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The Art of Making Sense of Life and Death

3 Nov, 09 | by Deborah Kirklin

An exhibition of recent work by artist David Marron opened recently at GV Art Gallery in London, writes Marina Wallace, curator of the exhibition. A catalogue, containing the writings of the artist, accompanies the show. Having installed his work, and having been present at the private view and the following days’ encounters with critics, journalists, and interested parties, David Marron returned to his shifts as a paramedic, working on an ambulance in London.

His first job after the intense exhibition period happened to be at Buckingham Palace, serving on an ambulance on the occasion of the granting of OBEs to a crowd of distinguished individuals. Distinction does not prevent illness, and the ambulance that David was on was there as a preventative measure in the case of accidents. David Marron specialises in witnessing accidents and providing emergency intervention. His art is the visual interpretation of a fundamental human condition, that of being between life and death, positioned between the objects that surround the body, and their symbolic meaning that survive it. Both Marron’s art and his occupation as a paramedic are about life, death, and acts of survival.

A number of photographers, since the 19th century, have made images as a way of recording wars, natural disasters, killings, crime or pornography. Artists have produced varying kinds of visual records in the form of sculptures, paintings, or drawings, some also with a raw documentary urge, infused with a dose of the ingredients that rule aesthetic judgement. Writers have included in their oeuvre dramatic biographical stories and vivid accounts of tragic events, trying to make sense of them.

An example of one of the best contemporary accounts of this kind is Joan Didion’s phenomenally good book, The Year of Magical Thinking (2005), where the author attempts herself to “make sense” of what happened suddenly and unexpectedly when her husband died of a massive heart attack one evening at the dinner table. Didion remembers simple actions and objects that required her attention whilst preparing dinner: “I lit the candles. John asked for a second drink before sitting down. I gave it to him. We sat down. My attention was on the mixing salad. John was talking, then he wasn’t.”

As witness of the dramatic event, Didion forces herself to freeze the moment, to reconstruct the life events that preceded the instant of death as if to keep a comprehensible recollection of what happened.

“I have no idea which subject we were on, the Scotch or World War One, at the instant he stopped talking. I only remember looking up. His left hand was raised and he was slumped motionless. At first I thought he was making a failed joke, an attempt to make the difficulty of the day seem manageable. I remember saying Don’t do that.”

Trying to keep a sense of control over otherwise unmanageable events, we hold onto what we know best, and what is imbued with meaning. As if meaning, resurrected and reconstructed, had the power to bring one back from the dead. But meaning is not enough. Life is a continuous and testing struggle between intangible things, and utterly practical matters. Furthermore, we are never ready for what happens to us suddenly. Didion, needing practical help for her husband, after split seconds of searching for meaning, remembers that she had taped a card with the New York-Presbyterian ambulance numbers in the kitchen by the telephone. “I had not taped the numbers by the telephone because I anticipated a moment like this. I had taped the numbers by the telephone in case someone in the building needed an ambulance. Someone else.”

Didion’s story, the story of an artist/writer who lives the dramatic event from the point of view of the victim, and calls the paramedics in to help, observing them from her perspective, is all the more extraordinary if seen in relation to the work by David Marron and his point of view as artist/observer of such scenes from the viewpoint of the paramedic who is called in to help.

Didion writes:

“I called one of the numbers. A dispatcher asked if he was breathing. I said Just come. When the paramedics came I tried to tell them what had happened but before I could finish they had transformed the part of the living room where John lay into an emergency department.”

On returning home, Joan Didion sees the room where her husband fell and died after having been to hospital and having certified her husband’s death.

When I walked into the apartment and saw John’s jacket and scarf still lying on the chair where he had dropped them when we came in from seeing Quintana ad Beth Israel North (the red cashmere scarf, the Patagonia windbreaker that had been the crew jacket on Up Close & Personal) I wondered what an uncool customer would be allowed to do. Break down? Require sedation? Scream?

I remember thinking that I needed to discuss this with John.”

Didion’s account, individual and universal, unfolds through many layers touching on social mores, on personal grief, on medical conventions and psychological conditions.

Imagining a conversation between Marron and Didion, and their artistic endeavours, I imagine Marron’s poetic lists alternating with Didion’s own emphatic words.

It is the body of the deceased or of the ill fated that Marron the paramedic takes care of, but the objects that surround the body are those that remain impressed in the mind of Marron the artist. Objects live on as audiences, when all doors are closed, silent witnesses of the life and death that gave them meaning and took it away.

Literary and artistic references enrich Marron’s work. He carefully reads Dante, Shakespeare, Goethe and Dostoyevsky, and looks attentively at Vesalius, Leonardo, Rembrandt, Goya, Delacroix and Gericault, whilst his part-time occupation as a paramedic underpins his artistic production providing much food for thought. The artist on an ambulance is an observer of life and death events, and has the privilege of seeing what many others normally can’t see.

The relationship that Marron has with the art objects that strike his imagination and impose their vivid presence on his mind, is complex and intimate. The portrait of Margaretha de Geer, wife of Jacob Trip, painted by Rembrandt in 1661, is one of such objects that remained with Marron for a long time, and left a memorable sign, that turned into a sculptural work of imposing presence, Imaginary Shipreck, shown on the upper floor of the GV Art gallery. Marron annotates the encounter:

I stumbled upon Rembrandts portrait of Margaretha de Geer accidentally one day and ended spending an hour or two stumped in front of it. It was one of those works that lodged in your mind and I would return often to spend some time with it, much like visiting some frail ancestor.

Margaretha is portrayed with sensational directness by Rembrandt in the last decade of his life. The artist makes no mystery of the aging conditions of his sitter. Her hands and her face display the signs of old age, her direct gaze is uncompromising and her body language reveals the years of experience that her looks indicate. Caught by the powerful image, and the extraordinary rendering in paint of the respectable old lady, Marron finds himself carried away on paper, and the many, intricate drawings that accompany his sculptural work are in themselves documents of his attempt at describing the solitary journey of the human body in its most intriguing aspects.

Marron’s sketches and notes reflect the fascination that Rembrandt’s portrait exercises on him. This impeccably painted seventeenth’s century image magically takes on the presence of an event, of a real person, complete with a wheelchair, and art and life, like life and death, are one again, inextricably linked.

The Sketches and Notes that populate the Notebooks that Marron keeps as he prepares to start a new piece or whilst he is engaged with a new installation anticipate his sculptures and are so poignant as to deserve a place of their own in the artist’s production.

What mostly stands out in these Notes is the idea of objects and rooms that witness silently and helplessly the dramatic events and the decline of their owners and occupants. The artist, left to observe the scene of an accident in the victim’s home (often waiting for the arrival of the Police) annotates lists of objects, significant signs of the dramatic event and, at the same time, of a former, ordinary life from a sweet, traditional English beer, to a tricyclic antidepressant

A Full Can Of Mackeson Stout

A Handwritten Account Book

A Birthday Card Signed Iris

A Post It Note With Chewing Gum Written Across

A Small Plastic Bucket, The Inside Encased In Dried Plaster

A Pair Of Black Shoes With Screwed Up Newspaper Shoved Inside

A Tin Of Emulsion Paint The Top Layer Hardened, With Dried Drips Around The Outside Of The Tin

An Unscrewed Plastic Bottle Of Water, A Single Daffodil Emerging From The Top

An Unused Envelope With Hastily Scrawled Shopping Items Written Where An Address Should Be

An Empty Packet Of Amitriptilyne Tablets Lying Next To A Farewell Letter

A Cut Out Newspaper Article Concerning The Plight Of A Macedonian Immigrant, Held To The Wall By A Drawing Pin

Reflecting upon the sights that present themselves to his eyes when he is at work as a paramedic – and looks around the homes of those who need help or are already beyond help – he records his thoughts:

Fragments of a life once led remain housed with the surrounding objects. Objects that have been displayed for sentiment, decoration, use or interest.”

Entering the space once inhabited by the person who was alive there and no longer is, and taking in the multitude of objects that silently populate the room, the artist writes:

This object-audience regard the corpse with an impassive vacancy, their meaning lost to an uninterested world.” He continues in what is clearly a description of sort: “Anchorless and hollow, once salient with personal significance, now insignificant and bewildered. Their relationship to one another is one reduced to proximity. Empty.”

What strikes the most when thinking about the situations and physical spaces that David Marron inhabits during his work as a paramedic, is the idea of how difficult it must be for anyone present or involved to make sense of things.

The life-size figures that Marron constructs out of wire and plaster are encrusted with objects such as seashells, beans, cutlery, crockery, pins, nails, candles, soap, mousetraps, rubber gloves, swords, tools, etc. They function as collaged symbolic trophies tracing telling memories of life through the juxtaposition of fragments carefully arranged on what resemble human forms frozen in time. Marron’s figures stand, sit and crouch under our eyes quietly calling for attention, and refer to the parallel lives of the objects that surround us in life and of their strange relationship to survival and death.

Marron’s figures carry many visual references, from those to anatomical illustrations, to archaeological findings in ancient burials. They recall the flayed bodies rendered by Renaissance artists, by 18th century wax modellers, by artists working in tandem with pioneering anatomists. With the major difference that Marron’s figures don’t aspire to anatomical accuracy, nor do they stand proudly to display the God-given spectacle of their wondrous bodily machinery. The surface of Marron’s plaster figures is rough and darkly pigmented, unlike that of 18th Century Clemente Susini’s (1754-1814) pale smooth wax bodies. Yet a link between the two can be made in such details as a pearl necklace worn by one of Marron’s female figures that awkwardly holds up a baby and that partly echoes the celebrated reclining female anatomical model that displays a foetus in her womb, and a pearl necklace that hangs dramatically around her exposed, vulnerable neck. The famous Sicilian 17th century wax modeller, Gaetano Zumbo (Siracusa1656- Paris1701), also comes to mind, with his sculptural creations of scenes that portray the putrid consequences of the Black Death, with decomposing and tortured figures set amidst the rocks of dark, symbolic caves.

However still and poignant, each figure modelled by Marron does not exist in isolation. The artist conceives of them as part of a tableau. Some figures are contained within narrow frames that recall cabinets of curiosity, complete with some of the relevant compulsory objects extracted from the worlds of naturalia and artificialia.

Some figures belong to a ‘collection’ of symbolic human forms, to be displayed together, in a circle, with a stringent plan that takes into account the geometry of the human mind, patterns drawn by nature and by the human hand. These are elements that create a sort of theatre of memory, or a memento mori encrusted with the curious jewels of life.

The symbolic figures that form part of Circular Ruin are also human “types”. For a long while Marron worked out the plan of the setting of Circular Ruin at the same time as developing each figure and its own particular world of references and connotations. As a complete work, Marron’s figures stand in a space that is pregnant with meaning but that, simultaneously, risks being, in his words “anchorless and hollow, once salient with personal significance, now insignificant and bewildered.” Such is the space we all occupy; such is the theatre of our life. Such is also the space of the gallery where art reflects on life, staging meaningful scenes with objects that make their brief appearance and disappear without leaving a trace.

David Marron’s blog can be accessed via www.gvart.co.uk or directly www.gvart.co.uk/david_marron_blog.html

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  • Christopher

    I saw this unique artist’s installations last week and it took me days to make sense of the thoughts and feelings it provoked in me. Your article is a tribute to a very extraordinary experience that I will investigate again thanks to your insightful article. I believe the experince at GV Art Gallery ends on the 21st November.

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