Memento Mori

About My Work

Memento mori art.


Memento Mori


The only certainty in life is that, eventually, it will end. As John Donne famously noted: death comes equally for us all, and makes us all equal when it comes. For this reason, mortality and dying have long been the subject of morbid fascination in art and culture. Awareness of mortality is arguably at the very core of what it means to be human; death is the “worm at the core,“ as William James put it. In spite of the centrality of death to the human condition, much of our contemporary discourse around the subject seems polarized between sensationalism and silence. There is another path — a middle ground between avoidance and exploitation — which seeks to engage headlong with mortality and perhaps in doing so heighten appreciation of the present. The theory and practice of reflecting on the shortness and fragility of human life has a long history in art and philosophy; it is referred to as memento mori (Latin: “remember that you must die”). All of my artwork derives, in one way or another, from this idea.

I have seen something else under the sun: The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.
— Ecclesiastes 9:11

Memento mori art has historically had a spiritual element, often closely tied to medieval Christianity, and usually incorporates certain key iconographic elements, such as skulls, candles, meat, fruit, and flowers.  In the classical approach memento mori art pieces were more than just an invitation to contemplation; they were a call to piety. In my work, I broach the themes of memento mori from a more contemporary secular worldview, and with a visual aesthetic that is as much informed by the history of still life painting as it is by modern horror films.  Nearly all of the images on this website are centred around the idea of appropriating the iconography of classical memento mori art, but presenting these key visual elements in a more macabre and confrontational manner. 


All still life compositions include, to greater or lesser extent, a lament about the transience of all things.  While those old 17th century "golden age" Dutch paintings of flowers and fruit baskets can sometimes look quaint by contemporary standards, viewers at the time would have understood such works as a reminder that life, like the fruit and the flowers, will soon be gone.  My still life work broaches this idea in a straightforward way, presenting arrangements of dead animal organs, rotting foodstuffs, dead flowers, and silverware in the style of classical Dutch vanitas paintings, which were meant to show the transience of life, the futility of pleasure, and the certainty of death. These images often employ repeated visual metaphors that are common to the genre, such as the extinguished candle and the tipped cup (reminders of the fragility of life), in addition to rotting meat, flowers, and fruit (reminders of the persistence of time).

In my work I have also broached these themes from a more abstract perspective, using extreme close-up images of animal organs meats and decayed human teeth. In these images I am drawn to the surreal landscape-like qualities of flesh, and to those small markers of scum and wear and decay; those tiny little details that might be invisible under normal viewing conditions and that mark the passage of time.

The amount of meaning is in exact proportion to the presence of death and the power of decay
— Walter Benjamin

One of the most common and universally understood motifs of memento mori art is the human skull.  My project Empire of Death is a collection of photographs of human skeletal remains, all shot in the Catacombs of Paris.  I tend to think of these images as portraiture of a sort; these are portraits of a person absent, of a life extinguished, of what remains when we are gone.  Part of what I find compelling about these images is that, even as they depict absence and death and decay, there is still a hint of the presence of life. This presence is felt, for example, in the graffiti tags that mark so many of the skulls -- these are memories not only of the tourists who drew these marks, but they also suggest the hustle and bustle of urban Paris, so many meters above The Catacombs.  Similarly, the tinges of green moss and mould that are visible in many images (especially those shot near light sources) are a sign of hope, a reminder that new life is possible, even in a place so marked by death and absence.

Not much music left inside us for life to dance to. Our youth has gone to the ends of the earth to die in the silence of the truth. And where, I ask you, can a man escape to, when he hasn’t enough madness left inside him? The truth is an endless death agony. The truth is death.
— Louis Ferdinand Celine

All images © Neal Auch