Death as Alternative in Alice Morey’s work

Sonja investigates capitalism’s defiance to death and its relation to artistic production. Her text looks for ways to redefine the current system of values driving artistic production and looks to Alice Morey’s work as a framework that an alternative paradigm might take. 

“Capitalism has been a fantastic attempt to overcome death”, says Franco Bifo Berardi, whose book, Soul at Work (2009), originally sparked my recurring fascination with the axis of art, capitalism and death. 

For capitalist cosmology 1, mortality is a problem. Death is the alienated embodiment of a final border, an absolute negative to capitalist rituals of endless production, accumulation and proliferation (PAP). Death haunts capitalism like a boggart – a frightful, fantastical Other 2 waiting in the closet. The dead body, human, nonhuman, object, machine or otherwise, is symbolic anti-value in terms of its function and market within the capitalist ritual. The dead don’t work, they don’t buy, they don’t claim any identity, they don’t vote, they don’t post. The dead don’t do anything deemed ‘useful’ or ‘valuable’ by current dominant structures of power and their underlying biases that determine the quality of living and dying for humans and non-humans alike. 

Artistic production is embedded within the same biased structures (PAP) and only by adhering to them are artists able to actually make a living. The art object, as a commodity is permanent and alienated. Its ‘un-mortality'3 and ‘stuffness’ dictate its worth. These consist in the art object’s mass producibility, lasting materiality and solid identity which remain independent of any social, temporal and spatial context. It is the same thing everywhere and at any time. It is efficient when it can be owned and displayed against different white walls in different galleries, homes and museums deeming its essence as concentrated and individual.

Much like how Dorian Gray’s portrait allows him to stay forever young, art has historically been an attempt to freeze time, to capture landscapes or people, build a pedestal for its auteur forever. Expensive paintings and relics from past centuries rest in vitrines and on museum walls like expensive bodies in cryogenic clinics. They regularly undergo conservation efforts and are kept in secure environments that are “clean”: sterilised in terms of their temperature, politics and temporarily. These qualities all favour capitalist rituals. A sterile, individual identity allows for art objects to be branded, algorithmicized, marketed and positioned within a marketplace hierarchy of other individual commodities. Though favoured by capitalist rituals, this alienated, un-mortal art object profoundly clashes with demands of the complicated and bodily present. It is not surprising that this clash is most apparent in a crisis, such as in the case of the RA’s dilemma in the selling of their Michelangelo to reduce redundancies due to financial struggles caused by COVID-19.

So what would an alternative paradigm for the value of artistic production look like? A paradigm that is more aligned with current precarious times, embracing a more complex identity of the art object and responds to what Haraway calls, “learning to stay with the trouble of living and dying in response-ability on a damaged earth”? The work of artist Alice Morey explores some of the forms this alternative identity might take. 

When I asked Alice about what drew her to making art in the first place, she explained how she has always wanted to “build worlds”; complex spaces that re-ritualize relationships between objects, people and their environment. Though she started with a BA in painting at Brighton, she described how despite her lasting love for the textures and poetics of the canvas, her “worlds” have expanded both outside and within their two-dimensional limitations. For example, in her series called Milk (2017-2018), Alice uses yoghurt fermented naturally with lactobacillus bacteria from female cows and humans in her paintings. Through this microbial contamination, the identity of these paintings have become complicated rather than alienated, flat ‘stuff’.They became hosts to other organisms, behaving like complex, animate matter and decaying with time. Similarly, the interdisciplinary elements in her installations are all connected, mortal, fragile and inter-contaminated. 

Alice’s symbiotic structures juxtapose artificial and organic materials, each link depending on the other to survive and exist. They attach, hook, clasp and wrap into each other for support. They are delicate – but definitely not timid. Rather, there is an immediate eroticism about them, a bodily friction that lives in every encounter between different species. For her installation during She doesn’t love, she just devours at Ryder Projects,these interspecies-meetings manifest in the gentle, pastel-coloured paintings hanging from interlinking porcelain chains, or a sleek screen showing a video of an animated heart, enwrapped in slim intravenous lines that attach to urine bags and pheasant hides. These, along with the  birds’ intestines, are displayed in two jars in the gallery and were remains of an earlier performance repeated on the opening night during which Alice skinned, gutted and cooked a pheasant for a stew. The audience was invited to share the meal afterwards as a collective ritual on the opening night. The passage of time, mortality and the dead body of the pheasant as such are all present and reintegrated as value, as symbolic transition into collective ritual like eating together or simply sharing the same experience. The artwork creates a framework within which its identity and value emerge as a collective rather than as reducible to a single, solid, un-mortal thing. Instead, its identity is webbed within the presence of living and dying, chance and various animate and inanimate elements. 

Perhaps the most ambitious, durational examples of creating and sustaining an inter-reliant world within Alice’s practice is Grabowsee. Growing out of her many site-specific collaborations while living in Berlin, Alice and co-organizer Philip Schrader have been building up the community of Globe Gallery “Countdown” Grabowsee for the past 8 years. This free artist residency is located at the extraordinary site of the abandoned military hospital and surrounding luscious landscape of the lakeside and forest. Participants come together every August to camp, cook, live and create work together responding to that particular year’s theme, ending with an exhibition weekend open to the public. When talking about Grabowsee, Alice is particularly passionate about the idea of a shared space for organic collaboration: “Grabowsee is a place where I can feel like creating is everything. There are no boundaries with what you can make there and the challenge is just about discovering how to make something possible. There is an organic exchange between people as a way of survival in the place whilst actively being part of a system, sharing responsibility”. 

Having participated in 2019, I feel that the ecosystem of Grabowsee creates a transgressive, almost therapeutic space for collaborative work that encourages versatility and adapting to an organic and precarious environment. The space is a complex artwork in itself with an infinitely complicated, fluid identity that rhizomatically spreads and adapts over the various heterogeneous parts of its ecosystem (the site, the people, time, nature). Its value isn’t condensed into a singular outcome or particular object. It unfolds within a specific context and micro-community in flux, living and dying with its separate practices, processes and elements that go on to contaminate and nurture new structures and connections.

A similar approach is manifested in Alice’s recent solo exhibition, Every Breath You Take, at Hosek Contemporary.The show, including its title, was based on a contemporary and more sinister re-interpretation of the Police song, which was also performed on the opening night by ten sound artists who participated at Grabowsee. It grew out of Alice’s collaborative body of work at this year’s residency and the discussions between her and curator Linda Toivio about personal experiences of trauma, abuse and ways to create a transgressive space of healing. For this peculiar space housed in the belly of an industrial ship in Berlin’s Mitte, Alice once again created an inter-reliant environment. Robust cement structures inlaid with white tiles were supporting various hanging sculptural pieces, dried flowers, silks and paintings pigmented with herbs and plants at Grabowsee.

As in the Ryder Projects exhibition, the dead body again is physically present, this time in the form of an old painting resting in its glass casket on top of a pile of earth. This work had been excavated from its previous place in the ground at Grabowsee, where it was buried by Alice years ago. Burying a painting is a profound metaphor for rejecting the art object’s un-mortality – in fact, this work is what inspired me to make the connection between Alice’s work and death in the first place. It’s  being displayed in all of its decay and un-function as a part of the exhibition and alongside other ‘living’ works, reinstating its symbolic role within a more organic cycle of artistic production. Such gestures speak to an awareness of locating art’s value within complexity and impermanence, opposite to capitalist values of un-mortality and a solidified, alienated identity. 

The rituals of capitalism and its values are driven by a mixture of death-paranoia and a technological power-trip as we have attained more and more power over the natural world and its resources through our technological development. These forces have produced many global pathologies (systemic illnesses), including environmental and socio-political, that have been making the quality of living and dying on our planet more and more unequal and detrimental. Alternatives across all spheres of life should and are appearing for this current dominant cosmology, including artistic production and artists such as Alice. The rituality of her work is driven by creating objects, environments, circumstances, moments, that recognize their own precarious mortality – they break, degrade, mould, sing, speak, bleed, breathe and then they are no more. This approach poses new ways of thinking about what the value of an artwork can be.

Rather than creating more ‘stuff’, more individual, alienated, un-mortal objects, we can aim to use spaces and resources already at our disposal to make things that live and die within a particular ecosystem or community, with a more intricate existence that is diverse and collective. We can embrace a much more complicated, fluid concept of value as it unfolds within collaboration, specific special and temporal cycles and diverse elements. We can learn how to work along a principle of immediate necessity and scarcity. Alice’s practice is one possible way of reimagining these values and engaging with alternative practices that will start to cultivate and nourish a different paradigm. This paradigm would embrace chance, chaos, collaborative survival, scarcity, impulse, grace and shared creative expressions of living-and-dying together.

Of course, no narrative is clean-cut; rather, most narratives are complicated and a little dirty around the edges. Despite the potential paradigm that her work encourages, Alice is represented by the gallery Lehmann + Silva and also makes desirable commercial paintings. This ties back to my previous point of necessary adherence to capitalist rituals within artistic production as means of survival. For the Many, choosing to embrace alternative values to those of the dominant capitalist cosmology can bear an immediate effect on their quality of living and dying. This however, under a different paradigm, is an example of the kind of choices nobody would have to face.

I want to give a shout-out to the words of Luz Hitters and Linda Toivio about Alice’s practice exploring their own unique and wonderful angles on her work, which helped shape my thoughts for this essay.

Born in 1986, Alice Morey is a Berlin and London-based interdisciplinary artist, with an MA from Chelsea College of Art, London and a BA in painting from the University of Brighton. She is represented by Lehmann + Silva in Porto. She is the founder and curator of an alternative collaborative art residency, Countdown Grabowsee (Globe Gallery), organised every summer in an abandoned sanatorium north of Berlin. Morey often works collaboratively and is part of four active collectives: Portland (UK), TEETH (UK/DE), Puppetmaster with artist/activist Zwek (DE) & Data Blood with artist Emily Mulenga (UK/DE).

  1. Cosmology implies not just a system or a set of rules but instead a holistic, comprehensive and spiritual understanding of reality and of one’s manifest destiny in it. Inspired by Federico Campagna’s fantastic book, Technic and Magic: The Reconstruction of Reality, 2018
  2. Other in the general sense of an opposite to the Self, to collective social norm, alienated from the centre of society onto the margins
  3. Un-mortal here is defined as having its purpose and taking a stance specifically against death and against mortality. Immortal simply implies a state of being, un-mortal implies an intention.

Writer, singer-songwriter and curator based between Budapest and London with a practice focusing particularly on platforming artists from the Eastern European diaspora. Currently working as Co-Director of the non-profit space Wells Projects located in a disused nightclub and Project Manager at the charity Migrate Art, which raises money for select refugee organizations in collaboration with established contemporary artists like Anish Kapoor, Rachel Whiteread and Antony Gormley. Associate curator of a series of engagement workshops and performances around Sound Art with Kunstraum London and Soapbox Islington Youth Centre.  Regular contributor to various arts publications such as Calvert Journal, thisistomorrow and MAAKE and editor of the blog DailyLazy. Always working on independent curatorial, writing and musical projects.

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