New York based Swedish photographer Agnes Thor’s new series is on a subject everyone talks about when they're 13, but no one really wants to think about ever again afterwards. No, it's not hand jobs—it's death. The exhibition opened this weekend at the Newhouse Gallery for Contemporary Art in Staten Island, NY. To save you the trouble of visiting Staten Island, we lent Agnes the humble walls of this blog to show some of her images and chatted about La Mort La Vie, her ambitious exploration of death, and ideas of eternal youth.
VICE: Hi Agnes, what's with the morbid fascination?
Agnes Thor: Death has been on my mind for so long I can’t remember what sparked it to life, but the idea for this project came in 2010, when a friend suddenly passed away in an accident. It made me realize I was mortal and it felt like it could’ve been me. I thought a lot about my own life after that and this project grew from there.
How did your feelings about death change?
I felt this rush of ease and that everything was possible and that I had to live my life to the fullest all the time. But then everyday life comes in between, you know, doing your laundry and rushing somewhere. It’s so easy to forget that this will all end someday.
Do you think a lot about dying?
Not really. I think I used to. One of my working titles for this project was actually “Fear of Death” but now I’m way more afraid of being crippled or something like that.
Why did you take a photo of a gravestone with your name on it?
That’s actually my great grandmother’s grave. We have the same name. I found it strange to see my own name engraved on a stone, although the date is different, she died in 1929. The rest of the series is more general in a way, so I took this photograph to bring a personal aspect to it.
It must be hard to try and present something so infinitely huge?
I don’t think the topic itself is hard to depict, but I’ve found it challenging to create images that aren’t just replicas of classic pieces. Choosing which parts of death to work with has also been difficult as there so many ways one could work with it that I got really stuck for a while. So far I’ve only scraped the surface. The more I research, the more I find—making the surface wider and wider.
What makes death so fascinating to you?
I've found that our symbolic representation of death is almost gone. Take the skull, for example. It used to be a strong symbol, used in art and on gravestones. Today kids wear it on pink rhinestone T-shirts, it doesn’t hold as much power and significance anymore. Death has become more real. We see it in movies and on the news on a daily basis. The best thing I’ve read on the subject is Philppe Ariès’s books Images of Man and Death and The Hour of Death. They’re goldmines for facts and images and he’s managed to make the wide subject somewhat tangible.
Do you think as a society, we're particularly bad at dealing with it?
The strangest thing to me is how we don’t talk about it. I mean we’re surrounded by death all the time, through media, literature, and people around us dying. Still, death as a conversational subject is one that people always stray away from, mostly by simply changing the topic as fast as possible.
Not to change the subject or anything, but how long is this project?
I think it will take me at least a year or more. I’ve worked on it part-time since 2011 and almost full-time during this past fall, and I’m not nearly done with the research I want to do. I also have to work on the part of the project where I’ll focus on the myths of living forever and eternal youth, for which I need to go to Hawaii and the Azores.
Finally, how do you imagine your own death?
I think I’d like to be turned into ashes, but I do like the idea of a having gravestone and maybe having something funny written on it. I love it when people have puns or silly things on their stones, like “I told you I was sick.” I’d rather not have people be so grave near my stone.
Agnes Thor’s exhibition La Mort La Vie will be up at the Newhouse Gallery for Contemporary Art at Snug Harbor Cultural Center, Building C, 1000 Richmond Terrace, Staten Island, NY, until March 31. To admire more of Agnes’s pictures, visit agneskarin.se.
Follow Milene on Twitter: @Milenelarsson