“In the midst of life we are in life.” And in Tara Sellios’ viscerally dark pictures, there’s no better way to show that than a pig’s head or two.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, Dutch artists painted piles of rotting fruit, faded flowers and skulls in the quest to depict the ultimate futility of earthly life (optimistic guys, these Dutch painters). Four centuries on, Tara Sellios has transferred the traditional vanitas painting onto film, photographing pig heads, goblets of blood-red wine and all varieties of anything dead or in the process of dying.
Wonderland spoke to the Boston-born photographer about life, death, the impermanence of meaning, and whether she’s now compelled to rearrange plates of food when she eats out.
Why the obsession to photograph meat, wine, blood? Is there a more personal connection or meaning?
There are several different reasons, and they are all layered and relate to each other in some way. My work has to do with themes of death, impermanence of life and pleasure, and carnality. Flesh and blood have such a visceral quality to them when used in the still life, which ties into all of these themes. I’m interested in the animalistic nature of people, and how we, at the end of the day, act on impulse and instinct, despite culture, emotion, and sophistication.
Any unconventional artistic influences, or sources of inspiration growing up?
I can’t think of anything that I would classify as unconventional. I do think a lot of art making is derivative of an artist’s entire past in some way, shape or form. I have always had a love for art history and an attraction to old paintings. The work of the old masters is so elegant and infinitely majestic, while at the same time possessing a haunting and mysterious quality. It amazes me how lasting some of this work is, and how it is still revered today after so many centuries. One can only dream of making something that is still so affecting after being around for so long.
What distinguishes your work from a revamped vanitas piece and makes it modern and relevant today?
One of the aspects is the use of the large scale, color photograph to execute the images. Instead of being painted, these scenarios are documented on film, meaning that obsessive precision is necessary before the film is exposed, unlike with paint, where you have the ability and more freedom to play around with what is and isn’t in the image. There is a different physicality to my work in the fact that I actually must go to the markets and seek out these items, and then really arrange them, touch them and smell them.
Is your approach at all didactic in trying to teach us a moral lesson?
I wouldn’t say that I am doing this to teach anyone anything. Everything the work is about, I feel, is something that people are already aware of to some extent. If anything, I would say the photographs act as a reminder. Honestly, I just want to create something affecting out of a disheartening truth.
There seems to be a lot of Christian symbolism in your work. Are you at all spiritual in any way?
I was raised in a very Christian environment, and I attended church many times a week for most of my life. There was no other option than to do what I was told when I was younger, but I ended up not following that path. This certainly has influenced my work, and is most likely why the old altarpiece paintings resonate with me so much. There is a lot of guilt involved with Christianity, and presently I am interested in the idea of self-restraint from pleasure or self-indulgence, things that aren’t necessarily wrong, but by religious standards are looked at as sins, and the guilt that goes along with that.
What are you working on right now?
I am in the process of making a new photographic body of work called ‘Luxuria’. They are rich in color and lush with a lot of wine, fruit and flowers. Wine is the central driving subject. Hieronymus Bosch has always been an influence, but recently I have been really looking at his “Garden of Earthly Delights” triptych. I want the photographs to sort of appear as the paradise garden gone wrong, almost as if the Hell panel and paradise panel collided.
Has your own work changed your daily attitude towards seafood and red meat? Is it hard not to rearrange the dishes and portions on the table when you eat out at restaurants?
No, not really. The items that I use are my raw materials, as clay to a sculptor or paint to a painter. Eating is a totally separate act from making these tableaus for the camera. For some reason I do like raw food: oysters, carpaccio, sushi, things like that, but that’s just personal preference. Perhaps this ties into my work a little bit with the idea of self-indulgence and pleasure, but these are concepts, not props.
Words: Christine Jun (Follow Christine on Twitter @christinecocoj)