This danse macabre between Death and the Maiden has twirled through the history of Western art since at least the 15th century during the Middle Ages. Political turmoil and the Black Plague aside, death during the Middle Ages was something you would have faced nearly every time you entered a cathedral or looked at a piece of artwork. Art divided life into good and evil, and the afterlife into heaven and hell. You had to decide if you wanted to follow the path of sinners or that of saints. Your acts in this life would determine your existence in the afterlife as being divine or infernal. Memento mori was not a macabre outlook on life but a reminder of what was considered a higher truth. Death is a grim concept for most, but once you put death in the context of a temporary state of transformation that leads to a continued existence, whether that existence is the afterlife or simply the elements of the body breaking down and reforming in nature, death is no longer morbid, but in a way beautiful as it’s part of a greater cycle that provides us with experiences of love, family, and happiness. Art is a tool to inspire us to view death beyond the physical and to contemplate its philosophical or spiritual meanings. In this way Ars moriendi, the art of dying, was a concept for the individual to cultivate a state of consciousness to concern themselves with the permanence of the afterlife and not with the ephemeral forms of this world.
Later during the 16th and 17th centuries Vanitas painting continued this fascination with meditation on death, generally using more worldly objects as opposed to sacred images. Throughout each of these eras of art history up to now the theme of Death and the Maiden has reoccurred in the paintings from Egon Schiele to Robert Oscar Lenkiewicz. At the 2016 L.A. Art Show 2016 Death and the Maiden took on new forms through an art performance presented by Ace Gallery.
Walking into the art show one of the first pieces of art one might have come to had they veered left was the Wilting Point performance by Millie Brown. The artist laid nearly naked upon a bed of flowers from 11am to the show’s closing for each of the five days of the art show. For those five days she fasted entirely of food, sustaining herself only on water. Fasting from food, especially after three days, has an incredible effect on one’s mind and perception. Fasting is a common practice among yogis for that purpose. The senses become heightened and the mind feels like it comes out of the body. And though the body might ache, there is an incredible sense of power beyond the limits of the physical body that one can tap into. In this powerful state of deprivation Millie meditated on the surrounding flowers and the soundscape produced by Jeremiah Nadya, who converted signals emitted by plants into music.
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