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The Death Book
The Death Book

Look inside the new art book exploring death, sex, and the internet

Baron’s latest offering includes contributions from Damien Hirst, Lars von Trier, and Miron Zownir

It’s no surprise that a publication called The Death Book runs extremely close to the bones of its makers, Baron's Matthew Holroyd and photographer Edith Bergfors. When the friends began the book’s process four years ago, Holdroyd was teaching students at LCF and had realised that many were using death as a means to explore sexuality, mental wellbeing, and identity. It resurfaced memories of his own student masterpieces – a seven-foot rubber crucifix decorated with semi-nude self-portraits. For Bergfors, hers was even closer to home and involved the death of her mother in 2011; the experiences she had during and the conversations she held after.

Made up of “loosely connected vignettes” from artists who have influenced the pair’s thinking about death, such as Miron Zownir, Damien Hirst, and Lars von Trier, The Death Book converges these to explore “photography’s relationship to death and how death is portrayed in Western society”.

Instead of images of death itself, Holroyd and Bergfors offer representations of death, which “act as simulations... rather than representations of reality”. For example, Bergfors’ now-passed grandparents appear in an eerie shot taken outside of their house by Google Earth, and the publication’s cover features a rent boy dressed as a devil – the ultimate overlord of sin and mortality.

To coincide with the physical book, Holroyd and Bergfors have created two videos – accessed via a QR code on its final page – which plays on ideas around immortality, especially when we can live forever online. Below, we catch up with both to discuss death, sex, and the internet in more detail.

Why did you choose to explore death in this book? Matthew, you mentioned your students had sparked the idea...

Matthew Holroyd: (The LCF students’ work) brought me back to my own time at art school, when I studied for a foundation course aged 17 at Camberwell College of Art, and I was also obsessed with death and making work about it. In fact, one of my teenage masterpieces was three, seven-foot rubber crucifixes which I slashed with a razor blade and inserted cellulose thinner rubbings that included semi-nude self-portraits.

I decided that I would try to put on an exhibition at the local libraries exhibition space and they agreed. I curated three scenes; one was a staged suicide scene, one was the aforementioned crucifixes containing self-portraits, and one was a urinal hammered to the library wall with a photograph of a man cottaging in a toilet in Woolwich that I had photographed. The exhibition opened with a private view, however, my local library banned the exhibition opening to the public, as they found it too shocking. I was so upset at the time, that my mum encouraged me to write to The News Shopper newspaper about it, so I did and they published a story on it and accused the library of being narrow-minded.

I’d completely forgotten about this particular project of mine, perhaps blocked it mentally, but 15 years later after seeing all of these students  projects about death, it made me reflect, and much like the students I was teaching, I had used death to explore my own identity and sexuality, and I found these naïve works of mine incredibly inspiring, and at the same time slightly amusing as well as relevant, that I came up with this idea of The Death Book. Edith has been a collaborator for a while now and simultaneously was dealing with her own mother’s death, so I approached her about my idea and The Death Book started. The outcome is akin to a students research book, containing a vignette of loosely connected images created by us or research sources.

Edith Bergfors: Matthew and I have been friends and collaborators for many years, so after my mother’s death in 2011 we were speaking about the topic fairly often. There were a lot of elements of the process of death and grieving which I found Matthew was able to cope with in different ways than others. I was able to chat to him more openly about things that I found uncomfortable otherwise, such as feeling guilty by being bored when watching somebody die, and various humorous elements that I personally experienced.

For example, when looking over the film that I had shot during the time period of the death, I noticed that I had photographed almost everything except for my mother, and that sparked further conversations around the subject of directly dealing with death, and how we process and distract ourselves from the idea. We then started to collate some of my archive images and make new work. One of our key references that spurred various ideas was early representations of hell, and how sexuality was used as a control mechanism, hence the image on the cover being of a male prostitute posing as a sexy devil.

Why was photography the medium in which to explore this? Do you think photography has a certain representational power that other forms of art don’t?

Matthew Holroyd: I have worked with photography as a medium now for the last 20 years, and subconsciously I think photography has been attractive to me as it has given me an opportunity to simulate scenes and narratives about my desires, aspirations, and feelings. Photography and simulation were interesting to me when conceptualising The Death Book, as popular representations of death act as simulations of death, rather than representations of any reality. However, simulations of death through photography, require the viewer to unpack the image and decide whether this photograph is a rendering of reality.

With photography there is no narrator, sometimes there is no context, the credits are not embedded in the work and a rendering of an image is subjective. A good example of this is the two images of ourselves in the book, photographed in the style of the celebrity photographers Inez and Vindooh, Edith and myself have been airbrushed to perfection to create the ultimate portraits of ourselves, to create a simulation that we were rich, successful, and of public interest. I am not a massive fan of Inez and Vinoodh's work, in fact, I have always found their work rather meaningless, but looking at my outcome, I have to say I look like a person of public interest and rather glamorous, and I am not surprised that they have been so successful! We took this project further and attempted to donate the two portraits to The National Portrait Gallery, but sadly they were rejected, the rejection letter is also published in the book.

Edith Bergfors: I’ve always enjoyed the idea that photography is inherently indexical, and especially how this has shifted with time. The idea that ‘photographs don’t lie’ is an interesting one, especially now that people are more aware of how much post-production goes into the process of making the majority of images we see today. When showing people the book, I found it interesting that despite there being a lady with three tits, and a man with two penises, the image that prompted the question ‘is that real?’ was the car crash scene. I took that image in the first year of moving to London, one evening when I came across the crashed car. I think that’s a good indicator of how little faith people have in the ‘reality’ of photographs, and how much our visual culture has changed.

The book is really centred in the digital world. In what ways do you think the existence of the internet has changed the representation of death and the way we process death?

Matthew Holroyd: The last two pages of the book contain two QR codes, that, once scanned, brings the viewer to two films of ourselves – the films are our after-life monologues to each other, where we speak about the importance of each other and are meant to be viewed after we have died. This was inspired by various websites offering after-life film services and this idea that through the internet one can have a digital presence forever. However, the counter-argument is, of course, that with the developments of new technology, certain technologies become redundant, and of course one’s presence might not continue through digital culture, it will eventually eradicate due to new technology, therefore we now have two deaths; a human death and a digital death.

Edith Bergfors: There is indeed a very relevant conversation about how much the internet has changed our experience of death. In the book, there are two images from Google street view, in which both of my now-deceased grandparents happen to be outside their house in Finland. It definitely spooked me when I went online to show a friend that house, only to find the ghosts of my grandparents’ gardening and chatting to their neighbours.

“We now have two deaths; a human death and a digital death” – Matthew Holroyd

You reported that the Baron and Baroness were involved in a car accident. While these are fictional characters, the campaign felt like a piece of art in itself. It nodded to the internet’s troll culture. It echoed the problem we have with fake news. Am I right? Other than aiming to promote the book, did the campaign have any other motives for it?

Matthew Holroyd: Absolutely, we made two films, the first film is based on a news report about Princess Diana from ITV News, I was 16 when I first saw that news report. I remember exactly what I was doing and became fixated with Diana’s death. I attended her funeral and although I did not know her, and did not particularly follow her prior to her death, I suddenly did. I wanted to make the film to see what people’s reaction would be, and the reaction was bizarre, one person commented that this was the second posthumous account they were following, another commented on whether they should still follow the account if the Baron was dead, neither sent any condolences.

The second film we made was in reference to the value of death, specifically in the art world. I was formerly acquainted with the artist Ellen Cantor, who sadly passed away and I found it interesting that prior to her death a specific museum were not interested in showing her work, despite her being on friendly terms with their curator and then when she had died, when there was no more work to be made, Ellen suddenly had a show at this particular museum. I had seen a clip of a QVC film about Elizabeth Taylor’s jewellery book and the second film is an appropriation of this, hosted by the performance artist Sarah Baker. Sarah sells the book to the viewers on the basis that now the Baron has died the book would be valuable and collectable.

Edith Bergfors: We were trying to find a way to reference Diana’s death in the book as it was incredibly significant in terms of opening up a conversation about celebrity culture, media, and death. I was only a kid when it happened, but I remember discussing it with my mother and being blown away by the idea that the desperation of paparazzi to photograph her contributed to her death. It’s also a reference point to how much our response to celebrity culture has changed, as well as ‘reality’.

The Death Book is available now