“Dead or Alive” at MAD Uses Organic Media to Bridge the Gap Between Life and Death


Published: August 25, 2010

The fourth and fifth floor galleries of the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) are infested with insects, not to mention littered with bones, vegetation and animal hair. A giant waterfall perpetually funnels in from a gallery window and appears to soak through the floor.

Landscape One by Levi Van Veluw (Courtesy of Ronmandos Gallery, Amsterdam)

Only the waterfall, English artist Kate MccGwire’s “Discharge,” is actually stagnant and composed of thousands of meticulously arranged pigeon feathers. All the bugs, bones, plant and animal matter are postmortem art materials used by 37 international artists in an exhibition of contemporary sculpture and installation art called “Dead or Alive,” running now until Oct. 24 at MAD.

Much of the artwork in the exhibition begs social and political questions about what and how we consume as the dominant species on the planet and the effects our choices have on the natural world. Organic media are used expressively and uniquely throughout “Dead or Alive” to provoke deep, dark, sometimes beautiful and occasionally frightening questions about life, death and the difference between them.

“Marauding Horde” by English artist Tessa Farmer vividly characterizes the overall exhibition, although its intricacies, both conceptually and physically, are not spoon-fed to the viewer. It is easy to mistake the work for a bunch of dead bugs and other detritus strung from fishing line and hung from the ceiling, but Farmer’s installation is really a detailed scene—another world inhabited by the fantastic winged micro-beings of her creation, called “skeleton fairies,” who mount insects in mid-air, harvest their parts, and use them for their own purposes. A stop motion film displayed nearby explains the well-thought narrative, which is acted out on film and frozen in time within the installation. The individual components of the work, including a ram skull, mummified frog, bat, wasp nest sections making up a central hanging sculpture and dried insects suspended alone and in pairs speak to the central themes of “Dead or Alive.” The work is about being alive, being a slave or enslaver, being killed, being dead and more generally about much more than meets the eye at viewer’s first glance. Some of the dead flies move far beyond the corner of the fifth floor gallery where “Marauding Horde” is centered. These rogue insects seem to be fleeing the skeleton fairies and the installation, fleeing from the world the artist has created for them.

A more obvious work within “Dead or Alive” is American artist Billie Grace Lynn’s “Mad Cow Motorcycle.” Yes, it is a fully functioning bicycle souped up with a full bovine skeleton and powered by an electric motor. But when the artist’s motivation for creating this particular sculpture is to send a social message to the masses, it is both logical and imperative to be blatant conceptually as well as functionally. And if the viewer doubted the possibility of using the sculpture as a means of transportation or the clear intent of the work, a video running next to the piece depicts the artist riding around the streets of Miami shouting to pedestrians, “Mad cow! Go vegetarian! Eat less meat! Save the earth!” The artist, through her artwork, wonders why one cannot reconfigure the remains of a cow as a motorized vehicle for human use, since humans reconfigure cows regularly as tasty hamburgers, juicy filet mignon and hip leather jackets. In the video, Lynn points out a large hole in the cow’s skull where it was put down with a shotgun. In person, small nicks from the buckshot are visible surrounding the absence of the snout. Even in death, Lynn argues, the cow is used and abused by humans at their convenience, similar to Farmer’s fictional skeleton fairies’ abuse of insects.

In the same museum gallery, black beans, red beans, corn and rice are spread across the floor in a large-scale mosaic by Costa Rican artist Lucia Madriz. Her work titled “Gold Fever” depicts a pair of skeletal hands of white rice, one grasping a handful of corn seeds, and the other pinching a single seed between its thumb and index finger for examination. Twin scrolls of red beans deliver the artist’s message spelled out in corn: “Modified Seed; Contaminated Food.” The combination of the literal message and the pictorial representation communicate Madriz’s contempt for the human role in crop contamination, chemical pollution and the economic abuse of the global poor, all related via the foodstuffs themselves, which represent genetically-modified seed that causes permanent environmental damage. In this work a main source of life for the majority of the world’s population, especially in developing countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America, reads death for organic, naturally-evolved plant life. In an artist interview produced by MAD, Madriz explains that her conceptual art is a means to a more just end.

A brief overview of “Dead or Alive” may leave one concluding that artists, from early hunter-gathers to the contemporary internationals featured in the exhibition, will never tire of symmetrically arranging dead animal parts and plant matter or utilizing the hackneyed skeleton or skull to symbolize mortality. However, many of the artists’ more sophisticated conceptual ideas are impressive, almost as much so as the materials used to bring these ideas into being. Although the animals—or animal matter—and insects used in the installations have been dead for some time, many of the works that engage the viewer most are those whose facets seem to come alive.

This may seem like a childish notion (and indeed I noticed many children at the exhibition, staring wide-eyed at the bugs and skeletal structures, hiding behind their parents, feigning fear), but the exhibition’s theme of the fine line between life and death, the two most basic tenets of existence, undoubtedly bring out the most basic emotional responses from the viewer, young or old. In addition, the social and political undertones of much of the art, which repeatedly address environmental and animal rights issues, ground the conceptual installations and sculpture in ideas. The weakest points in the exhibition are those artists that seem to focus only on design and execution, which undermine the themes of social responsibility that arise from their artwork. Yet as a whole, “Dead or Alive” succeeds in creating the opportunity for viewers to delve into some age-old questions and modern social issues while taking in some creatively conceived and intricately designed works of contemporary art.