No New Thing Under The Sun

No New Thing Under the Sun is an exhibition which investigates the ideas behind the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes. It specifically explores the themes of life and death using a mixture of engravings, paintings, photography and sculptures.

The mood is mainly one of grim seriousness, but there are also suggestions of merriment. The exhibition pleads that one makes the most out of life and to find delight in life’s simple joys. Some of the art pieces are very arresting in its utter strangeness, for instance, a muscle man clutching his own skin like a piece of clothing in his hand, and three women’s plaited hair becoming nooses, hanging the corpses of three fragile birds.

The display is particularly concerned with the idea of memory and forgetfulness. Marius Bercea’s oil painting, The Beauticians, vividly depicts men liming tree stumps. However, the rest of the picture is a murky green and brown haze. This reflects how some events are recorded in the mind in detail despite the passage of time, whilst other events are simply lost in the fogginess of our flawed memories. Gideon Rubin also has similar ideas dealing with the issue of memory. Rubin’s picture looks like a typical school portrait, a simple front view of a person from head to shoulders. The person is wearing a plain white, formal shirt with a neat, black vest. The background is bare, dull beige wall. What is unusual and hugely unsettling about the image is that the person has no face, no deeply expressive eyes, no sniffing nose, no twitching mouth, or sculpted cheekbones. The face has been flattened out with a thick layer of peach paint. This creepy image follows the ideas in the book of Ecclesiastes, which states: There is no remembrance of former things’. As time progresses it is sadly inevitable that some facets of life will be erased from our memories.

Time becomes a great issue yet again with another artist, Giovanni Francesco Grimaldi, but this time he examines a different angle of this theme. The monument of an emperor’s head stands nobly and proudly on a pedestal, but just beneath him there is a cracked monument of another emperor’s head. Ecclesiastes says that ‘One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever’. Here a whole civilization, way of life and culture has crumbled away and makes way for a new civilization to shape their dreams, hopes and plans.

The exhibition prompts visitors to analyse and rethink the meaning of our existence. This is an amazing and thought-provoking exhibition.

No New Thing Under The Sun, Tenant Gallery, Royal Academy of Arts. 21 October 2010-9 January 2011.

1. Gaspar Becerra
A Flayed man holding his own skin, 1556
Etching and engraving
Photo credit: Copyright Royal Academy of Arts, London; Photographer: John
Hammond

 2. Giovanni Francesco Grimaldi, il Bolognese
The Colossal Bust
c. 1650
Photo credit: Copyright Royal Academy of Arts, London