It is a huge collection, the rooms low-lit and cavernous.
Otto Dix’s haunting, horrific meditations of violent death sit alongside the comforting visual order of Durer’s ‘St Jerome in His Study’, bright patterned windows and gourd hung like an empty womb from the ceiling.
Among the most fascinating items on display was the huge collection of ceramic representations of the ‘Dance of Death’ series in the cathedral in Basel.
But in the middle, amongst all of the items which drew from me measured reflection on the ways in which our culture dictates how we visualise death, I came across John Isaac’s 2011 mixed-media work ‘Are You Still Mad At Me?’.
An anatomically accurate lump of human flesh rests atop a packing case, as if unwrapped and abandoned. On the front of the crate, a sombre girl, cartoonish in her beauty, cries a single imperative tear: as must we. It functions, as many works in the exhibition do, as a memento mori, but it isn’t that.
John Isaac has created an anatomy of apology. Destroying the self down past its component parts in debasement, to expose a self which cannot be re-assembled, which does not exist when it is not in its entirety. This is a lover’s debasement in the face of anger; a parent’s guilt at a child’s distress; a criminal’s remorse. It is a sickeningly familiar feeling, the desire to rip open your faulty body (because that is where you keep the faulty self which has perpetuated the hurt) and expose yourself as ridiculous, a remainder on the face of the earth, broken, lumpen, eager for forgiveness.
It is sickening: has he hurt the girl? She looks young. The imagination leaps: did he miss her birthday party because of work, or did he murder her? Is she the person he is seeking forgiveness from, or is she the crime he committed (or both).
The uselessness of the corpse is highlighted here: through seeking forgiveness, the body has moved past a state to accept or understand it.
Sometimes, there are emotions you do not understand until they are articulated by something external. The figure in ‘Are You Still Mad At Me?’ speaks of terror, a desire for forgiveness (and thus, a fear of abandonment) which tears the self apart beyond any hope of rehabilitation. There is nothing about that which is foreign, and the violence of representation is not at odds with a tender identification which left me weeping in the middle of an exhibition about death, considering all the ways in which the living experience loss.