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Death on display: UK show investigates inevitable

Celebrating death is an odd concept for an exhibition, but a new show in London on the topic that many people would rather avoid is at times beautiful, macabre, harrowing, comforting and funny.

travel Updated: Nov 16, 2012 15:37 IST

Celebrating death is an odd concept for an exhibition, but a new show in London on the topic that many people would rather avoid is at times beautiful, macabre, harrowing, comforting and funny.

"Death: A Self-Portrait" opens at the Wellcome Collection, which specialises in scientific and medical themes, on Thursday and runs until February 24 next year.

It contains around 300 paintings, puppets, models, drawings and artefacts from the collection of Richard Harris, an American antique print dealer who just over a decade ago decided to dedicate his time to assembling works of art related to death.

He has around 2,000 items in total, most of them in storage, and would love to display the collection around the world to help people come to terms with their ultimate fate.

"My real aim is to have this show all over the world," the 75-year-old said at a preview of the exhibition on Wednesday.

"All the world needs to continue to promote the discussion and dialogue about this just to make it ...something that is not taboo and something that we cringe about and close our eyes and our minds to," Harris told reporters.

With a broad smile and jaunty manner perhaps at odds with his chosen obsession, he added: "Like it or not, we're not going to live forever."

Curator Kate Forde organised the exhibition around five themes, and sought to make the show feel as personal as possible rather than being a spectacle.

By placing artefacts from Japan and Nepal close to those from the United States and Mexico, the exhibition underlines how different cultures deal with death in radically different ways.

Mexico, with its Day of the Dead holiday, takes a more head-on approach than some cultures who seek to avoid the subject.

"It's an acknowledgement that death is there, it is a part of life and there is a way still of connecting with the dead and that can be joyous as well as full of grief and sorrow," Forde said of the tradition.

Dix's death drawings

Among the most disturbing works on display are 51 prints by German artist Otto Dix based on his time fighting as a machine-gunner on the Western Front during World War One.

Unflinching in their portrayal of agony, death, fear and rape, they are inspired both by Goya and Callot, whose works hang alongside them in the "Violent Death" section.

In "Commemoration" sits a "tau tau", an Indonesian "grave guardian", or wooden model of the deceased placed next to the graves of prominent members of the Toraja ethnic group.

The oldest item on display is the Nuremberg Chronicle, an illustrated adaptation of the Bible and world history from 1493, left open at an image of skeletons leaping and dancing frenetically beside an open grave.

The show also features contemporary works, including a 2009 giant "chandelier" by British artist Jodie Carey which comprises some 3,000 plaster-cast bones.

Harris said he was not obsessed by death, and did not know the value of his collection which includes works by prominent artists as Dix and Albrecht Duerer.

"As long as we don't go to the poor house," he joked. He continues to collect - his latest purchase was a 1969 Chevrolet car decorated with Day of the Dead motifs.

Next year, the Wellcome Collection will undergo a 17.5 million pound redevelopment after its exhibitions, talks and library attracted nearly half a million people over the last year compared with the 100,000 it had expected.

Forde put the success down to the combination of science, medicine and art. "I definitely think there's a hunger to look at science in that rounded way," she said.