The art of death

By Trevor Ballanger

by Trevor Ballanger

Assistant Arts & Culture Editor

The rooms are filled with blank eyes staring from all around you. A large chandelier made entirely of bones bathes the space with an eerie glow. A powerful sense of death closes in, but the fear subsides.

This is “Morbid Curiosity: The Richard Harris Collection,” an all but living art exhibition.A year ago, more than 1,500 prints, sculptures and memorabilia were loaned by art collector Richard Harris to the Chicago Cultural Center,78 E. Washington St., where they are being presented in two different galleries.

Harris, 74, said death is a fascinating subject. In 2001, he was selling a previous art collection in Maastricht, Netherlands, when he came across another dealer’s show that focused on death. It was then that he was inspired to expand his own interest in the topic. A prolific collector, he amassed death-related items from anywhere, as long as they represented dying.

“We’re born to die,” Harris said. “It’s a universal part of our lives. I thought it would register to all kinds of people to realize what some of the artistic representations of death have been. I think the fact that it’s in Chicago, my home town, is pleasing to me.”

Lucas Cowan, the curator of the show, said the collection is showcased in two installations. The Exhibit Hall is housing “The War Room” and the Yates Gallery is presenting “The Kunstkammer of Death,” meaning “cabinet of curiosities.”

Cowan said it was important to make the show understandable and educational. According to him, Harris provided enough items to do hundreds of separate shows. A database was created to document every piece in his collection. From there, Cowan said, putting the exhibition together required artistic integrity. Everything was separated into different categories in an effort to determine what was worthy of going into the show and assist in making it easier for viewers to interpret.

The collection has a large section dedicated to war, which Cowan said is a constant figure in daily life, and presenting first-hand repercussions of war could potentially weigh on viewers. This was one of the factors that led to the division of the collection. The War Room is unique in that it represents the print series of war suites by Jacques Callot, Francisco Goya, the Chapman brothers, Otto Dix and Sandow Birk in their entirety, together for the first time.

Harris said the beauty of having them together is like an “anti-war representation” of what the effects of war possibly could be. The second portion of the show showcases a bevy of ancient artifacts, human skulls and skeletons and pop culture art, such as Day of the Dead

memorabilia. One of the show’s centerpieces is a 13-foot chandelier made of artificial bones, compliments of London-basedartist Jodie Carey.

The 3,000 bones used to make the piece, entitled “In the Eyes of Others,” were cast out of plaster from a real human skeleton previously used for medical purposes and purchased over the Internet. The exhibition is not meant to be seen as macabre, Carey said, but to reaffirm and celebrate life through different time periods and cultures.

“For me, life and death go hand-in-hand,” Carey said. “So when you’re exploring the rituals and commemorations that we do surrounding death, you also speak about the importance of life. It speaks of all the things that are so important—to me, to relationships, the fragility of

life and the vulnerability of being human.” Being able to create a show that conceptualizes death was a challenge for Cowan.

He worked directly with Harris to ensure the focus was on the beauty of life and not the morbidity of death. Cowan said Harris was very warm but opinionated about how the exhibition should be produced. To create the most functional design, they used only the

most important materials to make sure the right aspect came across.

“It was really just investigating these objects, and they somehow all just started falling together,” Cowan said. “It’s rare that I think that happens in exhibitions with curation. All of this material was at our hands and we could do whatever we wanted with it, but you don’t

want to overwhelm.”

In the heart of the exhibition is the sense of complete anonymity. Harris said death is blind to wealth and status, and there is hardly any difference between one person’s skull and another’s.

“It is in the cards that we will all die,” he said. “It’s the leveling of humanity through the certainty of death.”

The Chicago Cultural Center is open Monday – Thursday, 10 a.m. – 7 p.m., and Friday – Sunday, 10 a.m.– 6 p.m. The exhibition is free and open to the public and ends July 8.