Seeing Atropos: Marlene Dumas and Heidegger on Being-towards-Death
Marlene Dumas’recent retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, Measuring your own Grave, brings forth a new image of our mortality. At the same time, it reminds us of a now standard existentialist, discussion of being-towards-death, the Heideggerian attempt to grapple with the fact that Dasein does end and that this end is not merely an end but in fact a beginning, an understanding of one’s responsibility as one projects oneself in the world. In the presentation, I would like to show how Dumas’ works, always of bodies, figures, subjects, barely painted on the canvas, seemingly unfinished, and yet powerful—with flashes of dark, bright colors, of reds that take over the visual field—both make us think about that old friend Atropos in new ways and help us understand the sense in which, as Heidegger claims, we humans are always beings-towards-death. When asked why such a somber name for her exhibition, Dumas replied in a poem,
I’ve been told that people want to know,
why such a somber title for a show?
Is it about artists and their mid-life careers,
or is it about women’s after-50 fears?
No, let me make this clear:
It is the best definition I can find
for what an artist does when making art
and how a figure in painting makes its mark….
What an artist does when making art and what a philosopher does in doing philosophy turn out to be the same—learning how to die.
Keywords: Marlene Dumas, Existentialism, Heidegger, Death
Professor, Philosophy Department, John Carroll University