Halloween may have passed, but death still creeps around the corner. For Matthew Holroyd and Edith Bergfors, however, this is by no means a source of fret. Quite the opposite—with the mystery of death at heart, the two creatives joined forces for a free dive into the phenomenon’s mundane yet uncanny presence throughout Western society and its connection to photography, sex, nature and technology. The result? A ‘Death Book’ that simultaneously pleases and confronts, with its “loosely connected vignettes” meandering along the fine lines between simulations and reality, digital spaces and physicality. More a continuous research project than a one-off art publication, ‘Death Book’ opens up an ongoing conversation about the ways in which we handle this odd, normal, awkward, comforting thing we call death. Quite literally shaken to our bones when leafing through the book, Glamcult had to sit down with Matthew and Edith and get answers to our (hellishly) burning questions. Read up below!
I’ve never seen a dead body. Have you?
Edith: My mum died in 2011, so yes, I have.
Matthew: I’ve experienced death but I never wanted to go see the body itself.
There are no dead bodies shown in the book. Why so?
M: The book explores a representation of death, which is essentially created through simulation. Obviously, none of us know what death actually looks like. That’s one of the reasons why we staged those situations of death instead of capturing physical death in a documentary style of photography.
E: Also, while I was in Finland, experiencing my mum’s illness and death, I shot a lot of film. Afterwards, Matthew and I looked through those images and found out that there weren’t any pictures of her but just of things around the experience. In the book itself, the closest we come to an illustration of a dead body is a grid of abstract images of fetuses by Manabu Yamanaka. An image of a hand holding a Coca Cola can is, however, quintessential to this tension between physically dead bodies and the staging of death—a reference to the idea that you can distract yourself with things that are a lot more recognizable and accessible than the issue at hand, which you need to deal with.
I definitely feel a persistent theme of obsession with death throughout the book, which brings to mind a tension between our hunger for death, in video games and news reports for instance, as opposed to our physical distance from death in real life.
M: Absolutely, and I believe the current phenomenon of taking self-portraits also relates to this tension between obsessive behaviour and physical distance. The idea that we may live beyond our photograph and the obsession with our exterior identity—things that will inevitably fall victims to death.
E: On this note, the two black and white, airbrushed portraits of us in the book—we staged those as references to the type of imagery people produce in order to try and maintain a certain legacy past their physical death.
M: We also made two films to accompany the book itself, one is an appropriation of a news clip about Princess Diana’s death, and the other is an appropriation of a clip we saw in which Elizabeth Taylor’s jewellery books were being sold after she had died. In a way, we want to reference the idea of adding value to death after its physical occurrence.
What are your thoughts on social media being a modern cemetery?
M: Existence in the digital world after your physical death is something we find very intriguing. For instance, at the end of the book we included two QR codes that you can scan with your phone and hence be brought to YouTube. Once there, you see videos of Edith and I in posthumous form, talking about how important we are to each other. Nevertheless, it’s essential to note that new and new technology keeps being developed, replacing older platforms or apps. In that way, your posthumous digital life will be eradicated as well, thus causing two deaths—a human one and a digital one.
So, not only are we buried twice, but also a third grave might appear after our Instagram gravestone is gone…
E: Perhaps it’s more about making peace with your death through this process of constantly trying to immortalise yourself digitally.
M: But also, note how MySpace is now entirely defunct—it does exist but it’s out of function; Instagram has replaced it. Yet, the same will happen to Instagram too, and I find it interesting how we put so much time and effort into building a digital landscape of ourselves and our memories, knowing perfectly well that these digital renderings aren’t going to last forever.
What about the landscape and rock images referencing Earth? Does the book imply the discourse of Nature’s impeding death to be the way death permeates our society today?
E: Interesting that you mention the rock images. These are images I’ve been taking since I was sixteen years old, near my summer house in Finland. I randomly and neurotically decided that this rock which I saw each time I went there was to be my favourite rock, and that I’d photograph it every time I went past it. Later on, I noticed I had been doing the same thing with my mother’s gravestone. Although in the book we included the recurrent rock images instead of my mum’s gravestone, they both have more or less the same function, they’re also made of the same material and you can see the way the seasons change if you take a look at their surface. In some way, it’s a reference to the fact that Earth has been here, and even though it has changed, it’ll inevitably outlive us.
M: As to the landscape images, most of those have been appropriated from National Geographic and other nature magazines. With them, we wanted to illustrate a notion of escapism, which relates to personal experiences we’ve both had with hospices, intensive care and so on.
Leafing though the book, I also sense an overarching sex appeal to death that you explore.
M: Yes, we were both interested in how similar death and sex are, and how sex and death have been used to control communities.
What do you mean by “control”?
M: For example, femininity and masculinity are social constructs, but so is death. And through these constructs, simulations are made of what’s good and what’s bad. If you look at the history of the Devil, for instance, its illustrations have been a reference to someone who’s not European. Hence, Western people are “informed” that someone who’s not from Europe is essentially bad and evil. In that way, the morals of death, and sex too, are used so as to control a community and create a narrative about what’s bad.
E: And some of the initial references we were looking at were the very first representations of Hell—essentially, a construct for control. In those representations, a lot of the characters in the scenes were highly sexualised.
Can you also tell us more about your choice as to the sequencing of images throughout the book?
M: There wasn’t that much of a rationale to the sequencing of the book. We intended to sequence it by using a story chart, in a way that classic narratives unfold through dramatic introduction, middle and end. We thought the images would have more impact if they followed that dramatic sequencing known throughout story telling and fiction. Furthermore, when you look at story charts, they a kind of mirror heartbeat lines, which we liked as well.
Would you say that this story chart sequencing comments on death being a controlling social construct disguised as truth?
M: Definitely, using a story graph sequencing is controlling in its own way; it could determine how you experience the book even before you open it. But also, as much as the book is a conceptual project in this sense, I do find conceptual art to often be strictly aligned with one theme or interpretation. But what’s interesting with the “Death Book” is that it’s open to an infinite multitude of interpretations. It will mean a different thing to everyone and it isn’t aligned with one single theme only.
What has been people’s response so far?
E: A thing I’ve found really interesting when talking to people about the book is that many of them were more shocked by the car crash image than by anything else that was overly manipulated, such as the three-tit lady or the guy with two dicks. In our visual culture, we’ve become used to overly adjusted images to a point where there’s no shock value to them anymore. That black and white car crash scene, although it has no human or manipulated element to it, is the most perplexing image to people; it’s the one image they can’t decide whether they’re seeing something real or not.