Memento Mori: #YOLO

While #YOLO (“You only live once”) has been lauded as the battle cry of our youths, the sentiments expressed by the phrase are actually much older. Centuries before the invention of the hashtag, artists have reminded us of the transience of life, and have directed us to consider our own mortality. In doing so, they used memento mori, which are symbols that remind an artwork’s viewers of the inevitability of death, thereby forcing them to reflect on their own lives.

AGNSW collection Albrecht Dürer Coat of arms with a skull (1503) DO9.1963
AGNSW collection Albrecht Dürer Coat of arms with a skull (1503) DO9.1963

One of the most recognisable and widely used memento mori is the skull, which by its very nature evokes the idea of death. In Albrecht Dürer’s engraving, death is personified by the male figure that leans over the shoulder of the maiden. The skull pictured on the shield faces out to the viewer, and reveals the man’s identity as death. This placement of the skull creates tension in the work, as we, the viewers, are reminded of the ever-lurking presence of death, while the lady appears oblivious.

AGNSW collection Ron Mueck Old woman in bed (2000-2002) 9.2003
AGNSW collection Ron Mueck Old woman in bed (2000-2002) 9.2003

Examining Ron Mueck’s artwork, a viewer is confronted with a feeble old woman, whose conspicuous frailty alludes to the nearness of her death. Despite the figure’s diminutive size (the artwork is less than a metre in length), the realism of the work connects us to the sculpture, which appears all too human. Mueck’s use of realism draws the viewer in - as we witness the death of another and, in turn, are prompted to consider our own mortality.

AGNSW collection Tim Maguire Untitled 94U39 (1994) 583.1994.a-b
AGNSW collection Tim Maguire Untitled 94U39 (1994) 583.1994.a-b

A less literal way in which memento mori have been represented is in still life works, which tend to place greater emphasis on metaphor. These still lifes often depict recognisable motifs, such as rotting fruit and wilting flowers, which represent the passing of time, and thereby foreshadow death. This form of memento mori is present in Tim Maguire’s work – that is, while we are shown the beauty of the flowers, their frayed, browning leaves and the limp petals remind us of their ephemerality.

Going beyond the two-dimensional canvas, Ricky Swallow’s Killing Time takes the 17th century Dutch still life tradition and expresses it in sculptural form. Laid forth before the viewer are the fruits of nature, as we behold fishes, oysters, squid, crab and lobster. There is a simultaneous sense of bountifulness and reflection, as although we are presented with amazing produce, the lifeless forms convey a sense of death.

AGNSW collection Simryn Gill Rampant (1999) 21.2005.a-g
AGNSW collection Simryn Gill Rampant (1999) 21.2005.a-g

Abstracting the idea of memento mori even further, Simryn Gill’s photo series, Rampant, employs the concept in illustrating the fragility of the natural world. Gill’s photographs depict trees that have been introduced into the Australian ecosystem, which have subsequently overrun and killed off native plants. The black and white aesthetic of the photographs creates a sombre tone, and the clothing of the plants appears ghostly in the landscape. While no humans inhabit the photographs, an inescapable and eerie sense of death pervades the artworks.

Unlike the rest of the artworks, which reside inside the gallery, Brett Whiteley and Matthew Dillon’s monumental sculpture, Almost Once, stands out in the parkland. The sculpture depicts a burnt match placed beside an unlit one. The contrast of the two matches creates a striking duality, which calls for a consideration of life and death, as the sculpture represents both a beginning and an end. Despite the match’s life only lasting a few seconds, we are reminded that these brief moments are worth the most.

AGNSW collection Brett Whiteley, Matthew Dillon Almost once (1968, 1991) 339.1991
AGNSW collection Brett Whiteley, Matthew Dillon Almost once (1968, 1991) 339.1991

Tai Mitsuji is currently studying a combined arts/law degree at the University of Sydney. He works as an editorial assistant at The Sydney Morning Herald, and writes about art in his spare time. Tai likes eating poached eggs, and dislikes writing about himself in third person. His one true love is his basset hound, Francis Ford.