Life of Sand: Vanitas and the fragility of life - A reflection on the work of Giles Alexander.
Prof. James Arvanitakis, Western Sydney University.
In Ancient Greece the Stoics – a school of philosophy very different to the contemporary meaning of the word ‘stoic’ – presented a worldview that remains relevant today: we should live our lives, treat our relations and friends, and order our affairs, as if today is our last. In preparing for our death through our everyday actions, we acknowledge the fragility of our existence and those around us. In so doing, we celebrate life!
Ignoring our imminent death seems somewhat foolish. By concentrating on the temporary nature of life; the very human ambition of amassing wealth and material goods, and a life dominated by materialism, all seem somewhat nonsensical. But this is exactly what we humans seem very good at: living life like this journey will last forever and collecting belongings along the way. It is what our contemporary economy is based on and is central to the advertising industry’s ultimate
goal – perfectly captured by the popular slogan:
he who dies with the most toys wins.
Dutch still life paintings of the 16th and 17th centuries, that came to be known as Vanitas (from the Latin noun meaning ‘emptiness’) draw out the view that earthly lives driven by the pursuit of goods are empty, worthless, vain and futile. Ironically, these works emerged from a Dutch society that pioneered the mercantile, capitalist and imperial society that the modern world economy has emerged from.
Paintings executed in the Vanitas style remind us of the transience of life, the futility of pleasure, and the certainty of death. In so doing, they provide moral justification for painting objects of beauty. And thus they present a contradictory message: capturing moments of beauty and death, fragility and permanence, hope and futility.
Artists project, predict and prophesise. They remind us of what we often attempt to ignore or forget, in ways that make us reflect and reminisce. It is from these complex trajectories that we can interpret the work of Giles Alexander. His contemporary still life paintings depict some of the most precious and desired objects in our world. They capture something of our own vain pursuits and contemporary contradictions. We build our cities around cars; we see cars as freedom, a symbol of adulthood and success; our economies rely on cars; and many of us build lives around them. But like the still life paintings of the 17th century, Giles’s perfect replication of cars on canvas, capture both their magnificence and the pointlessness of our pursuits.