Mortality and Morality in Artistic Representation
Mortality and Morality in Artistic Representation
Kinetic Sculpture, Static Fantasy
It is easy to imagine dying as tragic, as agonizing: crushed in a head-on collision; gasping for breath underwater; waning on a hospital bed, loved ones weeping. We imagine death artless and fear it to be so. For many, this fear looms unspoken constantly, even with life in full bloom, always impending, always appalling. What Julijonas Urbonas’s Euthanasia Coaster, proposes is something quite obverse to this sensibility. It is a conceptual design for a roller coaster that kills its passengers, in which death, in Urbonas’ words, is “pleasing, elegant, and meaningful.”1 Death by roller coaster is a framework that collides the tragic vision of death with the thrilling, whimsical sensation of riding the coaster. Agony, tragedy are dispersed into the force of gravity.
First displayed at Human+ in 2010, an interdisciplinary exhibition hosted by Dublin’s Trinity University and thematically concerned with the future of the human race, the appearance of the prototype coaster—a miniature sculpture consisting of one large lift and fall followed by a ribbon-dance of seven loops—must have been deceivingly innocuous. Unambiguous as it appears, the roller coaster is what Urbonas calls a kinetic sculpture, meaning that its aesthetic significance is grounded not in its tame semblance, but in its movement, for the perception of movement along the tracks of the coaster is inseparable from the calculations of its velocity, a velocity that is fatal. The velocity of the coaster is as much a part of the aesthetics of the design as the physical appearance of the coaster itself; projecting ourselves into this velocity feeds our rollicking perception of the design, our visceral response to it. Notwithstanding that Euthanasia Coaster only exists as a theoretical design and miniature model, we are forced to imagine dying in a journey both formidable and exhilarating:
Harnessed into the coaster, you begin an ascent that is slow. Perhaps loved ones watch you from the ground, to partake in this terminal ceremony. The ascent prolongs the contemplative antecedent of the drop that will kill you. It is as much a part of the experience as the rest of the coaster, as it is during this time that you must reflect both on the life you have lived and the decision you have made to terminate it. (Urbonas notes that this part of the ride is a “test,” and that the rider may have the option to retract their decision and stop the ride before they reach its peak.) At the 510-meter summit you are momentarily suspended, straddling a lifetime of memories and their dissipation, before succumbing to the gravitational pull Earthward, your body and the Earth in an equilibrium of force of air drag and force of gravity. The duration of this descent is ten seconds, and then you are instantly swept into the first of a succession of seven loops at a speed of 100 meters per second, with the loops maintaining a g-force of 10g. As blood breaks the dam of circulation and floods the extremities, thereby depriving the brain of oxygen, your vision and hearing become distorted, grayed, your pulse fights back, and within the first or second of these loops you enter G-LOC, g-force induced loss of consciousness—a state of somatic anesthesia wedded with euphoria. You feel like you are floating. You blissfully loll in the gaps of space and time, weightless, until suddenly G-LOC is sopped up by complete oxygen deprivation, which leaves your body lifeless in the car that continues to exude leftover momentum through the remainder of the loops, included to nullify the possibility of survival up to this point. At the end of the ride, the car enters the platform; your corpse is removed.2
This entire sequence of events is a fantasy habituated in the stationary design of the roller coaster, which transforms the physical model into kinetic sculpture. It is important to note how Euthanasia Coaster is both similar and dissimilar to the common conception of a “sculpture.” As with any sculpture, Euthanasia Coaster occupies space across a three-dimensional plane, which, distinct from other art forms, necessitates that the viewer confront the work from multiple spatial vantages. It is not merely a representation of space, but itself takes up space, and lingers there, arrested by our perception: a phantom that has been caught. The sculpture materializes the ideas that haunt the imagination (ideas of death notwithstanding) and allows us, in turn, to witness them, as they now occupy a presence in our own dimension. However, unlike the common sculpture, Euthanasia Coaster also demands the viewer’s interpolation. We cannot, as with Benvenuto Cellini’s Perseus with the Head of Medusa (1554), simply gaze at form and wonder at the circumstances of its subjects. Rather, we must assume the position of Medusa at the moment of her decapitation; in other words, we must feel our hearts racing, the rush of wind, the centrifugal force wrenching our vertical body into a horizon in order to even apprehend Euthanasia Coaster. Our fantasies are galvanized by it. The various ways that Urbonas’s design has been described seem to gesture towards this dual nature of the sculpture as both three-dimensional form and as embodied fantasy: “kinetic sculpture,” “gravitational weapon,” “monumental mourning machine” are just a few of these descriptions.3 This is to say that Euthanasia Coaster has a unique aesthetic appeal, entertaining not only our perception at the moment of glimpsing the design but also the perceptive reservoir of cultural associations around death, machinery, and art forms in themselves. It is unquestionably an aesthetic spectacle. That is, Euthanasia Coaster is above all an aestheticization of death. It offers an affective representation of death that preempts any judgments of its design. It relies on death, and therefore relies on the condition of mortality, in order to excite in us that nebulous fantasy of beauty.
The Mortal Aesthetic
Situated in the overlap of death and beauty is the mortal aesthetic, which refers to art that not only forces its audience to confront the prospect of dying, but also represents dying as beautiful. This condition no doubt brands the mortal aesthetic as ethically promiscuous—yes, it does flirt with some ethical concerns, including the glamorization of death and suicide, the morality of depicting violence, and the value of representing death in art. Yet, in the haze of these ethical concerns there lies a unique fascination. Regardless of whether we ascribe feelings of shame and wrongness to discourse on death or we embrace, even celebrate, death, the verity that the grand quilt of human experience faces expiration is implanted into our knowledge, manifestly or latently occupying our decisions and deliberations. For a work of art to pull out this thread, this death thread, from the spool of our knowledge and configure it in a way that is palpable is both deeply personal, for its iteration of our own confrontation with mortality, and broadly impersonal, for its preoccupation with the mortal condition of all of human existence. Euthanasia Coaster invokes a death fantasy that functions to the same effect, being a fascinating and palpable exploration of an alternative mortality.
Consider how this mortal aesthetic hypnotizes its audience. The mortal aesthetic owes much of its fascination to its correspondence with the sublime. Beyond comprehension and language, the sublime, when experienced, is a feeling that seizes the subject as if striking them with lightning. It is bodily yet ethereal, possessive and out of reach all at once. Though the sublime cannot be contained by language, Kant attempts to trace its qualities out of the fog:
the feeling of the sublime is a pleasure that only arises indirectly, being brought about by the feeling of a momentary check to the vital forces followed at once by a discharge all the more powerful. 4
Here, Kant asserts that the sublime is firstly a form of pleasure, and secondly invoked by a mortal trepidation, a “check to the vital forces”—an extreme pleasure that can only be engendered in the presence of a life-threatening force. Volcanoes, hurricanes, the edge of a cliff, the sea in a storm: these are examples Kant gives of the sublime. They thrash with the potential to end us, and yet we watch in awe, consumed by their totalizing force, our death-drive (in light of Freud) luxuriating. Kant posits that in this feeling of the sublime, there is a simultaneous “recognition of our physical helplessness as beings of nature” and a revelation that we are “independent of nature.”5 Though we feel our presence violated by the terrifying force, we see ourselves as separate from it, our autonomy is reaffirmed—this effect constitutes the sublime.
The capability of the mortal aesthetic to approach the sublime is especially unique due to the proximity of those two gripping forces, pleasure and fear, in the unification of death and art. In viewing art, we may not be engulfed by the might of nature, but we nonetheless are face-to-face with something that may violate us, disturb us, toy with our emotions. Art that is mortally aesthetic shows us our destruction; at the same time, this act of showing, of positioning art and viewer side by side, reinforces our capacity as cognitively independent of the work, and therefore of imminent destruction. Granted this independence, we feel the release of pleasure at bearing witness to mortality without being instantly disposed to its immeasurable power. It is the release of knowing death, but not dying, that is sublime in the mortal aesthetic.
Euthanasia Coaster may be regarded as the quintessence of the sublime mortal aesthetic. It impels us to position ourselves in the rink of death and further to recognize grace in this death, to know dying and to know dying beautifully. In the transaction that occurs between artwork and viewer, perceived and perceiver, the viewer becomes aware of their own cognitive independence and their capacity for fabricating beauty. Yes, beauty is fabricated, for gravity on its own does not know its gravity; a roller coaster is built in the human’s vision, not in the vision of gravity. We know this, perhaps peripherally—that nature is administered beauty by its human perceivers, that beauty is constructed by the independent subject. When we envision ourselves harnessed into the coaster, propelled by the force of gravity into rapture, we know there is nothing intrinsically beautiful about this death—but that we have the faculties to fabricate it to be so, that we can know our futility in the face of death and yet still suffuse it with some greater value, some elegance, that this gives us pleasure is the aesthetic triumph of Euthanasia Coaster.
On the Sublime Suicide
What the mortal aesthetic establishes is the purposive affect of portraying death artistically. The mortal aesthetic does not prioritize ethics in its fruition, which is to say that it makes no claim of the acceptability of imbuing death with beauty. Nevertheless, it may be said that there is an ethical gain in affirming our vital capacity to fabricate beauty against the inevitability of death. The mortal aesthetic does not exist in nature without the correspondence of a perceiver who is aware of their condition of mortality. Rather, it is varnished over nature at the moment of perception, like technicolor dye on a film strip. As such, the mortal aesthetic can only persist so long as there is cognizant life to perceive and be affected by it; once death actually strikes the perceiver down, it is stripped from nature and all that is left is mortal futility and mortal helplessness. Perhaps, then, it is necessary to separate the function of the mortal aesthetic, which flows from perception, from any ethical assumption about death outside of the work of art, which does not follow an aesthetic teleology.
The separation between the mortal aesthetic and mortal ethics is complicated by suicide. No doubt, someone proposing to commit suicide and deem it performance art has failed aesthetically, for the mortal aesthetic necessitates a representation of death in which a perceiver can distinguish between natural forces and the perceiver’s cognitive independence. When one actually dies, their cognitive independence, the affirmation of the mortal aesthetic, is annulled, disregarded, and rendered senseless; likewise, witnessing actualized death nullifies the perceiver’s ability to differentiate and assert themselves apart from the force of nature, so the aesthetic is forsaken. Death realized is incompatible with aesthetics. The failure of suicide as performance may be regarded as an ethical defect, but the aesthetic defect persists whether it is ethical to kill oneself or not. In other words, if Euthanasia Coaster were actually constructed, it would not be an artistic project to ride it.
To what extent, then, can the mortal aesthetic be held accountable if it is said to prompt actualized death? Consider Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, in which the protagonist, Werther, resolves his plotline by killing himself. Following the publication of The Sorrows of Young Werther in the late eighteenth century, there was a series of “copycat suicides,” allegedly inspired by the character of Werther; the book was subsequently banned in multiple countries, due to what came to be known as the “Werther effect.”6 The novel falls within the mortal aesthetic. It is concerned with aestheticizing death, and its aesthetic success is its sublimation of death onto the character of Werther. In his essay “The Werther Effect: The Esthetics of Suicide,” Tobin Siebers writes, “The poetics of suffering… precedes and displaces the act of suffering, and only Werther must die.”7 “[O]nly Werther must die” in order for the sublime to be achieved—this is Goethe’s carefully constructed aesthetic formulation. It is the fictional portrayal of suicide that reaffirms the reader’s cognitive independence, that grants the experience of sublimity. Very little occurs once Werther dies. There is no elaboration of characters’ responses to this death or of his lover’s grief; the fictionalized editor simply states, “At twelve noon, Werther died.”8 Goethe’s formal choice to suspend affect after Werther’s death asserts that the sublime of the mortal aesthetic ceases once the poetics of suffering is confused with the actualization of suicide. Sublimity for Werther is cut off by his death. In this respect, the novel’s aesthetic representation of death is not responsible for the deaths succeeding its publication, and to assume so is to ignore the broader context in which these deaths occurred. Many treated these copycat suicides as solely an attempt to pursue the sublimity effected by the novel, but to attribute the copycat suicides to the novel itself wrongly makes it appear that the mortal aesthetic, as evinced by the novel, perseveres through actualized death, that the act of suicide is compatible with the sublime. The responsibility of the work is to uphold the mortal aesthetic, which The Sorrows of Young Werther does successfully, which means that the suicides imitating Werther must be attributed to some other fault—perhaps the fault of spreading Romantic ideals that would wrongly misconstrue imitative suicide as an extension of the sublimity of depicting Werther’s suicide.
A work becomes aesthetically defective when the relation between aesthetic death and actualized death is rendered congruent, in other words, when the work fails to animate and reaffirm the perceiver’s cognitive independence in relation to the depiction of death. I recall the drama show Thirteen Reasons Why as an example of a work that aesthetically fails in its depiction of death. Suicide rates in teens surged during the month after the show’s premiere in 2017.9 At first, this may appear to be a case similar to the Werther effect, but unlike The Sorrows of Young Werther, Thirteen Reasons Why proposes that the sublime persists through actualized death by representing its protagonist through a series of tapes that were recorded in anticipation of her suicide. In this way, the show makes out death to be a power in itself, because its aesthetics rely on these tapes that represent the protagonist only after she has killed herself. The viewer is not granted the opportunity to recognize themselves as active in interpreting the force of death—they are led to assume that death itself is the aesthetic end and are denied the pleasure of the sublime. It is unhelpful to suppose that romanticization of dying is the aesthetic defect, for in fact any work that artistically represents death may be said to romanticize it. Sometimes, romanticization of death can be part of the work’s aesthetic success. The work fails aesthetically only when it assumes that death must be actualized in order to become sublime, when, as stated before, the sublime in the mortal aesthetic can only exist and be appreciated if death is not actualized. If a work of art makes me want to kill myself, we should not regard it as an ethical defect, but an aesthetic one.
Euthanasia Coaster does not implore us to strive towards death, but simply to recognize the fact of death as an unstoppable force and to recognize ourselves as independent agents acting, perceiving despite this force. Again, imagine yourself approaching 10g, traveling at 100 meters per second, soaring across the tracks. In this moment there is no judgment about the value of your human life; there is only the interaction between the body and gravity. How this interaction gains meaning, gains aesthetic value, is through a perception only possible for the living. Like Werther, the roller coaster supplies us with the material that may constitute the sublime, but the living body is what ultimately fabricates it.
Indeed the sublime presupposes that we are helpless creatures in the fist of nature, and perhaps it is an illusion created in our detached examination of its force that we can retain some power over it, but what we may come to realize through the sublime is that what nature lacks is the ability to perceive its own beauty. Nature does not qualify itself as beautiful—that is a power that human beings may pride themselves in. And art, at its foundation, is a manifestation of this capacity. It is an affirmation of that magnificent, if minimal, power. When dealing with the ever-present force of death, perhaps the best that art can do is imagine that in facing death, we may still retain this power to perceive the beautiful, that we may still be moved, or, at least, that we may die with dignity.
- Euthanasia Coaster, Julijonas Urbonas, 2010.
- “Euthanasia Coaster.”
- “Euthanasia Coaster.”
- Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement, edited by Nicholas Walker and translated by James Creed Meredith (Oxford University Press, 2009), 75-76.
- Kant, Critique of Judgement, 92.
- Tobin Siebers, “The Werther Effect: The Esthetics of Suicide,” Mosaic: An Interdisciplinary Critical Journal, vol. 26, no. 1 (1993): 15.
- Siebers, “The Werther Effect,” 31.
- Johann Wolfgang von.Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther and Selected Writings, Translated by Catherine Hutter (Signet Classics, 2013), 127.
- Edith Bracho-Sanchez, “Teen Suicide Rates Spiked after Debut of Netflix Show ’13 Reasons Why,’ Study Says,” April 30, 2019, CNN.