One of the most anticipated exhibitions to open for Berlin Gallery Weekend is Paloma Proudfoot’s The Three Living and The Three Dead – and it deserves the hype. Her haunting ceramic friezes spark conversations around death. Intrigued by Medieval cultural traditions, Proudfoot’s title takes its name from a 13th Century fable. The story goes, three noblemen stumble upon three animated corpses in a forest and are forced to reckon with the fact that their riches, power and privilege will not be travelling with them to the world beyond. Hence, what does it mean to live a good and fulfilled life? A question equally relevant for us today as it was in the 13th century.
While the central piece takes its name from the exhibition title, The Three Living and The Three Dead, I can’t help but notice there are only five figures. Presumably, we are meant to insert ourselves as the sixth, living out this moral parable. On each wall of the exhibition space is a macabre scene. The figures play out different stages of mortality. A blue skeleton acts as a personification of death, while the most alive looking grasps intricate flowers as if they were giving her lifeblood. In the original legend, there is a clear distinction between the dead and the living, but in Proudfoot’s version, this is more ambiguous, dissolving the binary.
Facing Death in Paloma Proudfoot’s exhibition
In the same piece, a figure lifts up his skin, exposing the muscle and red glistening flesh. A woman sits in front of him, her back flayed and opened like butterfly wings to expose her spinal column. She gently places her hands on the man’s abdomen in an act of care or healing. These works sound grotesque by description: detached skin, open wounds, exposed bone, but the exhibition feels surprisingly tender. Additionally, the squishiness and squeamishness of human bodies are countered by the material. The hardened glazes are exquisite: earthy tones that are never one colour but shimmer getting deeper and lighter as greens combine with blues, purples, and reds.
Broken down into tiles, the ceramic people are pieced together with golden hexagonal pins that stand out against the subdued hues and make them look like articulated paper dolls. The overall impression is that they are puppets that could be animated at any moment. As in Deathspan, where a person turns his back and walks away, with delicately shrivelled sunflowers on either side of him. Red ropes trail from his body, like veins, the blood returning to the ground, or are they ropes to tie the person to this world, as we look on, longing for them to stay.
A Spiritual and Sensual Journey
Throughout the exhibition, Proudfoot makes the case that we need to think and talk more about death, a topic that is often thought of as taboo and stigmatised in the western world. In 2020 she set up The Art and Death Club, based on the idea of Death Cafés. She gathers people together to speak about the impacts of loss, grief and to collectively read literature on the matter. In her works, she seems to dispel fear, opening a space for curiosity around a subject we often want to turn away from. It’s an important endeavour, because after all, we all have to face death one day.