Death: A Self Portrait – art exhibition review

Whether society like it or not, metal and its extreme sub genres is an art, and regardless of the often drunken and less cultured façade many of us may deploy, the thought of walking round an art gallery can still excite us when the word “death” is murmured. As we all know death is inevitable both in life and especially in metal be it through band names, lyrics and artwork. Cannibal Corpse’s albums became iconic thanks to Vincent Locke’s portrayal of guts and gore and it’s near impossible to find a band that hasn’t used some form of skull or skeleton on a shirt. As you enter the Wellcome Exhibition Centre, there is nothing particularly morbid about it, until you see the metamorphic skulls printed on the large posters leading the way.

The exhibit is separated into different themes by its creator Richard Harris, who has collected paintings, prints and photos based around the concept of death and starts with the ‘Contemplating Death’ room, which starts you off at the deep end of the morbid and macabre scale throughout centuries of creativity. As you walk through, trying to take in every emotion that comes from the eerie atmosphere, it’s hard not to decipher in your head which of these pieces would make a great album cover – there’s the war art that screams Sodom, the cliché grim reaper holds his stance for the black metal and some artists who have taken on a lighter approach to death seem fitting for any death metal band willing to irritate worried parents.

Thanks to death’s existence being the same as the human race, the historical artifacts are enlightening such as 18th century Tibetan dancing skeletons and each culture fears or befriends the brutal reality of mortality in such different ways that you find yourself reading as much of the tiny annotations as possible.

The larger pieces such as a stunning chandelier made from 3,000 plaster cast bones hangs with elegance, whilst the Argentinian plasticine sculpture named Calavera (which we obviously misread as Cavalera) showcases how the politics and technology of today often overshadows the fear and seriousness of death, through an eye-catching 3D skull structure.

The final room is probably the most shocking due to the lack of stereotypical doom found in grinning skulls and instead shows the more modern perspective through science. All of a sudden common illnesses, modern warfare and natural disasters are captured in a sense our generation can relate to and abruptly the cool factor of the Day of the Dead sugar skulls is lost and grim reality is brought back to where it should be.

Review by Lily Randall

Published over at for their Culture Shock section


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