Benjamin Franklin may have said "The only things certain in life are death and taxes" but many of us, it appears, do our best to avoid or at least postpone both. Then again, death is an inevitable event and, as such, we do tend to consider it at various times in our lives. Meanwhile, artists also get to portray death and dying in various ways and formats within the realms of their chosen discipline and mindset.
Last week the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design on Mount Scopus held a one-day conference entitled "The End of the Road: On Death, Creation and Culture." The mood toward the end of the program was anything but morbid as Ido Bruno enlightened his audience about some of the harsher edges of artistic portrayal of death and the dead in a talk based on the highly controversial - and popular - international Bodyworlds exhibition currently on display at the Madatech Gallery in Haifa.
There were eight panel sessions during the day, covering a wide range of death-arts related areas, such as Judaism's take on death, the architectural depiction of the Holocaust, the way soldiers are portrayed in Israeli films and plays and blogs written by terminally ill patients.
Dr. Barukh Blikh, from the Faculty of History and Theory which organized the seminar, chose a particularly striking theme for his slot, which he called "Life after Death - The Resurrection of Gunther von Hagens." Von Hagens caused a sensation in the art and extra-art world in the mid-1970s when he unveiled a technique for preserving biological tissue specimens called "plastination" - the subject of the Bodyworlds exhibition of preserved human bodies and anatomical specimens.
Blikh feels von Hagens's invention is a perfectly natural sequitur to the prevailing Western quest for eternal youth and beauty. "Western medicine, in contrast with Eastern medicine, continually repels death," he says. "But it's something of a dichotomy. On the one hand the Western approach sanctifies death, like in the iconic portrayal of Jesus' death, but it also fears death."
Bodyworlds, says Blikh, resolves the ambivalence. "Gunther von Hagens displays bodies of dead people as if they were alive. He shows death not as the end of the road but as something of esthetic value. Western civilization looks upon death as something ugly and contemptible, but along comes von Hagens and shows death in a completely different light. Von Hagens wants the public to leave the exhibition with a different view of death," he says.
In this war-ravaged and road accident-ridden country, we are all too aware of our mortality. With that in mind, would it be going too far to expect a visit to the Bodyworlds exhibition to somehow mitigate the fear of our inevitable end? "I have seen people at the exhibition here and also abroad," Blikh notes. "Abroad, people have this curiosity about the anatomy, whereas in Israel people pay more attention to the esthetics of the exhibits."
For her part, History and Theory faculty head Dr. Dana Arieli-Horowitz was keen to ensure that things didn't get too bleak, subject matter notwithstanding, starting with the title of the event. "It's a very heavy topic, so we wanted to go for a name that accommodated the morbidity but also had some aspect of Israeli slang," she explains.
Besides being one of the driving forces behind the seminar, Arieli-Horowitz also contributed to an afternoon panel session entitled "Communicating Death," which looked at the way the media portray the subject. Over the years the media ethos on death, primarily the casualties of war and acts of terror, has fluctuated significantly, treading perilously close to the fine line between adhering to an ethical approach and the constant and ever-growing need to win the ratings battle. "There was the attack on bus No. 5 in Tel Aviv in the second intifada when the TV cameras got very close up to the bodies," recalls Arieli-Horowitz. "But that was a sort of watershed. There was a kind of tug-of-war between sensationalism and enchantment, between pornography and the fact that you are capturing someone's last moments. But things changed after that. The cameras backed off."
Another momentous media event was, of course, 9/11 and the way developments unfolded right in front of the camera lens. "There was that image of someone jumping out of the Word Trade Center," Arieli-Horowitz continues. "In a way it was almost surreal. When that person jumped, you weren't quite sure if it was a human being or a bird."
And then there is the way the authorities try to control what we see in the media and the way we perceive images that, in the normal run of things, are beyond comprehension. Arieli-Horowitz's session included a lecture by Ohad Zehavi from the Philosophy Department of Tel Aviv University called "September 11: Unreal, Intangible and Inhuman Death" in which Zehavi examined the way the public reacted to the collision of the second plane with the World Trade Center, the collapse of the first tower and the person who opted to jump rather than die inside the building.
"There was this extreme lack of coverage of dead bodies in an event in which we know that more than 3,000 people died," says Arieli-Horowitz.
Of course, things also change over time in this post-modern media-driven world of ours. Temporal distance, proffers Arieli-Horowitz, can have a radical effect on the way the arts portray momentous events. "The so-called third generation of Holocaust survivors do very different things artistically compared with the generation before them. They, for instance, actually show Hitler and the evil. You'd never find that before the Nineties."
The time lapse, says Arieli-Horowitz, can also help to provide the artist with a more balanced perspective. "The media have to respond to events very quickly. But we have found that works of art that portray something that occurred several years earlier are far better than ones that are reeled off soon after the event."
Death, at least in the world of academia, is doing good business. "We've never had so many proposals for lectures for a seminar," says Arieli-Horowitz. "When we decided on the theme for this year's conference, there were quite a few people who voiced concern over the morbid subject and said no one would come to the event. There is something about Israeli society that tends to stare death straight in the face. You could even go so far as to say that we are a society part of whose raison d'etre runs through the area of death and trauma. It starts with the Holocaust and continues on through all the traumas of contemporary times."
Naturally, the artists have their own say about that.