optimal terror management was built upon research that showed health risks, which raise death awareness, can motivate an individual to adopt more healthy and positive behaviours. The findings display how conscious mortality awareness can cause “deliberate evaluation and adjustment of one’s personal goals to best cope with the inevitable death” and may “increase investment in goals perceived as intrinsically meaningful and supportive” (Vail et al, 2012:306). It could be argued that this simply displays a survival instinct but by consciously reflecting upon death, one reflects upon the individual sense of meaning in life and, in turn, may re-evaluate personal goals. Perhaps the confrontational and intimate connection with the death of the ‘other’ in Doris Salcedo’s and Andres Serrano’s artworks have the potential to aid individual meaning and progress. However, the model suggests that death awareness may only “lead to enriching self and social-exploration among cognitively flexible – open-minded or creative – individuals” (Vail et al. 2012:306), suggesting that the benefits from mortality awareness are limited to certain individuals. Nevertheless, it should be noted that much of a gallery audience is possibly constructed of individuals that seek out enriching experiences, and most likely have an open-mindedness already. So, by breaking down an open-minded individual’s immortality structure, the artworks may provide an opportunity to develop their worldviews and re-evaluate their goals. This chapter shall explore what is to be gained from reflecting upon death, to benefit the self and the other.

Perhaps one of the key positive potentials of mortality awareness is that is reminds us that we are currently living. By connecting intimately with the deceased, displaying our similarities and differences to the other, we are reminded of the fact that we are alive. “These ‘tremors’ or ‘shudders’ of horror assure us (both in a sense of comforting and in the of guaranteeing) that we are, our flesh is, still alive” (Cataldi, 1997:231). Mortality reminders horrify (by breaking boundaries of life and death) and comfort us (by also re-establishing these boundaries), making mortality salience a balance of existential anxiety and relief. By awakening the conscious mind to this fact, we may re-evaluate our sense of meaning and life goals, not through fear of death, but rather in the liberation of life. Life being both short but also in our ‘now’ could encourage one to live life to the fullest and to create one’s own sense of a meaningful existence.

“The awareness of mortality can motivate people to enhance their physical health and prioritize growth-oriented goals; live up to positive standards and beliefs; build supportive relationships and encourage the development of peaceful, charitable communities; and foster open-minded and growth-orientated behaviors [sic].” (Vail et al., 2012:303)

This displays the potentials of mortality awareness to focus an individual to make life decisions that are both beneficial to themselves and those around them. The ‘view from nowhere’ (Nagel, 1986: n.p.) can be utilised as a reflective tool, helping one step back and re-evaluate one’s worldviews and reality. Albert Camus theorises that once we have come to terms with death and the absurd nature of our existences, it is our duty to then use our lives effectively to help relieve the futility of suffering. We should aim to be the best version of ourselves that we can be to make life a more enjoyable experience for everyone, because suffering and death are certainties, only one of which can be avoided (Camus, 2013:24).

Personal growth is not just about creating good attitudes and behaviours but also cleansing oneself of negative ones. Whilst Alfred Adler argued that you cannot separate narcissism and self-esteem (Becker, 2011:3), one can have a healthy self-esteem without high levels of narcissistic tendencies, which develops during childhood. Narcissists have “unrealistically high feelings of grandiosity and low levels of self-esteem” (Solomon, Greenberg and Pyszczynski, 2016:57). They cling to this image of themselves because their unconscious mind is full of feelings of inadequacy, uncertainty and existential doom. By confronting us with our own fleeting presence, the artwork may break down our narcissism, momentarily sacrificing our self-esteem and cultural worldviews so they may be re-evaluated and rebuilt with a broader understanding of reality. To do so, Serrano’s corpses and Salcedo’s objects ultimately create a clash in human symbols. Our sense of self-worth, narcissism and cultural worldviews are all developed symbolically, and “can be fed limitlessly in the domain of symbols and so into immortality” (Becker, 2011). The symbolically nurtured immortality system is disturbed by the symbol of death and absence introduced by the artists. Becker outlines that:

“When you combine natural narcissism with the basic need for self-esteem, you create a creature who has to feel himself an object of primary value: first in the universe, representing in himself all of life.” (Becker, 2011:3)

This means that the narcissist is neither comfortable in themselves nor creating a positive experience for others. Negative narcissistic behaviours, such as bullying, racism and misogyny, can occur as defensive strategies to protect an individual’s cultural worldviews due to an unstable self-esteem. To break down these unhealthy, self-absorbed delusions potentially means to break apart the connection between narcissism and self-esteem. By creating awareness and deep reflection of mortality, the artwork pulls apart our sense of self, weakening the narcissist within us, and allowing our self-esteem to reform and develop in a new realm of reality.

However, TMT is saturated with findings of the negative effects of mortality salience. Plenty of research suggests that “existential fears contribute to evaluative biases, defensive distortions, and the aggressive protection of one’s cultural beliefs and self-esteem” (Vail et al., 2012:305). Suggesting that the artworks could cause an audience to aggressively defend their beliefs, rather than practicing re-evaluating self-growth and continuing to display ambivalence towards others’ struggles. People who are made aware of their mortality in a controlled environment can become more defensive, aggressive, and turn against people who do not share their worldviews (Solomon, Greenberg and Pyszczynski, 2016). Nevertheless, it is not mortality reminders that are dangerous but the “fleeting reminders of death that get repressed and then manifest themselves in other ways” (Solomon, 2015 n.p.), like those referenced by Gorer. Serrano’s and Salcedo’s artworks invite serious contemplation and by blurring the boundaries between subject and audience, may perhaps combat against defensive, narcissistic behaviours. Through the inescapable connection with the ‘other’, the audience awakens to a shared humanity and an empathetic reaction is created. Monica McTighe argues that this is not the case in Salcedo’s artwork but instead the “viewer anticipates an intimate connection with Salcedo’s sculpture, only to realize that they are mere material objects, failing to elicit empathy in viewers” (Kern, 2016:10), and perhaps the same can be said for Serrano’s corpses because they are merely photographs and not the genuine object, removing oneself from the other. However, Anna Kern argues that by including bodily materials, like the hair in Unland: audible in the mouth, more closely felt corporeality develops this connection (Kern, 2016:10). Whilst subconscious mortality reminders run the risk of increasing negative attitudes, conscious and emotionally connected stimuli, like the artwork, have the potential to enable the re-evaluation of meaning.

When talking about death awareness as a reflective tool, it feels particularly relevant that Serrano should describe his work as being “like a mirror” (Kalnin, 1990: n.p.). This brings to mind the subversive relationship between the immortal appearance of Dorian Grey and the mortal reality of the painting in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey. Dorian can be paralleled to the Greek mythological character Narcissus, falling in love with his own youth and beauty (Drew, 2001:19). Both tales ending in the demise of their leading men to their own vanity. Dorian’s decaying portrait serves as memento mori, a reminder of his mortality, with his demise displaying the importance of the acceptance of death and the dangers of narcissism. “Dorian is insanely jealous of his own image, of its resistance to time and decay” (Drew, 2001:19), displaying the very human struggle against the powers of nature, which we can see in more contemporary culture with the development of transhumanism and cosmetic science. As we strive to protect our sense of immortality, Serrano’s photographs become a reflection of our truth, much like Wilde’s novel. This shows that one must accept one’s inevitable fate so as not to engage in the futile and narcissistic struggle against it so as not to compromise one’s morality.

As well as individual benefits for the self, Serrano and Salcedo provide a space to mourn and contemplate, humanizing and memorialising those who have been denied such basic respect. Each photograph in The Morgue and each item in Plegaria Muda feels like “individualized coffins [that] simultaneously provide a space to value each nameless victim as a means of counteracting the inhumanity of mass graves” (Kern, 2016:6). There is a far stronger sense of individual deaths than statistical and historical reports of massacres. By highlighting the severity of the issue through the experience of each individual ‘grave’, the audience is confronted by a repetition that refuses an escape, forcing a multi-layered and continuous sense of guilt and mourning upon them (Dahlberg, 2016, n.p.). Much like Serrano’s Jane Doe Killed By Police, Salcedo’s nameless victims are individually given “the funerary ritual that was denied” (Kern, 2016, p.6), returning the humanity that has been stolen from them through respect and mourning from both artist and audience. When discussing the transitive relationship between life and death in Salcedo and Serrano’s artwork, it feels important to highlight the religious background of the artists. Awareness of Catholic influence sheds a different light on the work and its themes, from mortality and resurrection to the sacred and the profane. Symbolism is particularly important to religions like Catholicism, where sacred symbols carry spiritual and moral weight. Whilst perhaps not a direct aim of the artists’, both The Morgue and Salcedo’s Unland: Audible in the Mouth, for example, both have the presence of sacred symbolism. Due to the interventions and public display by the artists, altering the concrete physicality and the abstract potentials of the subjects and objects, the objects are elevated into the sacred realm. “Kristeva posits “abjection” as an essential part of the sacred passage of symbolic development” (Hansen, 2012:164), which is demonstrated in the artworks. By transgressing the sacred and profane, the object and the symbol, the abstract and concrete, and subject and audience, the artists highlight established symbols and assign new symbolic meaning to the objects. Through the explicit marks of violence exhibited upon the bodies of the corpses and objects, Serrano and Salcedo conjure connotations of the other as a homo sacer, a Roman law term that described a person who is outlawed from society. Anyone could murder this person provided that it was not done by religious sacrificial ritual. This is where the English word ‘sacred’ originates from: “sacer can mean both sacred or cursed, sacred objects are objects of both veneration and fear, sacred persons “cannot [be] touched without dirtying one-self or without dirtying” (Hansen, 2012:164). The deceased depicted in Serrano’s work are like modern day depictions of homo sacer because they are outside of society and mostly victims by the hands of themselves or others (both of which are unholy acts). Their abject presence, which ‘dirties’ the viewer’s sense of self, highlights their taboo status as unclean waste and a symbol of otherness, desacralizing both the physical form and the human that once lived. Whereas Salcedo deactivates the original use of the objects through violent acts. It feels appropriate that the artist will repetitively use the material concrete to mutate the concrete object throughout her practice, displayed throughout her Untitled works (1989-2008). This suffocating act against the objects symbolises the violent deaths that have occurred throughout more than one-hundred years of conflict. The practice of violence against the objects that become laborious, much like sacrificial rituals, and connects with the predominantly Roman Catholic culture in Colombia. Salcedo’s almost performative labour “is inherently tied to ritual, particularly repetitive labor [sic]” (Kern, 2016:37). This link to labour is enhanced by using industrial materials against personal and domestic objects and feels sacrificial. Labour “as aesthetic strategy is an attempt to share the suffering of others” (Bal, 2010:27), as Salcedo takes on a physical and mental labour, a “labor [sic] of love” (Bal, 2010:134). This act of penance translates to the audience in the physical weight added to the object and the traces of violence left upon it. The act of penance, self-sacrifice and suffering is tied to religious ritual (Kern, 2016:41).

The most explicit example of religious symbolism in The Morgue is displayed in Death By Asphyxiation, where the deceased holds prayer beads in a peaceful and solemn hand position. It is as though the individual is now at peace with God, perhaps giving a hope for an after-life or, at the very least, a reconciliation at the end. However, the explicit difference this image has to classic depictions of Christ is the exposure and focus upon the corpse’s genitalia, negating the face and covering the torso. Perhaps this could be a hint to Serrano’s more rebellious side, who is not shy of seemingly blasphemous depictions of sacred symbols, as seen in his controversial artwork, Piss Christ (1987), where the crucifix is placed within the artist’s urine. However, this contrasts to his far more delicate treatment of The Morgue’s dead. Although displaying the dead can be considered immoral in modern Western culture, Catholicism has historically practiced more overt rituals with deceased bodies. Both Serrano and Salcedo change the dialogue of death and the victim through an “act of profaning and, simultaneously, an act of restoring a sacred quality to the profaned object” (Moreno, 2010:105). They exhibit difficult subjects that causes abjection, and in doing so they elevate the subject, providing humanity and statuesque symbolic monuments to the profaned dead. However, it could also be argued that Serrano’s exhibition of corpses is morally dubious and potentially damaging to the subjects’ identities. Are these social boundaries in place not to protect the living but the deceased? Andrea D. Fitzpatrick describes the artwork as problematic because the dead lack the autonomy to consent to such an intimate, probing voyeurism by the artist. “Serrano takes advantage of the imbalance of power that exists between the living and the dead [...] where the agency is his and the vulnerability is theirs” (Fitzpatrick, 2008:28-30). She ultimately sees them as victims (not just of violent and unjust deaths) of the camera’s lens and dangerous stereotypes, focusing particularly on how they lack agency, control over their identity, and subjectivity. Potentially meaning that in photographs like Knifed To Death, with the ink on the corpse’s fingers (alluding to police identification), we see a criminal rather than a victim. However, it could be argued that by being publicly displayed, these people are being memorialised, which in the case of Jane Doe Killed By Police, we presume they would not have otherwise received because the lack of individual identification. They potentially receive more attention in death (thanks to Serrano’s luring, intimate and sensual camera usage, and public display) than in life. Any violence caused by the artist in death feels inconsequential compared to their violent endings and unwantedness (O’Neill, 2011:306). We can see in photographs like Jane Doe Killed By Police and Smoke Inhalation XIII that race really is only skin deep and death is the great equaliser. “The direct experience of the materiality of the human body […] is a way to give meaning and to affirm our common humanity” (Alzate and Olander, 2013:12). Perhaps Serrano could even be highlighting the social injustices acted against these people by making us aware of their unfair and hideous demises. By exhibiting the deceased, Serrano elevates the profaned corpse to the position of sacred victim, respectfully returning humanity to the abject other.

The somewhat romanticized photographs can be likened to Baroque paintings of Christ, with the lush reds of the corpses’ wounds paralleling to detailed depictions of his hand s and feet nailed to the cross, which balances both the horror and the sensual (O’Neill, 2011:305-6). In Andrea Mantegna’s Lamentation of Christ (c.1480) there is a similar use of white material covering the body, hugging his physicality, and displaying a strong sense of humanity. The thought of Christ being God-made-man, lifts the seemingly unimportant and unwanted corpses to a sacred position, their flesh being elevated to be compared to the desirable corporeality of Jesus. The act of presenting images of the dead as art within a gallery “space traditionally tied to ritual” creates “a ritual-like response” from the audience (Kern, 2016:36), which symbolically elevates them like images of Christ in the church. Both subjects are flesh and blood, as transubstantiation and crucifixion depictions remind us, outsiders, homo sacers, who’s life has been unjustly cut short. This comparison to the body of Christ may also give some sort of hope, for whilst he died on the cross, he was also resurrected. Although Serrano’s corpses will not arise from the dead, perhaps there is a harmony that can be felt in the knowledge that life and death are cyclical, “‘life is a product of putrefaction’, so death and decay are linked to conceptions of our birth and origin” (Hegarty). All corpses are part of the process that allows new life, much like the belief that Christ died so we may live. When comparing The Morgue to Mantegna’s painting, the subjects feel sacrificial and so we mourn their deaths and reflect upon mortality and the privilege of life, “the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away” (Job 1:21). Whilst they may be seductive and romanticised like images of Christ, they are still repellent, elevating the victims but not fooling us into believing human’s that humans are immortal. It could also be argued that awareness of the meaninglessness of existence liberates one from social expectations and anxieties, which fall futile. In Gun Murder, Serrano depicts an adult cadaver wearing a diaper. Although it is one of the ‘cleanest’ depictions of the series, without extreme exhibitions of blood, flesh and decay, we are aware that the diaper is containing abject bodily functions. In a way, Serrano is managing to fill our imaginations up with the abject as well as our logical mind. He uses the cleansing rituals and boundaries that we use in life and death, to keep us from abjection, against us. The nappy on a dead body almost feels like a symbol of the human life cycle as we connect the birth of an infant to the death of an adult. It is the cyclical nature of life and death that creates an unescapable crossover. Natural mortality does not sit well in a society that wishes to remove itself from animality. However, the loss of function alluded to in Gun Murder could be seen “as a kind of liberation of the body [...] people lose control despite the many agendas of different ideologies in society, which are trying to control the body(ies)” (Smith, 1990: n.p.). Rather than removing oneself from bodily waste, one could revel in the abject, showing a true freedom from the constraints of boundaries, reconnecting with one’s own corporeality and natural origins. The symbolic connection between birth and death reminds us of a natural cycle to be appreciative of, “[f]or all things are formed by nature to change and be turned and to perish in order that other things in continuous succession may exist” (Aurelius, n.d.:11). There cannot be life without death, and so our very existences are built upon waste and decay, an identity we wish to negate but would benefit more greatly from accepting it.

Instead of focusing on the symbolic and sacred weight of the present and physical body, Salcedo’s sculptures and installations can be linked to the equally as (if not more) iconographic object/image of the cross in Christian religions. Whilst this may seem like a bold statement, if one looks at depictions of the cross (often negating Christ’s body) then the object symbolises the context and traces of the present body, which can be likened to the traces left behind. Paralleling with Serrano’s ‘waste’, Salcedo elevates used domestic objects to artworks. Both artists create a new abstract potential for their concrete objects by changing the context and altering how the audience perceives them. By doing so they also change the abstract potential of the deceased individual person, which is usually considered as lifeless, limited, and unimportant. This brings about Michael Thompson’s rubbish theory, which states that there are three object categories, the first being durable objects that increase in value over time, the second are transient, which decrease in value over their long existence, and finally there is rubbish, which has no value and a finite existence (O’Neill, 2007:89-90). It could be argued that Salcedo’s work elevates the domestic items to durable objects by placing them in an art space, giving them a new permanence and value. However, it is important to note that the objects “do not replace the absent bodies” (Alzate and Olander, 2013:12) but rather carry their presence and pain from their reality to ours. Salcedo brings them forward through time using the concrete object, giving them the respect and mourning that they deserve and have been denied of through a monument-like structure. The ‘dead’ objects are given a new purpose (or a resurrection) through their alterations and display because of their ability to affect the living. However, to do so, first Salcedo must deactivate the original use of the objects (Moreno, 2010:96), violently changing them and tenderly healing, so that a new use, and a new set of abstract potentials, may take over. Salcedo’s relevant and vital task can only be described as beneficial because encourages a serious reflection upon a viewer’s worldviews and self with the guilt it creates. The self-sacrifice by the artist further pushes the culpability upon the by-standing audience by displaying the importance of the discussion of unjust death and the homo sacer status of the victims who have been torn away from the living without memorial. It is “the muteness of homo sacer (Hansen, 2012:165) that is central to Salcedo’s work, with the aim to give the other a voice to memorialise and humanise them. In the ‘muteness’ and physical absence of the subject, the work invokes a quiet loudness through traces. This is felt in the overwhelmingly haunting presence of Plegaria Muda, which appropriately translates to ‘mute prayer’ or ‘silent prayer’. These artworks act as “prayers, offering against the loneliness and darkness of the events” (Alzate and Olander, 2013:17). Salcedo invites the audience to be a part of changing the gallery space into a site of mourning by participating in this communal prayer. She alludes to this homo sacer-like nature of political victims saying, “when a person has been killed, humiliated or mistreated, the intention is to expel him from humankind and turn him into a beast. My work hopes to bring back human lives that have been excluded” (Salcedo, 2007: n.p.). Camus would argue that life is suffering and by inducing a communal guilt and mourning through Salcedo’s haunting objects there is the potential of awareness, a development in an individual’s cultural worldviews and somewhat culpable sense of self, that could combat against future suffering. In other words, this could be a valuable lesson for current and future generations. However, it could be argued that Salcedo’s work does not create an awareness of the events without the context being explicitly present because the objects are universal and not visually specific in Colombian origin. Nevertheless, it is its global relevance that resonates with audiences around the world. The absence of the body reminds us of photographs of piles of shoes once belonging to Holocaust victims. This is depicted most obviously in Atrabiliarios due the literal use of shoes, which are uncomfortably protected and suffocated behind animal fibres fixed in place (Moreno, 2010:102), and seemingly time, by medical sutures, like the thread used on Serrano’s corpses. Whilst awareness of the Colombian context is significant to Salcedo’s artwork, it creates an international mourning, or even a guilt amongst a global population of by-standers. One becomes reminded of all tragedies inflicted by the hand of man, which emphasizes “human vulnerability and [builds] a parallel language that allows for transcendence over a wound which cannot be cured, only shared” because “those other lives are an essential part of each and everyone’s existence” (Alzate and Olander, 2013:18). The victims, both the deceased and the loved ones left behind, are tragic in their absence because they remind a viewer that mortality is not just a fact of nature, but a violence inflicted by fellow humans. We do not just experience a grief for the other, but an awareness of our own vulnerability that is out of our control. By connecting with the other, we fear for ourselves. The lack of individual identity displayed in Salcedo’s work, much like Serrano’s anonymous and often unidentifiable corpses or the graves of unnamed war victims, haunt us because of an absence of what makes us individual. Salcedo combats against “the collective amnesia that pervades society” (Dahlberg, 2016: n.p.) by horrifying us, we empathetically mourn, not just Columbian deaths, but all unjust death, the death of the other.

This dissertation has explored the mortality awareness that is brought to light through Doris Salcedo’s and Andres Serrano’s artwork, and the positive potentials it has upon an audience’s individual sense of self. The artists create a mortality awareness by subverting the boundaries between subject and audience, life and death, so that the living are made aware of their shared corporeality and fate with the deceased. “It could be argued that reinstating the ‘parade and publicity’ of death is fundamentally driven by a quest for (self-)know-ledge” (Mey, 2016:149), so by exhibiting death and absence, the artists encourage an audience to reflect. By opening the discussion of death, the artists disrupt taboos and create a healthier and less repressed conversation of mortality. “The violence of the sacred lies in abandonment and exposure [and] sacrifice and loss.” (Hansen, 2012:165), which aptly displays the nature of Serrano’s and Salcedo’s artworks. The sense of ‘abandonment and exposure’ is felt in The Morgue, with the unwanted and publicly displayed abject object of the corpse, whereas Salcedo’s objects are tinged with ‘sacrifice and loss’. Reflecting upon one’s own death is a positive step towards accepting reality so that one can re-evaluate personal goals and meaning, affecting oneself and others positively. The artworks could potentially combat against “indifference towards human (and animal) suffering and annihilation” (Mey, 2016:146) by displaying our shared humanity and moral duty to ease the suffering of our fellow man. Particularly displayed in Salcedo’s work, the audience is given the opportunity to develop the self through political awareness as well as death awareness, creating respect for those lost in violent tragedies and to avoid them happening again. By elevating the death of the other to an art context, the artists create a dialogue that both positively awakens mortality awareness and restores the humanity of victims. Salcedo and Serrano effectively display the reversibilities of life and death to create a deep and reflective mortality awareness, benefitting both the development of the self, community, and the humanity of the subjects.


[1] Meaning to generally have a good feeling about yourself and your worth within a meaningful reality (Solomon, Greenberg & Pyszczynski, 2016:39). [2] Beliefs about that world that are built socially and validate our sense of self within that society. (Vail et al., 2012:304) [3] A philosophical movement that believes humans can advance beyond their current physical evolution through technological enhancement with the aim to extend life (O’Connell, 2018:2-6). [4] However, it should be noted that many artists, writers, and thinkers have been fascinated by the subject throughout history. [5] The awareness of the inevitability of death, which causes anxiety. [6] The physical, tangible object, in this case the corpse. [7] The possibilities that the body could have had if it were to be alive, such as, the movements, interactions and sensations that is potentially may have experienced. By removing life, the body’s abstract potentials change because the mind is not longer involved. [8] If one agrees that the body is both a concrete and abstract object. [9] Based on Timothy Morton’s Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World (2013), which describes hyperobjects as being huge, intangible objects (for example, global warming), that are both in and around us. These objects have always been present, but we have not always been aware that they exist. By becoming aware of them, it completely changes our ideas of the world we live in, as if awakening to a larger and scarier world that we had our eyes closed to. Whilst death does not have the exact same global characteristics as a hyperobject, it certainly shares some of the same stickiness and worldviews-defying traits.

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