The silhouette-like form of a vermin seabird laid out as art. The anonymous creator of Ghost is in good company as he/she proclaims the abject and transient corpse of an unloved creature as high art. But a plain beast does not make for a plain picture. This work communicates the vast ambivalence of humanity and psychology, our lust for what disgusts us, and our yearning for what repels.
The artwork exists only as a poorly lit, black and white digital image, becoming ultimately dematerialised and yet assuming the form or that most material of things, flesh. Despite the extreme two-dimensionality suggested by the artist’s medium and use of a monochrome palette, Ghost maintains a highly sensual aura, seeming to demand the touch or, at least, the sensorial consideration of the viewer. Particularly, the angular shape of the wings seems to suggest folds, as if of paper or cloth. While if a seagull was even a little bit like a crane the former would seem worth pursuing, it seems that the visible softness of the bird’s breast leads the viewer towards the latter association. At first glance, the dim lighting of the image could suggest a cloth sculpture, or even a spontaneous photograph of a lost piece of laundry. However, the juxtaposition between large, smooth expanses of white and grey tones, with a few instances of sharp shadow call to mind the broad strokes of heavily laden paint atop a large canvas. Specifically, the artist seems to have taken inspiration from Scottish artist Alison Watt’s Flexion (2002-2003). The semi-abstract work focusses on a single crease in a piece of white cloth, the title drawing attention to its unexpected, joint-like angularity. Watt has said that her piece is inspired by the long-standing artistic tradition of combining bodies and drapery, suggesting both elements while only depicting one. The marble flesh of classical statues and the hidden bones of living models are both evoked in this simple twist of textile. Some see further, however. Its current position, however, in the Scottish Parliament, has earnt the work accusations of blatant ionic indecency. Ghost, like Watt’s work, imbues the still and pedestrian qualities of cloth with thrilling and intriguing bodily undertones, with both pieces suggesting an amalgam between the two, provoking an undeniable sensorial experience in the beholder.
The curve of the bird’s neck can also be seen as a partial quotation of the central form of Flexion, suggesting the same concepts of combination. Simultaneously graceful and unnatural – calls to mind the presence of game animals in the celebrated Dutch still life’s of the seventeenth century. As a genre which consisted of scenes composed from a mountain of consumable produce, these works embody an inherent contradiction between life and death. The realistic rendering of tactile shapes and textures calls the mind the pleasurable sensory experience of consumption, evoking a hunger and want specifically concerning the internalisation (through eating) of the art of object. Through the artist’s mastery of realism, the viewer is led to crave the chance to immerse the depicted objects (through the surrogate of the painting) within their own body. To counter this and, perhaps, to warn their Protestant buyers and viewers of the perils of the easy sin of greed, artists also drew attention to the perishable nature of the items on display. Fruit may be presented as slightly bruised or over-ripe, or a fly may be allowed to wander onto the cacophony of cuisine, and where animal elements are concerned artist’s usually draw attention to their deadness. Though this is a prerequisite for the consumption of flesh, it is also an inherent contradiction. Death is an abject category; to want to consume something dead suggests a want to dirty and debase the self and body too. Through an uneasy cognitive dissonance, we are mostly able to ignore this. Dutch still-life painters do not allow this luxury. Animals are presented as dismembered – as meat – but still startling retaining their living form, drawing attention to their change of state from living to dead, and the violence that provoked that change, as with Peiter Aertsen’s Meat Stall (1551). Otherwise, whole animals are shown in positions that would be impossible were they living: suspended from above, pile upon each other, or with their necks and limbs bent backwards, unmistakably inanimate. As with Sam Taylor-Johnson’s short film, A Little Death (2002), this modern use of the formal language of the still life dramatizes and foregrounds all these contradictions, ensuring the viewer engages the work in a relationship characterised by both attraction and repulsion.
This work further encourages the theme of suspension between two opposing states when considered as a symbol. Rather than simply as a dead bird with a bent neck, when taken as a white, winged and suspended form, this piece can be seen to make reference to the story of the Last Judgement. In this episode from that favourite of horror film writers – the Book of Revelations – the archangel St Michael, vanquisher of the devil, is given the task of separating the earthly sinners into either Heaven or Hell. Both a beacon of hope and a glaring light of disaster to the crowds who writhe below him, St Michael is usually found in the centre of Last Judgement scenes, robe in white. Able to distribute both damnation and salvation, the angel is a categorically ambivalent figure, governing the cosmic struggle between good and evil. In Ghost, we see the artist make reference to St Michael in both character and form. The pure, fresh and plump form of the bird suggests life, while we still know so clearly that it is dead. Formal qualities usually associated with goodness are found in the form of something dead; what seemed like heaven is shown to be rotting. Is the artist hinting that, like the sinners in Van Der Weyden’s depiction of the scene (part of the Beaune Altarpiece, c1445-1450), we the viewer are reaching out to be saved only to clutch the rotting wing of the dead bird? Are we reaching for something we do not want, asking questions whose answers we dismay to hear? Are we reaching into the dark depths of the canvas certain to withdraw fists clenched jealously around empty air? In proposing an abstracted version of the form of St Michael, the artist proposes a new model of artistic exchange, where the viewer is duped in their trust of the image, in their assumption that some kind of consummation can come from their meeting. As Dutch still life had as reaching for fruit we could never taste, the Ghost artist – with their angelic vision – has us crying for help that, for us sinners, will never come.
Appearing at first glance simply as an image of a deceased commonplace, Ghost rather becomes a revenant of clashes between conflicting binaries and irreconcilable urges. We are invited to touch soft cloth and bounty; but flinch away from the rot and death of a lifeless form. We spy the angelic, but again are welcomed by disappointment, finding, at best, a winged momento mori chanting our own certain demise. The work reveals its creator’s preoccupation with life and death, with the real and the imagined, governed by a sensory understanding of both the tangible and unseen world of their inspiration.