Review

Welcome to the Afterlife


Brad Spence
Welcome to the Afterlife
Shoshana Wayne Gallery, Santa Monica
March 27 - May 1, 2004
Kristina Newhouse

He sought his former accustomed fear of death and did not find it. “Where is it?
What death?” There was no fear because there was no death.
In place of death, there was light. “So that’s what it is!” he suddenly exclaimed aloud. “What joy!”
To him all this happened in a single instant, and the meaning of that instant did not change. For those present his agony continued another two hours. Something rattled in his throat, his emaciated body twitched, then the gasping and the rattle became less and less frequent.
“It is finished!” said someone near him.
He heard these words and repeated them in his soul. “Death is finished,” he said to himself. “It is no more!” He drew in a breath, stopped in the midst of a sigh, stretched out, and died.


Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilych, 1886

 

Before he wrote his parable on one man’s spiritual crisis at life’s end, Tolstoy must have heard tales about rare individuals who stopped just short in their transformation from animate to inanimate, returning to tell the living of the things they witnessed or felt during their truncated journey to the other side. A little less than a hundred years later, physician and parapsychologist Raymond Moody became the first medical professional to seriously consider the phenomena of near-death experience (NDE), publishing his initial findings in the 1975 bestseller, Life after Life. As a consequence of interviewing many near-death survivors, Moody was able to define a list of what he termed “core experiences.” Although most NDErs do not undergo all core experiences, according to Moody their stories share enough commonalities that his descriptions have become codified.

Included is the classic “out-of-body” event, during which they scrutinize their crisis from a place outside their physical bodies. Pain and fear of impending death drop away. After bodily separation, NDErs are frequently propelled through some sort of portal or tunnel that begins in darkness but ends in brilliant white light. Upon exiting the tunnel, they are met by luminescent beings, typically deceased friends and loved ones (although occasionally saints or bodhisattvas). Many describe being led by these entities through intensely colored, flower-filled meadows or other celestial landscapes. Some lucky NDErs are given a “life review,” during which a Supreme Being of Light—commonly described by the religious amongst them as God, Jesus, Allah, the Virgin Mary, or Buddha—presents without judgment episodes both good and bad from throughout their lifetimes. In the end, it is typically this Supreme Being who breaks it to them that they must return to mortal life, although NDErs are usually reluctant to do so.1

Clearly, artist Brad Spence has heard the stories of near-death. In eight expertly realized, large-scale paintings on view this spring at Shoshana Wayne Gallery, he infused mundane objects such as escalators and doorways with a mystical light that signaled something quite outside the ordinary was taking place. In each canvas, his mastery of airbrush technique allowed him to create highly nuanced, transparent compositions in which images could be read singularly but also through other layers of imagery. Deftly rendered in vivid acrylic colors upon a bright white ground, Spence’s painterly meditations on life and the hereafter emitted an otherworldly glow.

Brad Spence, "Doorway," 2004

As has been his strategy in prior series of artwork, Spence appropriated all of his imagery from secondary sources, manipulating it with graphic design software before applying it to canvas. Appropriation can function to distance artists from the content of their work. In this respect, the paintings from the series Welcome to the Afterlife did express an almost clinical detachment on Spence’s part. The scenes he depicted were literally disembodied, having been depleted of any human presence and, by extension, individual subjectivity. And while the characteristic blurriness of airbrush conspired with Spence’s sugary color palette and snapshot like cropping to evoke a dreamy sentimentality, the effect was contradicted by the deliberately neutral and generic (as well as sometimes seemingly random) nature of the imagery he selected. It was intriguing, however, that Spence later opted to confound the coolness of his canvasses with an artist statement that was more than a little overheated–at one point, he even went so far as to express a solemn hope that his paintings would “ease mortal fears.”

Spence established oblique narratives in these works by arranging the appropriated imagery in such a way that his compositions resembled cinematic montages. While Dada artists Hannah Höch and László Moholy- Nagy are credited with developing the photomontage technique, it was early Soviet filmmakers who understood its great potential for creating narrative. Around 1919, Lev Kuleshov began experiments to determine the effects of film editing upon audience reaction. By splicing together segments of unrelated found footage, he was able to elicit complex interpretations from his viewers as they attempted to make sense of what they were seeing. In subsequent projects, Kuleshov and his colleagues determined the extent to which creative editing would make a new visual economy possible for filmmaking. His student, Sergei Eisenstein, would use rapid cuts of emotionally loaded imagery to great dramatic effect in the famous six-minute “Odessa Steps” montage from the classic 1925 film Battleship Potemkin.2

Capitalizing on his audience’s desire to make meaning, Spence exploited the montage technique to interject flickers of spare humor. In Ghosts (2004), a trio of trick-or-treaters clad in white sheets may have been posed for a life review. Then again, they may facetiously reference the spirit beings awaiting us all at the end of the tunnel. In Sparkles on Water and Ice Mermaid (both 2004), chunky ice sculptures of mermaids made unusual appearances. Superstitious mariners believed the sighting of mermaids to be a portent of disaster. The legend of the mermaid is said to have evolved from that of the sirens, mythological half-bird and half-woman creatures who inhabited a Mediterranean island. The song of the siren was so intoxicating that seafarers would be lured by it to their deaths, steering their boats straight into the island’s rocky shores.

Brad Spence, "Ghosts," 2004

The presence of mermaids (along with Spence’s penchant for depicting the heavenly glow in disco lights) brought to mind Bob Fosse’s semi-autobiographical film about near-death, All That Jazz (1979). In this movie, Roy Schneider flirts shamelessly with Jessica Lange (a stunningly sexy grim reaper), as he sings, dances and screws his way right into her fatal embrace. Death is, after all, the ultimate seduction, a point Spence also may or may not have been making with Gong (2004), in which a very accommodating looking, ‘70s-era loveseat shared the picture plane with a Chinese gong, the combination somehow conjuring the musical refrain from that goofy glam classic by T-Rex, Get It On (1971).

The number of people who claim to have had NDEs is growing. This increase may be conditioned by the removal of social stigma— NDErs no longer fear being labeled crazy and therefore are more willing to divulge their stories. Additionally, the pool of prospective experiencers may have enlarged due to advances in life-saving procedures. Regardless, not all who nearly die have NDEs, even when prepped by talk show confessions from ebullient Lazaruses who have “seen the light.” Near-death experiences are highly anomalous. Of the millions of people who enter into the death process, less than one percent survives the event. Of those who are revived, less than one percent reports having an NDE.3 Breaking it down even further, 10 to 15 percent of those who report near-death activity actually describe the experience as hellish or frightening. It has been suggested the number of people who have been through the existential equivalent of a “bad trip” may in fact be even higher because of a potential bias towards reporting only positive experiences.4

Given the public’s insatiable fascination with the subject, it would seem we as a society have enthusiastically fixated on the positive aspects of the NDE as proof that death is not scary or painful and that Paradise may indeed resemble a really fabulous vacation spot. Of course, spoilsports are dismissive. “Hellfire and brimstone” types disparage the easygoing New Age message imparted in NDEs because it gums up the workings of salvation by Christian repentance. They insist that near-death visions are the work of the Devil, who sows false hope in the hearts of sinners.

At the other end of the spectrum, materialists scoff at the supernatural implications of the NDE. Instead, they believe the dying brain spins pleasant fantasies to shield the conscious mind from really bad news. They note the similarities between the out-of-body phenomenon and the psychological defense known as dissociation, a mechanism through which victims of violence spontaneously create a dual personality to bear the brunt of trauma in their stead. In the case of NDErs, the body is left holding the bag, while the mind flits towards rapture.5

A small group of scientists who study paranormal brain activity have begun to develop other theories about NDEs. Over the years, one such researcher, Michael Persinger, has dosed hundreds of willing subjects with low-intensity electromagnetic waves that penetrate their skulls and enter into the temporal region of their brains. During these sessions, subjects report classic NDE symptoms including out-of-body episodes, the “sensed presence” of numinous beings, forgotten childhood memories, euphoria, and what has been described by one participant as the “surprisingly bearable lightness of oblivion.”6

Our temporal lobes are involved in the primary organization of sensory input. Beyond this, they mediate our sense of self as well as autobiographical memory. Most of the time, temporal hemisphere activity is synchronized, creating our experience of reality. When, however, the right temporal lobe (associated with emotion and spirituality) is prodded to the point of overload—as is the case when Persinger zaps it—the left lobe (associated with reasoning) attempts to analyze this strange new information, going so far as to interpret it as the presence of “another self” or even that of God.7

Persinger is confident his research has potentially salutary metaphysical applications. In fact, a former research assistant is peddling a DIY gadget called a Shakti Helmet on the Internet. This device is touted to facilitate meditation as well as to enhance feelings of spirituality and personal wellbeing when used regularly.8

Whether one believes that near-death experiences represent actual contact with the other side or merely misfires from an organ that is shutting down, those who have them resort to metaphor to make sense of what has transpired. Moreover, the metaphors they use to impart their stories are predicated by cultural conventions of the era during which they live. Medieval religious figures who experienced near-death used the language of the Christian pilgrimage to talk about their travails, which were typically replete with cautionary spiritual ordeals orchestrated for them by a heavy-handed God.9 Following the Renaissance, new and wondrous optical technologies began to insinuate themselves into narratives of near-death. In 18th century accounts, the life review was compared to the illusionistic spectacle known as the Panorama, while after the advent of photography, some described it as being akin to pictures shown in rapid succession.10

In the 20th century, the metaphors of near-death became cinematic with attendant references to flashbacks, replay, and slow motion.11 It has been said that film resembles memory. If so, then the quick cuts of montage are the closest approximation to memory, which is invariably screened in the mind’s-eye as flashes and fragments of visual and sensory input.12 Montage also makes literal the process of metaphorization in that it motivates us to devise new meaning from the juxtaposition of previously unrelated imagery.

Philosophers and cognitive scientists are just beginning to appreciate the extent to which human knowledge is informed by metaphor. Metaphor provides us with a marvelous framework for the conversion of motor sensory input into abstract reasoning and conceptions of subjectivity.13 The more alien an experience is, the greater our reliance on metaphor, as we try to assert some control over the unknown by likening it to familiar things we already have learned to predict and control.14 The metaphors used to describe ineffable aspects of near-death are always susceptible to revision after the fact, as NDErs strive to make their narratives more satisfactorily persuasive for others as well as themselves. These revisions are made all the more easily because of the dynamic nature of conscious memory, which does not copy experience but rather reconstructs it as a “must have been.” 15

Representing the ultimate unknown, death is rarely called by its own name. Indeed, the vast range of euphemisms for the word “death” is an indication of our cultural discomfort with the topic. Certainly, metaphoric substitutes can ease the suffering of loved ones left behind. However, with each “going towards the light” testimonial, our collective understanding of mortality becomes further buffered in the snug banality of cliché.

The paintings in the series Welcome to the Afterlife conveyed the conflict between one artist’s desire to engage in an earnest evaluation of near-death phenomena and his need to confess the pitfalls of doing so. In each of the works presented, Brad Spence made use of montage to evoke the near death life review as it might be screened from multiple cosmic projectors. In his choice of format, he made indirect commentary on the often-peculiar cultural expectations about death that are projected from outside upon us all. Spence’s additional inclusion of scenes that appear nonsensical (given the context of an event as intimately profound as a life review) may be an acknowledgement that even the most random of thoughts can become laden with symbolic import during existential crisis. Moreover, they imply that individual experience cannot be entirely scripted at the last moment of our lives, as our minds grasp for whatever metaphors are within reach to comfort us against the incomprehensible finality of death. And, anyway, who is going to be around in the end to tell us we haven’t done it right?

Kristina Newhouse is curator of the Joslyn Fine Arts Gallery in Torrance.

 

Footnotes

  1. Moody, Raymond, “The Light Beyond,” The Near-Death Experience: A Reader, ed. Lee W. Bailey and Jenny Yates (New York: Routledge, 1996), pp. 25-37.
  2. Stephens, Mitchell, The Rise of the Image, the Fall of the Word (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998) Chapter 8.
  3. Becker, Carl, “The Meaning of Near Death Experiences,” World & I, March 1998, p. 173.
  4. Parker, Adrian, “What Can Cognitive Psychology and Parapsychology Tell Us about Near-Death Experiences?” Journal for the Society for Psychical Research, 2001, v. 65, p. 226.
  5. See Greyson, Bruce, “Dissociation in People Who Have Near-Death Experience: Out of Their Bodies or Out of Their Minds?” Lancet, February 5, 2000, v. 355, pp. 460-463.
  6. Hitt, Jack, “This Is Your Brain on God,” Wired, November 1999, v. 7.11 (http://www.wired.com/wired archive/7.11/persinger_pr.html), p. 5.
  7. Noelle, David C., “Searching for God in the Machine,” Free Inquiry, Summer 1998, v. 18, n. 3, p. 55.
  8. http://www.innerworlds.50megs.com/ shakti/start.htm.
  9. See Zaleski, Carol, Otherworld Journeys: Accounts of Near Death Experience in Medieval and Modern Times (London: Oxford University Press, 1998).
  10. Draaisma, Douwe, personal correspondence, excerpted from upcoming English translation, Why Life Speeds Up as You Get Older: How Memory Shapes Our Past, trans. Arno Pomerans (New York: Cambridge University Press, Inc., 2004) Chapter 16.
  11. Ibid.
  12. MacDougall, David, “Films of Memory,” Visualizing Theory: Selected Essays from the VAR, 1990-1994, ed. Lucien Taylor (New York: Routledge, 1994) p. 261.
  13. For an interesting analysis of the role of metaphor in subjective experience, see Lakoff, George and Johnson, Mark, Philosophy in the Flesh: the Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought (New York: Basic Books, 1999).
  14. Sexton, James, “The Semantics of Death and Dying: Metaphor and Mortality,” A Review of General Semantics, 1997, v. 54, n. 3, p. 335.
  15. Jaynes, Julian, “Consciousness and the Voices of the Mind,” Canadian Psychology, April 1986, v. 27, n. 2, pp. 128-148.
Further Reading