Rebecca Swan believes our society has a fear of death. Not of the event itself, necessarily, but of talking about it. Coming to grips with it and its effect on our lives.
So she made The Exquisite Wound, an exhibition based on the idea that we don’t stop communicating once we’re no longer in our bodies. It combines photography, video and sound to make thinking about death a little less uncomfortable.
All the photos are of animals, you see. They are dead, but still soft. They are relaxed, at peace.
“It’s not a study of birds,” Swan explains. “It’s animals being metaphors for us and our life and our relationships to each other and the planet.”
The exhibition took two years to create. Swan put the word out that she was looking for dead animals to photograph. The response was cautious at first but donations soon began arriving. Keeping them in her freezer, she had to take care not to get food and art mixed up.
Initially Swan photographed single animals. Then in one week she received a duck, a dove, a finch, a rat and a possum. This gave her the idea of photographing the animals in pairs, mammals with birds, in poses that suggest comfort and reassurance.
“There was a reverence to it. It was almost like I let them guide me in terms of what they had to say,” she says. “Some lent themselves to being together.”
Swan developed a toolkit to help her pose the animals, although often their wings or limbs would fall naturally in the way she wanted them.
For her, the ideal response to the exhibition is a feeling that can’t be comprehended.
“For me that feels perfect. We’re dealing with stuff we can’t understand. Kids in particular have been fascinated by it, trying to make sense of it.”
Charlie Ha’s enigmatic music, surrounding visitors as they view the photographs, only adds to the sense of mystery. Deep and chant-like, it matches its subject matter, suggesting an immensity that lies just beyond perception.
The ideas of The Exquisite Wound were taken one step further with “Become the Sky”. It was a companion installation that was on display in the Darkroom Theatre during the S+ART Festival in May. Images from the exhibition were projected onto smoke-filled bubbles, which would then pop. The image would then seem to dissolve in a cloud of smoke.
“It’s a symbol of our physical containers. When they dissipate, where do we go?” Swan says.
Those seeking an answer could benefit from a visit to The Exquisite Wound, on display in the Gallery building until 8 October.
Image: “Resist Resistance” (detail), © Rebecca Swan 2016
Rob Mildon is Te Manawa’s Communications Coordinator