Death is not a topic that I normally like to spend a great deal of time thinking about. However a few days ago, as I was literally killing time at the Chicago Cultural Center, I stumbled upon an exhibition that I had heard about but had little interest in, Morbid Curiosity: The Richard Harris Collection.
Since I had already browsed the downstairs exhibitions, Project Onward and the gift shop--and could no longer go to my other first floor favorites--the Chicago Authors Corner and the Randolph Cafe since they are closed--I had few other choices. So I bravely decided to confront my fears.
The Art of Dying...a dying art.
As I climbed the magnificent 4-story staircase (there is also an elevator) of the Chicago Culture Center to the exquisitely renovated Sidney R. Yates Gallery, I had no idea what lay ahead...a head, a skull, bones? Yes, to all of the above. But what amazed me was the scope and beauty of the exhibition.
In the hall entering the exhibition, I was greeted by an impressive 10 x 25 ft. site-specific mural, Death March. I was delighted to see that there was a cell phone audio tour available. The free cell phone tour, narrated by Richard Harris, was easy to use and offered insight into the many items featured.
Upon entering the main exhibition hall, I was witness to nearly 1000 eclectic works of fine art, artifacts, installations and decorative objects, including creations by many of the world's greatest artists including: Rembrandt, Mapplethorpe, Dürer, Goya and Jasper Johns. The work spanned nearly 6000 years from 2000 B.C.E. to the present.
Remember you will die.
Harris's, “momento mori” moment began at an art fair in the Netherlands when he viewed a grouping of small images on death and dying literally meaning, “Remember you will die.” Fascinated, his collection began.
“We are all born to die, says Harris. "The questions that fascinate me are how we will die, where will we die and when will we die”. “At the age of 74, Harris, who sold antique prints to interior designers before he retired, believes that it is incumbent upon him to make his collection a paean to death in all its many visages.
For the morbid collection, Harris explains, “I wanted to have a broad overview of the icons of death. I bought inexpensive pieces of art, vernacular photographs that have been done in the past 50 years, almost anything that has the skull and skeleton as the object.
Viewing Morbid Curiosity.
There is a lot to see in the exhibition. Morbid Curiosity fills two gallery spaces covering a total of 14,000 sq. ft. Is is one of the largest and longest-running exhibitions to date at the Chicago Cultural Center. ”The exhibit is largely split in two: The War Room and the Kunstkammer of Death.
The War Room: “It’s really an anti-war room,” Harris said. “War is death on steroids, killing the hundreds, thousands, millions. It’s like the Leonard Baskin statue, ‘Death Satiate and Exhausted.’ That’s my feeling, where even death says enough is enough."
The Kunstkammer, or cabinet of curiosities: This part of the exhibition includes everything from a diamond-encrusted skull to 16th century paintings of decaying bodies. Featured works explore death in all aspects from the spiritual to the scientific. Incredible works by such artists as Laurie Lipton, Chicago artist Marcos Raya and the Argentinean collective, Mondongo, bring to life the Mexican Holiday, Day of the Dead.
Look close, but not too close, and you'll see Jodie Carey’s In the Eyes of Others--a magnificent white ivory ballroom chandelier. Look even closer, and you'll discover the chandelier is composed of 3,000 cast-plaster bones.
Perhaps, the least expensive work of art in the exhibition, a 1927 photograph costing Harris $5” is a picture of a woman named Phebe Clijde surrounded by friends in the backyard of Phebe’s home in the suburbs of San Diego. In this scene, Phebe is holding a human skull. ‘What could she be thinking? Who’s skull is this? How did the person die?’ are some of the questions that ignite the object of the Morbid Curiosity exhibition.
A colorful and massive sculpture by Cuban born American artists Alain Guerra and Neraldo de la Paz, Guerra de la Paz, uses leftovers of people's lives--their clothing, their t-shirts--and transforms them into something new and beautiful. It is a tribute to the unknown people who produced the clothing as well as to those who wore them.
If You Dare to Go.
The exhibition viewing hours are Monday – Thursday, 10 a.m. – 7 p.m.; Friday – Sunday, 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. The Chicago Cultural Center is closed on holidays. 78 E. Washington Street, 4th floor, Sidney R. Yates Gallery. The exhibition runs through July 8, 2012.