Impact writers Rosie Hendry and Verena Vieregge explore the arguments for and against the divisive art of the German artist Gregor Schneider
In 2008, Gregor Schneider proposed his Dying Room. His concept proved as self-explanatory as the title suggested. Schneider hoped to construct a room in the very public space of the art gallery, in which a terminally ill volunteer would wait and experience their last moments of life.
Aiming to break the taboo of death in our society, Schneider explained that he wished to “show the beauty of death,” adding that, “there is nothing perverse about a dying person in an art gallery.” Unsurprisingly, the project provoked spectacular controversy and consequently failed to find a venue. The question remains, was this really the right decision?
Schneider wishes to “show the beauty of death” which met resistance when some answered: what if there is simply death in death? In past years, death has been continuously placed on a pedestal by artists all equally determined to reveal its beauty. However, they have merely produced an epic quantity of euphemism. Here is the shocker; death is big, bad and very ugly. The termination of biological functions cannot be appreciated for its aesthetic qualities and applauded in the cool white space of the gallery.
To arrange the settings of death and encourage admiration destroys the reality of death. Ironically, Schneider’s determination to tear down society’s last taboo could have merely strengthened cultural avoidance of death’s true nature.
Neither is the gallery space the right site for death. Gallery owner Beatrix Kalwa explained that the curators who refused to host the piece firmly believed that “existential matters like death, birth or the act of reproduction do not belong in a museum. There is a fundamental difference between portraying these acts in an art form, and showing them in actuality”.
The voluntary status of the ‘art object’ could not disguise the most unsettling fact of all. Allowing members of the public to observe the pained, final gasps of a dying human reeks of a terrible voyeurism. Throughout history humanity has been fascinated with the observation of death. Art happenings such as this can be recognised to provide the sort of murky entertainment enjoyed by morbid crowds at public executions. Many considered The Dying Room a sensationalist and grossly insensitive PR stunt.
Our freedom of choice is surely one of the most sacred elements in our lives in choosing our clothes, food and our lifestyle. Why then did a consensual decision made between an artist and a volunteer prove to be such a controversial matter – why can a person not choose his or her own death experience?
In modern times death has been evicted from societal consciousness and now constitutes the last taboo. A public death is not a scandalous concept by nature, but becomes one when we decide to approach it as such. In earlier times a ‘good death’ was celebrated in the company of friends and family, experienced in the comforting environment of the home. However, the act of dying has slowly crept its way into the sterility and anonymity of hospitals and clinics. In these white-tiled cells, we remain isolated from our loved ones, but condemned to die whilst under the constant observation of lab-coated strangers. However, Schneider’s dignified Dying Room had the potential to awaken death from its isolated grave and turn it into a positive experience. Putting death into the gallery space might have helped us to overcome our fear, and have provided a terminally ill person with the fulfilment of their last wish – to die in and as an artwork.
Similarly, it would have remained your personal choice to witness the piece in a gallery. If watching death doesn’t appeal, don’t go. It is as simple as that. Our freedom of choice calls for the ability to choose our own death scenario and should resist any attempts at prohibition.
Rosie Hendry and Verena Vieregge