Article by Shelby Seu // Feb. 12, 2019
‘Das letzte Bild: Fotografie und Tod’ at C/O Berlin covers an astonishing breadth of subjects and eras. Broadly speaking, the exhibition addresses photography’s attempt to reckon with mortality, as well as the human compulsion to produce something enduring after life has been extinguished. These are not new themes in photographic theory, nor have they been exhausted. Death will always remain something of a mystery to those who have not yet crossed its threshold, and there are certainly myriad ways in which the people attempt to stave off this eventuality, not least of which is via photographic likeness.
However, the exhibition at Amerika Haus confronts us with too much all at once. A lengthy, essay-style exhibition statement sits imposingly on a slate grey wall, next to a row of sombre death masks. To read the essay takes time; to pick it apart and find the threads that weave into the exhibition takes too much time. As I read through the piece, some of whose key ideas echo those of Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag, it seemed to me that any of these finer strands would have been entirely sufficient for one exhibition. Death is, of course, one of the greatest subjects in life and, together, death and photography is too great still to assemble a concise exhibition.
As Sontag notes, photography is often adopted as an “inventory of mortality”, and certainly the exhibition presents as something of an inventory, showcasing a staggering number of works by notable and anonymous artists. Nan Goldin, Thomas Demand, Tacita Dean, Douglas Gordon, Lee Miller and Damien Hirst are among the big names in show, yet the exhibition also displays a large number of additional artworks and documentary material. ‘Das letzte Bild’ thus chronicles almost every possible circumstance of death, the only real link between everything being death through the veritable lens of the camera. There is a lot to contend with, and no individual section is given its due diligence: on one wall hang the grainy images of Holocaust death camps, bodies piled in high stacks like firewood; on another, gruesome depictions of lynching victims. Yet another wall is dedicated to JFK’s very public murder and its media representation, emphasising the sensationalism of celebrity deaths. Meanwhile, contained in a glass case are 19th century post-mortem portraits, in which deceased bodies are rendered to appear peacefully sleeping—a somewhat paltry attempt to preserve life after death. With so many disparate representations, as well as a disorienting lack of focus, the link between death and photography loses its intellectual appeal.
‘Das letzte Bild’ endeavours to provide a survey of death and photography, representing death in several contexts (medical, violent, natural, and so on) in order to connect it to complex philosophies. Though the exhibition succeeds in providing a considerable overview of death’s visual representation, one nevertheless leaves feeling suspiciously empty. The exhibition is brutal and heavy, and it relies a lot on its shock value. Each micro-theme is overshadowed by the prevalence of numerous other micro-themes and, as a result, I felt both overwhelmed by the heaviness of the subject matter, and unconvinced by its presentation. In a few cases, the exhibition valiantly tackles some of the most pressing issues of our time—the tokenisation of a Turkish boy to represent a crisis of refugees, for example—but in the end it fails to construct a succinct thesis, presenting its audience with something that can be, at times, rather traumatising, but which comes no closer to answering the complex questions it poses.