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Vanitas: The Transcience of Earthly Pleasures

Dazed talk to the curators of one of the standout shows taking place during Frieze week to talk about the fleeting nature of existence

There is perhaps no greater question than that of what awaits the soul in the proverbial undiscovered country, and the Vanitas tradition in art has always been there to remind us that what we accumulate in this world will mean little when we have returned to dust. In the All Visual Arts show Vanitas: The Transcience of Earthly Pleasures, leading contemporary artists, such as Wolfe von Lenkiewicz, Paul Fryer and The Chapman Brothers exhibit work that explicitly explores the language of the Vanitas tradition and to some degree updates it, reminding our own consumer-driven culture of Shakespeare's assertion in Richard II that "nothing can we call our own but death, and the small model of the barren earth that serves as paste and cover to our bones'. Here, we talk to the exhibition's curators Joe La Placa and Mark Sanders about life, death and the purpose of art in a godless society.

Dazed Digital: Why did you choose to explore Vanitas, and why do you think it is relevant now?
Joe La Placa:
From prior conversations we have had, you know that I have been working on The Art Imperative and making the argument that art is imperative to human survival. In that model, we have that skeleton of anxiety – our anxiety about what it is to be human, our anxiety about what it is to be a man, our anxiety about what it is to be a woman and then, of course, the big one, our anxiety about death and impermanence... so a show that concerns itself with those issues naturally leads us to the tradition of Vanitas. The original Vanitas works were kind of a response to the culture of conspicuous consumption in Holland in the 17th century, and a reminder that you can make all the money you want, but you can’t take it with you when you go. There’s a funny contradiction there though, because these are works of art about value and transcience that actually become valuable.
Mark Sanders: I think the staring point for the show came to us when Joe and I went to a Vanitas show in Paris, and the general theme was skulls. We were a little frustrated by that because Vanitas can have a far broader language than the motif of the skull, and we wanted to try and explore that language through contemporary art. The artists we've commissioned in this show have really grasped hold of the theme and investigated the depth of the language...

DD: In a post-reilgious society, where does Vanitas tip over into nihilism?
Mark Sanders: That’s an interesting question because the original Vanitas pieces had a connection to religion, and served as reminder of this idea that it is 'easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the gates of Heaven'. They were created in order to prepare you for the shedding or stipping down of ‘you’ in order that you could enter the next stage, but it's true – what role does Vanitas take in a society without religion?
Joe La Placa: Well, I don’t think it’s just a 'fuck it all' thing. I mean. in another way, maybe Vanitas is just saying to us that it’s okay to acculmalte these objects but just don’t take it all too seriously, and that’s something in contemporary consumer-driven culture that is very important. The show is definitely also about the evolving language of Vanitas, which has become richer and more subtle over the years. It was important to me to make a clear relationship to history, and what Vanitas might come to mean in a society where in 30 years people may not even die..

Mark Sanders: It’s certainly interesting that surrounding your self with objects can become a golden cage, and you can come to a place where you are not free in your head. You can see that with extremely wealthy mean – i mean, what do you do with your immense wealth? Do you go and buy another yacht, or car, or house, or do you build yourself a beautiful art collection or foundation, and test yourself in a way that hopefully helps you to evolve. I think when I am on my death bed, I won’t have found out the answers to anything, but it's important to know you tried and tested yourself and that you didn ‘t fall into someone else’s pattern. For me, that is basically the art imperative – art asks questions of you all the time and it gives you a starting place from which to begin to reflect and contemplate, and we all really need that space.

DD: The contemplation of impermanence doesn’t always leave people in a good place...
Mark Sanders: Well, we live in a culture that is all about being young, and death is something we often tend to sweep under the carpet. Many of the artists that All Visual Arts work with, and that we have commissioned for this show, have a real understanding of history and the past, and I love that. If you look at what The Chapmans have done with those paintings from the 1700s, you are looking at a 250-year-old collaboration. I’m very interested in artists who push the boundaries  – there are no rules.

DD: Do you think we are in a state of shock at the accelerated pace of the times we live in...
Joe La Placa: We are going faster, and maybe we are losing something in that, but we are gaining something too. Just yesterday, I was looking at the work of Ai Weiwei, who is ecstatic at the way he can communicate with the world through Twitter and so on. He thinks of ideas of seeds, and in this work he has has made at The Turbine Hall with these 100 million hand-crafted porcelain sunflower seeds, he is saying, 'I am planting the seed of art in your head.' People are going to take those seeds home, and each one of them will have this tiny unique piece of art. 
Mark Sanders: Time is certainly a key thing in this show. In the piece by Paul Fryer you have a Muon that has travelled through space for billions of years, and all you see of its life is this split second flas at the end of its journey, which is why when you look at that piece, it’s very contemplative. Sure, there are all these things going on in there about how these Muons cause cell disintegration and ageing when they pass through you, but it’s even more than that: it's actually about seeing all those billions of years disappear in a split second.

Vanitas is on at 33 Portland Place, London W1B 1QE, from Oct 12 2010 - Nov 17, 2010