Seeing Atropos: Marlene Dumas and Heidegger on Being-towards-Death

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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
Stream: Arts Theory and Criticism
Presentation Type: Paper Presentation in English
Paper: A paper has not yet been submitted.


Mariana Ortega

Professor, Philosophy Department, John Carroll University
Cleveland, Ohio, USA

Mariana Ortega’s research focuses on Existential Phenomenology, in particular Heideggerian Phenomenology, Race Theory, and Latina feminism. She has particular interest in the questions of self and identity, the relationship between the individual and the social, and photographic representations of the racialized body. Her work has appeared in various journals including Hypatia, International Journal of Philosophical Studies , Latino Studies, and Philosophy and Geography. She is co-editor of the anthology Constructing the Nation: A Race and Nationalism Reader forthcoming with SUNY Press. She is currently working on a book on Latina Feminism, Phenomenology, and Identity.

Ref: A09P0524