Afterthoughts: Death Becomes Me
My morbid fascination continues with an unsettling art exhibit.
My set of skull plates reminds me of the diamond trapped in the skull in The Rescuers.
PHOTOS: DAVID CROXFORD
I’ll confess that I don’t go to museums or galleries nearly as often as I should, considering how much local, national and international talent comes through venues here. And every time I travel to a new city, those are the first places I add to my must-see list. But before this spring, I hadn’t been to the Honolulu Museum of Art since Halloween in 2015—I was one of three giraffes spotted at Art After Dark—even though I always meant to go, the same way I meant to back up my files or clean my room, hike more, read more, sew more.
A few months ago, a blog post on our website about Abstruction: The Sculpture of Erick Swenson struck a chord and inspired me to check out the exhibition. I joined a tour group one Sunday to learn about how Swenson’s art ties to memento mori, the concept of remembering that death comes to us all—one of my favorite genres of art. I’ve been fascinated with skulls since I watched the animated film The Rescuers as a kid and loved the scene where Bianca and Bernard try to yank the pearlescent diamond from a skull before they drown. I made a skull necklace out of bronze in my metal-casting class in college, I’ve dressed up as a skeleton for multiple Halloween parties, I wear skull clothes and jewelry all the time, I have a set of skull plates. A lot of people think I’m obsessed with death, but really it’s more about how we are all the same, just skin stretched over bones. We will all die someday and that unites us.
There is such beauty in that, I think, and it comes through in Swenson’s art, particularly “Present in the Past” and “Ne Plus Ultra.” The first sculpture, a hammerhead shark covered in crystals, welcomes you into the exhibit. Sharks have been around for more than 100 million years, and the crystals, also incredibly old and somewhat otherworldly, grow over its skin like moss on a rock. Both have survived longer than almost anything alive today, reminding us of humanity’s relatively short existence—yet we are all made from the same atoms that have existed since the beginning of the universe. We are part of nature.
“Ne Plus Ultra,” though grotesque at first, depicts a flayed deer carcass with archaic-looking maps tattooed on its bones, suggesting a collective history of the species, and experiences that go far beyond a single deer’s life. Where our ancestors have been is ingrained in us, even if we can’t see it beneath our skin. And, of course, I loved “I Am What I Isn’t,” a skull revealing geodes inside, again connecting us to something ancient.
It’s one thing to look at these pieces for a few seconds, think they’re cool, maybe snap a photo and move on. It’s another to ponder the artist’s intention behind the subject matter, title and materials, interpret what the piece means and take something away from that experience. After the tour ended, I returned to the exhibit. I felt connected to the sculptures and wanted to know why. Normally, we connect with people and creatures by looking into their eyes—no life shone through theirs, but evidence of life and the poetry of the past marked their bodies. Death matters because it’s preceded by life. And art matters when it makes you feel or think. This exhibit does both.
Abstruction runs through July 29. Check out the Honolulu Museum of Art blog for insight behind exhibitions, little-known facts about the museum’s collections, news about its events, Q&As with visiting artists and more, at honolulumagazine.com.