When I was younger I prided myself on never giving in to a hangover. Indeed, I was well known for being the impressive idiot who went to four hour lectures after two hours sleep and three bottles of wine.
And then the planets shifted.
Now, after a joyful night I look and feel like something shrunken, bloated, mangled and diseased. Ladies and Gentlemen, my ‘super power’ of not getting hangovers has unceremoniously up and left.
And so, on one such morning a few days ago, I decided the fitting thing to do would be to go and see an exhibition named Death. After all, I reasoned with myself, the end is surely nigh for me and I would like to be prepared.
The Wellcome Collection, situated on one of the most depressing – and also frequently stressful – stretches of London, Euston Road, is somewhere I had previously avoided going on the principle that it was For Scientists. An unfortunate mother-influenced trip to the upper floor of the Science Museum, which houses a mini Wellcome collection, had assured me that the place was full of Victorian gynecological instruments that should be consigned to history and a dustbin. My Saturday morning visit usurped this prejudice entirely. I have, in fact, now decided that ‘The Wellcome Collection’ will be my luxury item request if I one day appear on Desert Island Discs.
As with the British Museum and the V&A, the place is an absolute treasure trove of Stuff. The highlighted collection on at the moment, Death: A Self Portrait, is actually the personal collection of one man, Richard Harris, who collected together 1500 artworks and artefacts relating to the theme of death over a 12 year period.
In Will Self’s latest novel, Umbrella, the family name of Death gradually evolves from its Reaper roots. The posh side of the family gentrify it into De’Ath and the protagonists gradually morph its sound into Deeth (rhyming with teeth) and then, following a move to the South West, into Deers. Death itself has gone through similar changes across cultures and time periods. What is most surprising is that, as demonstrated in this exhibition, it is seldom singularly depressing or associated with the colour black.
I went around the first few parts of the exhibition chuckling merrily away to myself. I giggled at the jiggling skeletons and grinning skulls. I laughed heartily at the promotional calendar featuring skeleton illustrations, which was produced by a medical company whose products were later found to be toxic. I daydreamed of heady Brideshead parties when gazing on embossed skulls and thought of Alexander McQueen skull prints.
The exhibition, instead of mirroring my heavy head, actually quite cheered me up. Until I reached the room entitled Violent Death. Here, the room was dominated by 51 pictures by the artist Otto Dix named ‘Der Krieg’ (the war). Composed from Dix’s memories of fighting in the First World War, the images are of dirty, writhing, broken bodies. Tangled in heaps and sprawled across the pages, the images are as far away from a Mexican Day of the Dead marigold as can be imagined. This is the kind of death that no hangover could ever touch and I think what their place in the collection states is that it is not the existence of death itself which is horrifying – sometimes knowing you are going to die can make you appreciate and live life more – but the disgusting man-made version of it.
Out of all the suggestions on Suitcase, a trip to an exhibition about Death is probably the least sexy. I can only counter that I once had a successful date taking a guy to the taxidermy section of Bristol Museum and Gallery*. Next to dead things you’re sure to look just radiant (even with a hangover).
*Reader, I plan to marry him