Thursday, March 22, 2012

To Eternity and Beyond.

So here's a design project i recently finished for a unit called "Context". The focus of this unit is on core graphic design processes (information gathering, analysis, sequencing of content, and formatting) and systems (information management, structural systems such as grids, and mark-making), reflecting on our work in the context of contemporary design.
The brief was to find an object in any chosen museum, and research it; its use, its history, when and where it was made, its significance...etc. the reflective part of the project takes the form of 1500 words in relation to your object, which we had to integrate within a visual design, also linked to our object.
I went to the Wellcome Collection and chose a naturally preserved Peruvian Mummy as my object, dating from the Chimu Kingdom on the West Coast of Peru from around 1200-1400 AD. Naturally when you think about mummification, it evokes thoughts of the preservation of life, mortality, immortality, eternity etc. (subjects about which i wrote about within the body of text i integrated). Our fascination with overcoming death is reflected in popular culture, through cinema, literature, and art, and especially through horror films - which is why my outcome took the form of a horror film poster, inspired by the designs of cheesy B-movie posters created by Hammer Film Studios in the 1930s - 70s.


The intriguing aspect of a naturally preserved Peruvian Mummy is not that it seeks to defy the laws of time, but those of mortality. 
In preparing a corpse for the afterlife, we also preserve it for a future generation, not only as a historical artefact available for scientific examination, but also as an attempt to solve a perpetual mystery. 
What compels our modern civilisation also fascinated the Chimu people  800 years ago: 
how can we overcome the transience of our existence? Death marks the end of our physical life, but what lies beyond, in the depths of eternity?

This obsession of conquering death is inherent in our popular culture, in the domain of art, literature and cinema. Damien Hirst is notorious for preserving a tiger shark in formaldehyde, aptly entitled “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living”.  Mary Shelley famously wrote the story of the modern Prometheus, the monster commonly known as Frankenstein, exploring the fantasy of resuscitating the dead by galvanisation. A similar concept was put forward in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Although he did not invent the vampire, Stoker defined it in its modern form.  The struggle between life and death is epitomised in a scene in Ingmar Bergman’s cinematic masterpiece: The Seventh Seal. Death, with his black cape and lurid complexion, challenges an anxious blonde haired knight to a game of chess on the beach, against the backdrop of the endless sea, symbolic of the eternal.  The theme of death is also naturally prevalent in horror films. What we now perceive as iconic characters of the horror genre are only modern day reinterpretations of mythological creatures of ancient civilisations. 
Thus history constantly repeats itself to create the dreams of the future.

The cinematic medium is one that allows us to fantasize in the context of reality
Hammer Film Studios pioneered the distinct visual aesthetics we associate with horror films, both through their productions and their posters. What is it about a film poster whose captions read: “A terrifying lover, who died…yet lived!” that draws us into the movie theatre? The sensationalism of the former only yields its’ magnetic powers when combined with images of voluptuous women screaming in terror, fleeing a looming monster. Aside from the fact that the blend of sex and horror has always been the recipe for breaking into the box office, it is metaphorical for the deeper struggle between life (sex, vitality) and death (bloodlusting monsters from “beyond the grave”).  Thus Hammer Film Productions resurrected the creatures of 19th century gothic literature in the contemporary world, modernising ancient lore and making huge profits in the process.

The fact that mummies were buried alongside their personal possessions, ritual objects and food offerings conveys to us a strong belief in the afterlife. It also informs us of the conviction that even though the physical body is dead, there is some other part of the deceased that continues to live on. The headline of the New York Times on March 11th 1907 read “Soul Has Weight, Physician Thinks”. Six years beforehand, Duncan McDougall had conducted an experiment on dying tuberculosis patients in order to measure how much the soul weighed. The moribund patients were put on a scale and upon the moment of death, McDougall tried to determine whether the scale had changed, calculating an average loss of weight after the person had taken their last breath. Although his experiments were never reproduced and are considered to have little scientific merit when the crudeness of the scales and statistical insignificance of the weight are taken into account, the concept lives on in popular culture. 
21 grams: this is the number that separates us from immortality.

In questioning the nature of death, mortality, and immortality, we reach the end of the pier of science, facing the sea of the unknown. We can but attempt to swim across to various little islands of hope in which we see land, only to discover that we are once again marooned. 
Thus humanity remains resolute in its quest to reach the shores of eternal, perhaps forever in vain.