What Use is Pondering Death if It Doesn’t Make You Live Life?

My reflection is beginning to match my actual face. It has taken a while to catch up. I noticed my reflection was now nearly as old as my face when I caught myself reflected in a shiny wall at the Gallery of South Australia. Our mind seems to CGI our face. That is why we are often appalled by photographs, the lens doesn’t filter our image in the same way as our brain. For many years, I have been grey (hair and skin). My reflection never looked as grey and I reckon it might be because a mental shortcut means my mind pieces together my look from so many older, darker haired days. I know I have been thinning and balding for a while, yet when I looked in the mirror, things weren’t so bad. It was a slow waltz to scalp decrepitude. I only realised how thin my retreating hair was when I saw some high up camera shots from Book Shambles recordings. Now I have been confronted by the reality, my reflection is slowing becoming a more honest representation.

The gallery also reminded me how much I enjoy lighting fixture made of dog skulls. My sisters would not be surprised. They had always imagined I’d grow into a serial killer, and just because I had a sheep’s skull next to my bed. It was almost a cuddly toy with its soft moss covering.

The skull chandelier was by Sue Kneebone, who has also created two entertaining mutation portraits with A Cautionary Tale of Over-Confidence and For Better or Worse.

In the room beyond is Fiona Hall’s All The King’s Men, the ghost train of this particular gallery. Ghastly knitted skulls and gut-like accoutrement hang from the ceiling in an unsettling formation of doom.

A knitting project from someone who has lost all faith in the possibly humanity of this world.


The unease is fortified when the spectator discovers the ghoulishness is constructed from torn military uniforms.

The gallery surprised me on my last visit to Adelaide and it did so again. In this city of churches, clock bells and low buildings, you might expect that the art within would be parochial, maybe even musty and mundane. On my first visit, it was Marc Quinn’s Buck with a Cigar that shattered my simple-minded preconceptions of Adelaide’s art offerings. A bold bronze cast of a tattooed man, bold and biting on a cigar, the twist is the female genitalia. Buck was physically born a woman, but had become a man, though maintaining the genitalia he was born with . As the label states, “Buck’s confident pose and genial demeanour does not invite either condemnation or pity”. I am glad it is in the Frank and Gladys Penfold Gallery.

Walking into a room of photographic portraits, a woman sits in contemplation opposite a photo narrative. I try not to disturb her and stay at the edge of the frames. It is William Yang’s Sadness.

“I don’t think I have great technical aptitude, but I am interested in people” – William Yang

This series of prints shows the decline of a former lover who has AIDS. Under each photograph is a hand-written description of friendship and health. It travels from shortly after diagnosis in 1988 to death in 1990. The decline, suddenly so rapid, and the final image of the now lifeless face, is stark, memorable and miserable. Alan comments that when his friend was in a coma, he thought he looked as if he were dead, but it was only when he saw him dead that he realised a true change from seeming lifelessness to actual death. Fortunately, for this disease at least, this is of another time, at least in places where medicine healthcare is properly available. It seems remarkable that 26 years on, science has found methods to allow people to live a pretty normal and full life. I must have been a teen when I first saw the tabloid images of this brand new plague. I think it was on the cover of The Sun newspaper, a healthy, full-faced young man side by side with his near death mask one year on. Then there was Rock Hudson, John Hurt’s iceberg narration, and Ian Charleson’s early death, soon after a triumphant Hamlet. No one knew he was ill, i think the reason for his changed appearance was given as an adenoid problem or similar. A friend saw that production and wept all the way home, not knowing he was dying, but so traumatised by the delivery of Hamlet’s deliberating over life and death.

I read and looked, and read and looked again. Then I paused…

I decided I didn’t fancy a snack in the café.

There was a lot of death in Adelaide’s Gallery, which is a good reminder to live a life. Maybe I should have had cake after all. What’s the use of melancholy moments in art if you can’t use it to propel yourself? And with my grey face reflected before me, I better get on with it now.

Josie and Robin’s Book Shambles Podcast has plenty of conversations on life, death, passion and books – from Brian Cox to Stewart Lee via Sara Pascoe and Geoff Dyer and plenty more. HERE

There are strange tales of death and terror by Alan Moore, Stewart Lee, Alice Lowe, me and many more in the recently published Dead Funny Encore.




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2 Responses to What Use is Pondering Death if It Doesn’t Make You Live Life?

  1. liliannberg says:

    Robin, it’s William Yang – not Alan Yang.

  2. robinince says:

    thank you, all changed

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