Few subjects have captivated the artistic imagination quite like death, and for good reason. Universal and inevitable, the end of life is a concern central to the human experience.
The artworks featured below share this enduring focus on mortality and the afterlife, honoring the dead by connecting their presence to the material world. Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s sculpture attempts to save the breath of a loved one and recirculate air that once filled their lungs. Will Rogan’s series rescues the memory of artists from an industry that treated them as disposable. Meanwhile, Nobuyoshi Araki’s photobook evolved in meaning over time as it documented his wife’s journey through life and death. And, for Bea Nettles, a photographic tarot card deck aims to commune with those who have passed on, raising more questions about death and the afterlife than it answers.
Though varied in scope and medium, these artworks present novel ways to commemorate and maintain connection with the departed. Watch the videos to see the creations and learn from the artists about the meaningful backstories that inspired them.
“The whole idea of the piece is that, by capturing the breath of this one person, you create a sort of memorial to that ephemeral moment of breathing,” Lozano-Hemmer explains of his mechanical sculpture, Last Breath (2012). An iteration of the piece, which was included in SFMOMA’s Soundtracks exhibition, displays the breath of the late experimental composer Pauline Oliveros, an influential Bay Area performer and teacher.
Here, Lozano-Hemmer offers an overview of the mechanical components that make his sculpture, while also acknowledging the sentimental aims of his creation. “It’s this impossible and romantic attempt to capture presence,” the artist says.
While working as a librarian at the San Francisco Art Institute in the early aughts, Rogan had the weighty task of determining which exhibition catalogues to discard to make room for incoming texts. “I would pull out ones that had pictures of the artist in them, and for the most part these artists were pretty unknown,” he explains of his decision to collect portraits of artists earmarked for the trash. “…It was really just a compulsion at the time, to keep these people from getting dumped.”
Rogan wound up turning these portraits into sculptural book plates as part of Mediums (2010-ongoing), a series that addresses questions of preservation, anonymity, and legacy. As part of the project, the artist constructed intricate boxes that allowed for the plates to be re-filed in the institution’s library and museum collections such as SFMOMA’s, creating an enduring way to honor contributions of perhaps-forgotten artists.
“To me, things like love are some of the most important factors in a picture,” Araki explains, detailing his photobook Sentimental Journey/Winter Journey (1991). The project includes black-and-white photos of his wife that he captured during their 1971 honeymoon and documents her sickness and untimely death. For him, the two sections of his photobook represent the duality of those two experiences — and the sentimentality and emotions that accompanied each. “When I look at it now, I see that the two intertwine,” he notes.
The photographer, who is included in SFMOMA’s digital publication Focus on Japanese Photography, goes on to explain how his artistic philosophy is embedded in the photos. “I felt that to live is something sentimental,” he remarks. “To live is a journey. And my photography is also a journey.”
Photographer Bea Nettles created Mountain Dream Tarot (1970-1972), the first photographic tarot card deck, after finding inspiration in a dream. The artist painstakingly arranged each photograph and edited them by hand in the darkroom (this was, she notes wryly, before Photoshop) to conjure the themes associated with each tarot card.
Reflecting on the interconnections between art, life, and death, Nettles recalls the eerie scenarios that unfolded as she set out to capture and process the images. For many of her models, the cards proved prescient, revealing part of themselves or relating to their life in ways Nettles never anticipated.
Find more interviews with artists on SFMOMA’s YouTube channel.