Here’s a sunny piece of news: researchers say we’re currently living through a mass extinction event. The depressing factor is increased by a few finer points of this grim story. While the dinosaurs had the copout of being smacked by a rock from outer space, we get to contemplate the likely death of our species and the death of life as we know it, secure in the knowledge that this is all our fault. Everyone has to deal with the fact that they will one day cease to be, but this news puts an ugly spin on that by saddling us with the culpability of destroying many other creatures and the uncertainty that humanity as a whole won’t be around for long after us. Existential nightmares never sucked so much.
Even though researchers say the extinction event is progressing rapidly, it’s still progressing too slowly for us to run out the clock with a drunken end of the world Bacchanalia. Instead, maybe we should pass the time with some soul searching. That reflection is at the heart of Bangkok artist Nino Sarabutra’s installation What Will You Leave Behind? The work, according to her web site, was most recently installed at the Palazzo Grimani Museum, Venice, Italy.
The work includes more than 100,000 miniature porcelain skulls covering the floor of the exhibition space. There is clearly a debt to Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds at the Tate in 2012 but that does not remove the charm. And where Weiwei had to withdraw the offer to walk on the porcelain seeds (dues to toxic manganese dust that rose from the work), visitors here have to walk on these skulls as they pass through the room— a message that every step you take brings you one step closer to Death. The artist states:
“I want people to ask themselves how they live, what they are doing— if today was your last on earth, what will you leave behind?”
Whenever I encounter questions like hers, my first thought is inevitably one of relief— thank god I’m not the only person who thinks these things. Death is a trip that everyone ultimately makes alone, but the collective confrontation of Death present in this work takes a little bit of the sting away. We’re passing over thousands of skulls, meaning that many, many people have done this before us. This isn’t a horror unique to our own experience. The skulls were crafted by Nino and a range of people she knew, such as family, neighbors, friends and co-workers. While they were crafting the skulls, the artist told them to think about their life and what they would leave behind. Answers given by these people, along with answers Sarabutra collected from the Internet, are projected on the gallery wall.
Given the rather immediate timeline given by the researchers who wrote about the extinction event, I doubt I’ll leave behind much more than a contribution to the fossil record (if I’m lucky). Oh well. Maybe thinking in the collective is the right way to go. Maybe the invertebrate monstrosities who inherit the planet in the future will learn about us and avoid making the same mistakes. Maybe I’ll fossilize in a dramatic pose that could be read as a warning by whatever digs me up in the future. That would be helpful.
That leaves the question of how I should spend my remaining time now that I have this knowledge. Sarabutra included some pieces that gently nudge viewers in that direction, a way out of the memento mori panic attack initiated by the thick carpet of skulls. The carpet is joined by heart-shaped plates that hang on the walls. These plates encourage viewers to “act now” and “do today.” The artist states in an interview with My Modern Met:
“I don’t see the skulls as images of fear or sadness. They are liberating: look at all of the opportunities, all the lives you could live, how serious your life is. Then go out and make the most of it.”
It’s easy to be arrested by your fear of mortality, to fear it so much that it corrodes your enjoyment of the life you’re experiencing now. The reverse is to live how you like, to live in a way that benefits others and to enjoy that all the more simply because these experiences are ephemeral. Sarabutra could be an art therapist.
Nino Suwannee Sarabutra was born in Thailand and studied ceramic art at Silpakorn University in Bangkok. Upon graduating she joined different advertising agencies, pursuing advertising along with her artwork. She began her studio in 2006 while running a small ad agency at the same time. She held her first studio exhibition, Exploring Love, in 2008.
Bill Rodgers is a Contributing Editor at CFile.
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