unsettling beauty and death

I saw in the distance a doorway.  Draped across it was ragged black velvet with black tulle and lace.  I walked over, curious, and slowly pulled back the material to look inside.  I had seen many photos online of the contents.  I froze, realising what lay before me.  I was finally amongst Julia deVille's exhibition at Melbourne Now.  The walls were adorned with lush black damask wallpaper, and a sparkling crystal chandelier hung in the center of the room.  I was not alone.

In front of me lay a fawn, curled up on a dinner plate.  It looked serene as though it were sleeping.  On its ribs, a sparkly red patch glistened in the light.  To it's left a lamb sat on a sliver serving tray.  In front of it a group of tiny birds lay on more silverware.  Everywhere I looked there were animals and birds frozen in the moment.  An ostrich chick with a small head piece and saddle sat gently on a side table.  A kitten curled up in a copper pot.   A piglet lay 'sleeping' in a kitchen scale.  From a distance it looked brindle, but as I stepped closer I saw it was pristine white with black lace patches.  Towards the back of the room a black and white calf was curled up.  It shimmered with delicate glitter.  To it's left, another fawn, this time standing on a silver platter.  As I looked closer I noticed the delicate strings of red jewels cascading from a cut in it's throat.  On a pedestal, more silverware.  Laying in yin and yang formation were two tiny puppies.  Pinned to their sides were feathers forming angelic wings.  Each of them were the size of my palm.

On a table a small kitten is decorated with a feathered headpiece.  Harnessed, it pulls a glass sided hearse with a tiny black coffin inside.  Looking up, clutching the side of a large elegant mirror, a crow spreads it wings surveying everything.  Looking back towards the front of the room, a lamb stands on a platter with a silver ornate handle in the middle of it's woolen back.  Eyes wide open and more red strung jewels dripping from a cut throat.  Around the tables were carving sets in glass boxes.  Both the knife and fork glistened with red glitter along their edges.  Death was everywhere.

On the walls hung large paintings.  One side of the room, in bright colours contrasting with the black walls, were two plump cherubs.  On the far wall opposite, an older woman, white haired with white fur stoles surrounding her and hanging off her chair arm.  The other paintings in the room are almost black.  When looking closer, you can just make out the paintings subjects.  Cows mooing, human bodies moving and what looks like a naked angel with long black wings.  The title of this exhibition is 'Degustation'.

On seeing images online from this exhibition, I had felt unsettled.  As a long time vegetarian and animal lover I was uncomfortable seeing dead animals.  I had expected to be really distressed by the visit.  But I was mesmerised.  Julia is a vegan and all the animals died of natural causes.  Each of them look serene and at peace.  Or for those with eyes open, you expect them to move, breath and walk around.  They have been preserved so masterfully it show's each animal and bird in it's natural beauty, adorned with jewels and glitter.  I really wanted to stroke the animals, to feel the gentle folds of skin.

There are hints in the room highlighting how humans have long treated animals as commodities.  Under the main table in the room lays a zebra skin rug.  On the back table an ornate ostrich egg is under glass.  A curio.  You hardly notice these amongst the 'living' decorations on each table and pedestal.  We have long treated animals as 'things' rather than beings in their own right. It is this attitude that has brought us to the horror of industrial farming in the 21st century.  Comfort is forsaken for hormones, confinement and a short tortured life to enable the planet to be fed.

This exhibition pushes people's buttons.  When confronted with death most people feel scared or repulsed.  Seeing the dead animals upsets them.  Some of these people will go home and eat meat for dinner.  It's curious that seeing animals, like fawns and kittens seem so horrific to them.  What is the difference to what is on their plate at home?   But perhaps that is the amazing thing about this exhibition.  I saw people walk in with their young children.  A mother whispered to her son, 'it's ok, they're not real'.  The father gestured to say something, but was shot down with one glare from his partner.

Western culture does not discuss death very well.  We don't see it apart from our television screens and only in edited form on the news or stylized for drama.  We choose to look away or shield ourselves from the reality of life...and death.  Julia's work is so startling in it's beauty.  Death is everywhere in the room, but it kept my gaze.  I didn't look away.  In fact as the exhibition has been extended for a few more weeks I hope to visit the room again.  If you want to be challenged, and think more deeply about death and the role of animals in our lives, I suggest you visit the 3rd floor of the Ian Potter Gallery at the NGV.  Dare yourself to look at death and see it's beauty.


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