Friday last, I went to the final day of a very stimulating show at a Gallery in Soho to help eat one of the exhibits. As you do. The show was called Memento Mori which is Latin of course and translates as ‘remember you will die’. It’s said that during a Roman Imperator’s vir triumphalis (basically a big parade and one of the highest achievement in the Republic) a slave would accompany him in his chariot holding a gold wreath above his head and whispering ‘Memento Mori’ in his ear. This act would both symbolise the brevity of existence while simultaneously conveying a passion for earthly things. It may also have had a ‘deflating’ function, reminding the jubilant emperor that whilst he was being treated like a God, he was in fact human.
Whatever the purpose, it was a great exhibition with exhibits from Jake & Dinos Chapman and others. I was there, however, to see Tasha Marks who I had recently met at Car Art Boot Fair. Tasha had produced a Vanitas Case made almost entirely from Chocolate and had invited me along to it’s farewell. I felt dear reader that it was only my duty to go along and help her of course in the name of art…I have to say it was delicious and I’m now convinced all art should be edible…this ties in very well with the Buddhist principle of impermanence and would therefore carry spiritual significance and meaning. Probably not so good for the market though so I can’t see it taking off in a big way, although the gallery experience would be so much more fun and a great way to meet people.
Anyway, Vanitas art in itself is fascinating and usually features objects rich in symbolism such as skulls, rotting food, and fading flowers in order to produce in the viewer’s mind an acute awareness of the brevity of life and the inevitability of death. The origins of the term date back to the latin biblical aphorism: vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas (Ecclesiates 1:2) (Vanity of vanities; all is vanity).
All the Flowers of the Spring
Meet to perfume our burying:
These have but their growing prime,
And man does flourish but his time.
Survey our progresse from our birth—
We are set, we grow, we turne to earth.
Courts adieu, and all delights,
All bewitching appetites!
Sweetest Breath and clearest eye
Like perfumes goe out and dye;
And consequently this is done
As shadowes wait upon the Sunne.
Vaine the ambition of Kings
Who seeke by trophies and dead things
To leave a living name behind,
And weave but nets to catch the wind.
from The Devil’s Law Case by John Webster (1623)
Apart from edible Vanitas art, Tasha does amazing things with food and runs a boutique food event organisation called Animal Vegetable Mineral. She has an exhibition currently running at the Herrick Gallery in Shoreditch and has obtained some of the extremely rare and valuable substance ambergris. Ambergris is a now fairly unheard of ingredient but apparently it’s formed in the lower intestine of sperm whales and is primarily known for its distinctive musty aroma which was previously used in perfumery. According to Wikipedia, “Ancient Egyptians burned ambergris as incense, while in modern Egypt ambergris is used for scenting cigarettes. The ancient Chinese called the substance ‘dragon’s spittle fragrance’ and during the Black Death in Europe, people believed that carrying a ball of ambergris could help prevent them from getting the plague.” As well as being used in perfume, it was historically used to flavour food and is believed to be an aphrodisiac.
I use incense when I chant quite a lot. Smell is after all one of the most powerful and evocative of the human senses and I find it helps relax me and and helps me to focus. Quite often it will transport me somewhere else, to places I have visited in the past depending on which flavour I use. I’m sure like Proust we have all had those ‘madeleine moments’. (Marcel Proust’s masterpiece À la recherche du temps perdu is wholly inspired by the smell and taste of cakes which transport him immediately to a time in the past from which the book emerges). It may not even be a place, sometimes it’s a feeling or an emotion or a particular person of course. This reminded me that I saw some very alarming research recently from a company called Nielsen, the same guys who provide the ratings which are still largely used by TV and advertising companies to target their advertising at the right suckers (that includes me of course). Anyway this ‘piece of work’ showed that amongst the 18-24 year old group (globally), something like 75% of them would rather lose one of their senses than be without an essential piece of technology…
Yep. This was a very credible global study. No reason to disbelieve it. Okay so actually doing it and saying it are different things however the inferred meaning is clear. To do a bit of my own fieldwork I asked someone I knew in that age group what they thought and she confirmed without any hesitation that she would forfeit her sense of smell if it meant keeping her mobile phone…I was gob-smacked. This was quite possibly the most morbid and depressing thing I had ever heard. Obviously the issues that this piece of information raised could inspire a hundred blog posts and I don’t have the time. I don’t have kids and I know these days young people’s entire social lives are built around technology (when I was making a date I just hoped that person would show up as arranged) but surely someone somewhere is teaching them something about the beauty and poetry of life?
Please tell me they are, because if they are not, we might as well be dead.