Editorial: Australasian artists' responses to death

It has become commonplace to call an awareness of death a universal human concern. Such an expansive view can obscure it as an intimate experience which is given specific meanings through class, gender, ethnicity, age, religion and other cultural circumstances. Similarly, each way of death, whether violent or peaceful, by war or illness, gives its own inflection to the fantasy of death. It has also become a cliché to speak of the West’s denial of death, a simultaneous separation from its actualities and yet at the same time an immersion in ficto-death, or cyber-death, as we become saturated by media-generated death-related images.

Certainly while preparing this issue I encountered a range of responses. Sometimes the topic was met with suspicion, being deemed either too morbid, or too grand, as being too general or too specific. But there was definitely no shortage of artistic encounters with death. So, rather than posit a simple opposition between a supposedly ‘true’, or ‘real’, traditional experience of death and a modern denial or detachment, it is more useful to trace the way that new ways of imagining death seem to be emerging. Ones that are perhaps appropriate for our highly pluralistic society as it approaches the end of the millennium.

Postmodern culture has proclaimed the death of meaning, of the real, of metanarrative. Identity, memory, the body, nature, culture, power and the sacred – those fundamental ingredients of death’s imagination – have undergone profound transformations over the past three decades. The contributions in this issue address various parts of this new vision of death.

Always hovering around are questions of power, over both death and its representation. Struggles over memory, over identity and aesthetics, over the meanings of specific deaths, over the stories that want to be told, over how they want to be told. Death raises too many issues and topics, too many styles both of representation and of writing, to be given adequate coverage in a single slim volume such as this. But perhaps that too is part of death’s imagination, the exhaustion of our capacity to control or to map. We are left only with our fragmented tellings of death and dying.

While this issue of Artlink, of course, could not have been prepared without the input of the contributors, there were many more who gave me valuable advice and sent high quality material which, unfortunately, due to time and space could not be included. This issue was also originally conceived in conjunction with the 600,000 Hours (mortality)project organised by the Experimental Art Foundation (Adelaide). This was a season of exhibitions and a conference between 15 September to 4 December and I should like to thank my fellow curators Linda Marie Walker and Richard Grayson for their advice and suggestions as well as other members of the EAF, especially Julie Lawton for their help in creating a sustained culture where, for a while, the imagination of death found a congenial home.