Flat Death @ Open Eye Gallery, Liverpool

Review by Sacha Waldron | 05 Feb 2016

The sky is grey over Liverpool. On the road outside Open Eye a car drives over an already dead pigeon. His body is partially flattened but there are still streaks of red running through the feathers. The seagulls are circling.

Inside the gallery, more grey. Oppressive battleship-grey. This is the colour that backgrounds Edgar Martins' work from the project Siloquies and Soliloquies on Death, Life and Other Interludes. Martins is showing this new project as part of Flat Death alongside Jordan Baseman, and the two photographers explore how, as a society and individually, we deal with, reflect on and capture death.

The first gallery introduces you to Siloquies and Soliloquies by way of a sculptural black paper aeroplane mounted upright on a plinth. Photographs are paired with archival material, found photographs and objects. In one image, captioned “Man Leaves a 1904 Page Suicide Note and Then Shoots Himself as Part of a Philosophical Exploration,” a man stands in his swimming trunks at the beach. It is night and he stands facing the camera, lit up from the flash, rendering most of his body stark white. Elsewhere we find suicide notes, forensic evidence and X-rays of fatal injuries. The mixture of the personal (what we choose to leave behind) and what will actually be left behind (a bloody rag, twisted car metal, rotten piece of fruit) raises questions about control and, often, the lack of it.

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Siloquies and Soliloquies is produced in collaboration with the Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences in Portugal. It began after a friend of Martins was killed and, at his funeral, the son of his friend asked Martins “What is death?” Martins' inability to find an answer to the complex question led him to think about how he could explore this through his work and research.

Jordan Baseman also worked collaboratively on his 2013 project, Deadness, which deals with photography taken by families to remember the deceased and their funerals. Interested in the relationship between embalming and death, he worked with a sociologist at the Centre for Death and Society in Bath. The images – of individuals laid out in coffins, from the Victorian era to the present day – take the form of five 35mm projections on the gallery walls.

In the tradition of Victorian post-mortem photography, where the deceased are made to look alive in regular family scenes, it is often only possible to spot the dead person by identifying the figure that is crispest. Others in the shot would have moved during the long photographic exposures of the time, appearing slightly blurry, while the person is completely still. In Baseman’s images, sourced from sources like online auctions, the deceased are obviously so. Their fixed facial positions are prepared by the embalmer to give the family the impression the person is not alive, but rather at peace or asleep. Baseman’s work asks the viewer why we need these kinds of mementos of death and explores how important photography can be in that process.

Runs until 3 Apr http://www.openeye.org.uk