A Photo-Series Exploring the Meaning of "Vanitas" in Late Modernity
This series, composed out of the juxtaposition of three short texts and photographs, questions the meaning of vanitas in late modernity. By employing the ternary principle of reducing, reusing and recycling, it explores the ephemerality and the futility of wasted objects, while also giving them new life through their dead beauty and empty pleasure. In doing so, we aim to draw attention to human interactions with objects and the absurdity of our habitual yet unsettling relationship to waste – both created by us and within us.
Text: Ieva Gudaityte
Images: Giulia Morlando
The fragile beauty of decaying life, nourished death, synthesized nature. In the day and age of omnipresence, omnipotence and omniscience of consumption, where have we put memento mori, the reminder of our – and of others – mortality and limitations?
These series, composed out of the juxtaposition of three short texts and photographs, questions the meaning of vanitas in late modernity. By employing the ternary principle of reducing, reusing and recycling, it explores the ephemerality and the futility of wasted objects, while also giving them new life through their dead beauty and empty pleasure. In doing so, we aim to draw attention to human interactions with objects and the absurdity of our habitual yet unsettling relationship to waste – both created by us and within us.
Vanitas Part I.
Staring at my plate, I push the remaining chicken around, remembering how , whenever I wished not to finish a meal, my father would tell me to throw away the food myself. The act seemed so perverse I would always carry on eating. It sickens me now too, looking at the white, greasy piece covered with a transparent mucus, to put it both in the bin and in my mouth. Everything is so surreal that the fly on my plate seems more edible than anything else on it.
When it comes to food, disgust is an integral part of the indulgence, it is the antithesis that creates the pleasure. I think of rotting pears in my grandmother’s orchard, full of thick, wet, slimy worms – too scared to touch, too intrigued to look away. The scream of a pig being slaughtered. Red beetroot salad dying the rest of the plate. Natural habitats destroyed in the excessive farming. When people mix jam in their porridge. The smell of the faeces that fertilize the crops. Feeding cows beef. The beauty of pretty tablecloths under the body that has been disembowelled somewhere far away from our sights: different levels of hatred, always part of an argument that matters.
8 kilos of blueberries from Argentina, each set of 30 packed in a separate container, stacked next to the sink in our tiny kitchen after an expedition to the Waitrose bins. It took effort: rain or, well, more rain; cycling through Edinburgh hills while balancing full bags on each handle; the labor distribution of washing, drying. sorting. I remember tearing the plastic covering each box; transferring the berries into a bowl; throwing the box into the recycling bin. Due to the mechanic repetitiveness of the procedure, at one point I accidentally threw away the content of a box to the bin. “How silly!”, we laughed at my mental glitch, collecting them back. The pleasure of turning trash into feasts of three course breakfasts, including duck liver pate, caramelized onions, and pullet eggs, was of inadequate effort, but it left us euphoric. New Zealand lamb for vegetarians. Garbage for the privileged university students. Plastic bags for apples. The danger to be caught, the righteousness of salvaging –pick your favorite absurdity.
We felt close to the food chain, and our other hedonisms became justified. I felt like we put effort; like the pleasure of eating, the almost perverse satisfaction of consuming, is necessary to honor the journey of our meals. I was high on our own virtue, and the trip was worth the ride. I felt that our successes sheltered us from the reality of red blood dripping from plastic packages that expired yesterday, from endless piles of dead food; food buried alive.
At least for a moment, I forget. Then I swallow my plastic chicken.
Vanitas Part II.
She zips off her back, all the way from the hairline to her tailbone, and drops the skin away on the couchette. In the evening sun it appears warm, soft, golden. As human as it is inanimate. Light changes the essence of objects and their reflections; bouncing off an oval shaped mirror with a dressing table placed in the center of the room, it sets the stage for a performance. The body sits down to face herself and to reflect on the sense of resonating change. It is in its silver eye that she can observe the evening bringing the darkness that hides, and the streetlights that expose.
A perfect background to reinvent a personality, to put on a new self. The body needs something older for tonight, something vintage. Something wise and experienced, something that echoes other stories. It is hard to pick from the floor, all covered with a layer of textures, fabrics and patterns, it is challenging to choose from all the jewelry on the bed that makes it lose its initial purpose, it is nearly impossible to select from the shoes hanging on the wall. Each object contributes to the room’s faux ecosystem and to the construction of identity: oikos, once Greek for home, now key to salvation; faux, all but fur. Oikos materials from the other side of the world, oikos-like thrift shop around the corner and even closer to oikos a trash bin for those not suitable to live up to retro. In the imitation of style and of home and of ecology, imitation of persona seems only appropriate. Even more so, it feels like a play, a game of reflections, some in mirrors, some in others eyes. Through the silver eye, among the golden rays, even the emptiest of bodies appears to be perfect, its carcass – whole.
I live in a world of clutter. Too many faces, too many uniforms; too many eyes, too many magpie’s nests. I want to live a beautiful life, so I go and get myself a bouquet of colored roses printed on a cheap cotton shipped from a land far away; it is cheaper than a handful of flowers. It is not vanity if it has value; it is not a performance if there is no applause at the end.
The mirror stares at the body, and the skull stares blankly back.
Nature morte. Personnalité morte aussi.
Vanitas Part III.
“Paper was created to be the bearer of ideas. Paper packaging is wasteful and should be banned. But if you really do have to package something, then you ought to be able to do it […] in such a way that what is contained and what contains it have some connection” Olga Tokarczuk, “Flights”
Looking for a meaning, I take apart sentences, I deconstruct words into letters. I think of Olga Tokarczuk writing about sanitary pads, and I remember my grandfather cutting the old newspaper and placing it in the bathroom: toilet paper for guests, the Friday column and the inexhaustible resourcefulness and efficiency for them. I look up to my bookcase while I sit in my childhood bedroom, the soft pages of teenage pulp seem more appropriate for such utilitarian use than some of their messages.
When I first moved to Scotland, I was surprised at the thorough directions supplied on any kind of food packaging: “boil potatoes until they are soft”, “sliced carrots can be eaten raw”, “fry chicken for this and that amount of time” etc. It baffled me, to be living in a society that wouldn’t know what to do with raw potatoes if it wasn’t given any instructions. This excessive advising bothered me, it seemed like a waste. Yet, at the same time, there were never enough information on how and where to recycle the particular plastic packaging on which the advice was given. How do I recycle those words, I kept thinking, and why is reusing plastic bottles for lampshades is considered crafty, yet knowing how to roast a chicken requires a health and safety regulation? Surely, I thought, the abundance of guidance implies the lack of knowledge. Surely, I thought, some knowledge is implicit, embodied, common. It cannot be pinned down with words, like a stream.
Yet if it is that important to me, to us, why not put it all on the front page of a magazine, after all, “paper was created to be the bearer of ideas”. Wrinkled pages of a book indicate it being well read and there is no other way for it but to decay. I don’t recycle books. Paper rots, so do ideas.
But I might recycle ideas, and someone might flush down the news – “always in such a way that what is contained and what contains it have some connection”.