Dead or Alive

The Art of Reanimation at NYC's MAD Museum

"It's alive!" Dr. Victor Frankenstein shouted after he successfully brought his monster to life in the classic black and white film Frankenstein. Taking the good doctor's cue of making life out of odd bits of flesh and bone, the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City presents the Dead or Alive, featuring the recent works of over 30 international artists who used organic materials ranging from insects, bones, plant material, and fur to create elaborately crafted and designed installations and sculptures.  
The show's theme according to Holly Hotchner, the Museum's Nanette L. Laitman Director ". . . highlights the creative processes that reanimate these once-living creatures as part of large-scale installations, photographs, videos, and sculptures." Using intricate and difficult techniques the artists infuse these unusual materials with symbolism and social commentary about the state of our planet, but also our perceptions about life and death.  
Among the various works that are currently on display, the following artists caught HAND/EYE' Magazine's attention:
Costa Rican artist Lucia Madriz's installations are made of basic grains and deal with the political, social and environmental issues of genetically modified food. The large floor installation made from black and red beans, corn and rice depicts a pair of skeletal hands holding genetically modified corn. Two banners that frame the hands read: "Modified Seed" and "Contaminated Food." Explains Madriz, "These crops are accompanied by a total dependency economic model, and they directly affect the rural population worldwide, pollute waterbeds and contaminate other crops."
Eschewing world food politics, and leaning on the side of the biological sciences, specifically entomology, American artist Jennifer Angus--recognized for her architectural interiors--uses dried insects to mimic wallpaper and textiles. These installations blur the distinction between decoration and expressions, and between domestic comforts and disturbance. In a 2005 feature about the artist in Fiberarts, Jessica Hemming wrote, "the common theme that runs through Angus' work is the interplay of the feelings of comfort experienced when viewing familiar patterns and the realization on closer inspection that the comforting familiar is actually made up of insects, something most people feel apprehension for. Angus uses real insects . . . and utilizes their unique shapes and colors to create patterns reminiscent of everything from toile to kimono fabrics." 
Fabian Pena another entomologist-artist explores the endless cycle of life and death, and to comment on the foulest conditions of human existence. For The Impossibility of Storage for the Soul, Pena created an image of the human skull using only clipped cockroach wings. Mounted on a light box, the wings cast an eerie amber glow into the gallery. 
Museum visitors might have a bone to pick with Chinese artist Shen Shaomin who creates mythological animals made from pulverized bones. These fantastical creatures, says the Saatchi Gallery in London "… are reminiscent of Borges’s Book of Imaginary Beings, Shen’s absurd assemblages exude an ancient wisdom, authenticating the magic of fable and folklore, while alluding to contemporary issues of genetic modification, consequence of environmental threat, and concepts of the alien and exotic." 
American artist Christy Rupp uses the bones of chickens discarded by fast food restaurants to create life-size skeletal reconstructions of extinct birds, including the Great Auk, the Moa and the California Condor. Her Dodo Bird is a meditation on man slowly devouring his environment. 
If beans, bones, and bugs aren’t your bag, performance artist and multi-media sculptor Nice Cave offers an audible experience to his art. Cave takes his textile arts background along with his dance training to create daring costume-sculptures called Soundsuits. Reminiscent of African ceremonial costumes and masks, Soundsuits are made out of leaves, hair, twigs and other found objects, and when worn are brought to life and create a loud series of noises as the costumed performer dances in a wide range of movements.  
Dutch performance artist Levi van Veluw adherence to his creations takes on a literal and figurative meaning. In his landscape series, van Veluw reinterprets the traditional landscape painting, from its two-dimensional format and transposes it to the three-dimensional contours of his face. van Veluw gives a fresh twist "to the obsession inherent in the romantic landscape of recreating the world and simultaneously being part of it. The romantic landscape and self-portrait genres are combined as a means of re-examination." 
"In the hands of these artists mute materials are brought back to life as a work of art," says Chief Curator David McFadden.  "With profound and provocative associations, organic materials are transformed and resuscitated. This exhibition evokes our deepest emotions about mortality, but at the same time celebrates the new life given to lifeless materials by these talented individuals."
Dead or Alive is on view at the Museum of Arts and Design through October 24, 2010. For more information please visit



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