VMFA logo
Exhibitions title

Vanitas: Meditations on Life and Death In Contemporary Art
April 4 - June 18, 2000


Every Touch
Every Touch (detail), 1998, by Jim Hodges is made of silk, cotton, polyester and thread and measures 168 by 192 inches.
Photo: Philadelphia Museum of Art
Combining tradition with the experimental and featuring an international selection of work by 14 contemporary artists, Vanitas: Meditations on Life and Death in Contemporary Art is on view April 4 through June 18, 2000 at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

A reference to the theme may be found as far back as Biblical times: “Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun? A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.” (Ecclesiastes 1:2-4, New Revised Standard Version.)

“Vanitas” is a Latin word used since the Renaissance to describe the transitory nature of life. The term characterizes the appreciation of life’s pleasures and accomplishments joined with the awareness of their inevitable loss, according to John B. Ravenal, curator of art after 1900 at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and organizer of the exhibition. “This theme has long been the inspiration for some of the Western civilization’s most significant works of art and literature. It is especially apparent in 17th-century Dutch still lifes, with their abundant flowers, overripe fruits, snuffed candles, skulls and timepieces,” he explains.

Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Interim Director Richard B. Woodward says, “It is fitting to look at artists of our own time as we mark the beginning of a new millennium. This moment inevitably prompts us to think about lasting values. The venerable ‘vanitas’ theme continues to captivate today’s artists in their contemplation and expression of the dynamic tension between life's beauty and its fleeting nature.

The exhibition will introduce museum visitors to some of the most important contemporary artists working today, none of whom have been presented before in this region.

Ravenal says Vanitas will focus on sculpture and installation art and will feature works that use unconventional forms, materials and processes:

Zoe Leonard (American, b. 1961) has created for the exhibition a new installation of sewn fruit, the idea for which grew out of a meditation on the death of a friend. The installation features peels carefully sewn together after the fruit has been removed. The result evokes the human body as a fragile container and suggests both loss and repair, Ravenal says. Leonard herself says, “This act of fixing something broken, repairing the skin after the fruit is gone, strikes me as both pathetic and beautiful - at any rate, as intensely human.” Detail of Strange Fruit
Strange Fruit (for David) (detail), 1992-’97; by Zoe Leonard; fruit peel (orange), thread, needle, variable dimensions.
Photo by Vivien Bittencourt from a 1995 installation at Paula Cooper Gallery, New York.

Black Kites
Black Kites, 1997, is by Gabriel Orozco. It is a human skull with graphite markings.
Photo: Graydon Wood, 1998.
Black Kites, a work by Gabriel Orozco (Mexican, b. 1962) uses a human skull covered with a harlequin pattern as a reminder of death. Ravenal says the alternating black and white squares on the top of the skull “resemble a chessboard, recalling the game’s traditional symbolism of the conflict between dualities, including life and death.” Orozco emphasizes the work’s formal qualities, suggesting the closest parallels are found in computer imagery.

Yukinori Yanagi (Japanese, b. 1959) has also created a new installation for Vanitas. His One Dollar presents an image of a U.S. dollar bill sculpted in colored sand inside shallow plastic boxes. Over the course of the exhibition, a colony of live ants will tunnel through the image. “The ants’ ceaseless labor paradoxically undermines this symbol of American economic might, creating a kind of morality play on the fickleness of wealth and power,” Ravenal explains. When the erosion of the work reaches a balance between recognition and disintegration, the artist will remove the ants and release them outdoors. One Dollar
One Dollar, 1999, is by Yukinori Yanagi, who will create a much larger version of the work for Vanitas. This version consists of colored sand, plastic boxes, plastic tubes and live ants.
Mona Hatoum (Palestinian, b. Lebanon, 1952) used a platinum-based silicone product manufactured for breast implants to make Entrails Carpet, creating a tense standoff between seduction and repulsion. Displayed in a low, rectangular format, the “carpet” of viscera “invites the desire to touch and even to walk upon it,” Ravenal says. The work's unusual material and intricate pattern prompt a fascination that “soon turns to fear as the spectacle of human organs - even in simulation creates a powerful reminder of human vulnerability,” he explains.

The exhibition also includes works by Miroslaw Balka (Polish, b. 1958), Christian Boltanski (French, b. 1944), Leonardo Drew (American, b. 1961), Tony Feher (American, b. 1956), Robert Gober (American, b. 1954), Felix Gonzalez-Torres (American, b. Cuba, 1957- 1996), Jim Hodges (American, b. 1957), Anish Kapoor (British, b. India, 1954), Jac Leirner (Brazilian, b. 1961) and Rachel Whiteread (British, b. 1963).

The exhibition will be accompanied by a catalog with an essay by Ravenal and color reproductions. The 64-page catalog will be available in the museum shop for $18.95. Mail orders may be placed by telephoning 1.800.943.8632.

A gallery reinstallation that includes a second special exhibition will open simultaneously with Vanitas under the umbrella title Transformations. The Sydney and Frances Lewis Galleries of Modern and Contemporary Art will reopen to the public April 4, showcasing the first major reinstallation of these galleries since 1993. And an exhibition drawn from the museum’s permanent collection of 19th- and 20th-century photography, including works by Walker Evans, Ansel Adams and Sally Mann, will focus on the theme of transformation in the landscape. Photographs in the display will range in date from the 1860s to the present and will address themes such as artists’ manipulation of negatives and prints, alterations of the landscape by natural and human-made catastrophes, and abstracting the landscape.

The grand reopening of the Sydney and Frances Lewis Galleries and the Vanitas exhibition are made possible by major support from the Agnes Gund Foundation and the Best Products Foundation.