Body Snatchers: Death in Culture is a small exhibition exploring a monumental subject. The small gallery’s size is an asset, ensuring that the viewer is enveloped by a variety of death-related artwork ranging from a 2nd-century Roman sarcophagus to a piece by Fred Tomaselli titled and dated May 2, 2012.
Although the artwork spans a 2,000-year period, each piece is thoughtfully chosen to inspire an honest dialogue on how humans contemplate death. For example, one could argue that the Roman sarcophagus proposes that a corpse should be concealed so that the grieving can focus on the memory of the deceased. The presence of an unusual family heirloom—a taxidermy Whitetail deer fawn—suggests that the rules of death are different regarding animals: the lifeless human body is hidden, while the dead fawn’s body is perpetually on view. This exhibition challenges the viewer to consider the differences between a human death and an animal’s death, and whether the corpses of either should be displayed or entombed.
Body Snatchers also tackles death and race with the inclusion of work by Winslow Homer and Kara Walker. Both artworks are set during the Civil War and focus on the treatment of dead soldiers’ bodies. Homer’s The Surgeon at Work at the Rear During an Engagement from 1862 illustrates the desperate attempt of battlefield doctors to save wounded soldiers. The accompanying museum label explains that it was common practice for doctors to embalm the bodies of dead soldiers before returning them to their families.
However, Walker’s Buzzard’s Roots Pass, Parper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated) from 2005 exemplifies the contradictory treatment of dead slaves and African American soldiers. The museum label for Walker’s piece details the complete disregard for the African American deceased, making her work a testament to “. . . the public mistreatment of black bodies even after death when they were displayed in the battlefield for all to see.”
This haunting exhibition is small but profound, leaving guests to ponder death and various existential theories long after leaving the gallery.