The Death Defying Boo Saville

Damien Shalley is a regular [and popular] guest blogger for Bear Skin. He introduces himself in cryptic fashion:

Damien Shalley knows nothing about quantum mechanics, but won’t support it if it’s anything like the other mechanics he’s dealt with.  He puts raspberry topping on his fruit loops, which he fondly calls the “Breakfast of Champions”. He once ate an entire raw hot chilli pepper with nonchalant disregard for his personal safety.  He offers thanks to the paramedics who revived him.  He wishes “Scientific American” magazine was a little racier.

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The Death-Defying Boo Saville

by Damien Shalley


Death frightens us all.  We strive to continue existing under almost any circumstance because human beings fear dying.  We fear the process of departing from this life, we fear no longer existing and some of us may even fear ultimate judgement or a kind of “cosmic justice” whereby earthly wrongs are righted.  Art is immensely useful in our human exploration of what scares us and what plagues our thoughts – resolutely and perpetually – in the deepest recesses of our consciousness.


The art scene of the early 21st century was impacted by a trend known as “New Gothic”.  Themes prevalent in traditional Gothic works of art and literature – primarily an obsession with death, decay and our ultimate fate as mortals – re-emerged in some thought-provoking and sometimes confronting works by the likes of Caroline Folkenroth, Stefanie Lynn Evans, Judith Weratschnig and many others.  One artist at the forefront of this new vanguard was Boo Saville.  Saville rose to fame with some startling pieces and attracted cashed-up buyers and media attention, but over time she evolved a new perspective on life (and death) and her reflections on those subjects in her work began to change.  She now no longer identifies as “New Gothic” – or Gothic anything, despite acknowledging that some or her existing pieces could rightly be interpreted within that framework – and much of more recent work is strongly akin to the abstracts of Mark Rothko.  But why?  Artists almost always evolve, but why change tack to this degree?  Strangely enough for a creative soul, at least part of the answer to this question lies in modern science.  The truth, as they say, will set you free.


Boo Saville’s “Polycephaly” exhibition opened in London in 2014 and the breadth of work on display showed an artist operating on multiple levels.  Her works incorporated numerous mediums – pictures created with paint, bleach, dye and even Biro ink – and illustrated various themes including death, but also life, love and hope.  These were examples of not just experimental art techniques, but also the evolving mind of an artist.  Questioned about the motivation behind her newer works by U.K. journalist Holly Fraser in October 2014, Saville was asked whether her philosophical position on death had changed.  Her answer was intriguing.


“I realised there was going to be a dead end. I found it confusing and hard to get my head around. I still do. We all do”.

She continued,

“I listen to a lot of podcasts when I work, and funnily enough there was this one podcast from Yale about death. It was about what happens when we die, why death frightens us, and whether or not there’s a soul. It amazed me. It got to the conclusion that we don’t experience our own death anyway, so it doesn’t exist to us. The only death we experience is the death of others, and that’s the hard bit to take as human beings. At that point I had a realisation and began making loads of abstract work because I lost that inquisitiveness. I thought, if death doesn’t exist then it’s an irrelevant argument.”


This statement is as illuminating as it is truthful. Medical science has shown us in recent years that human sensory functions gradually “switch off” as natural death approaches.  The slowing of the human heartbeat prepares the brain for impeding nullification, and we “shut down” quietly without full sensory awareness.  When the heart ultimately fails, the brain and subsequently the brain-stem deoxygenise and we slip away.  This might well explain the “white light” or “tunnel of light” phenomenon that is anecdotally experienced by some people whose hearts have stopped beating and are then revived.  Of those who are successfully resuscitated under such circumstances, approximately 18-20 per cent of people claim to have had this experience.  It is currently considered by doctors to be a function of oxygen deprivation originating in the outer brain and, due to cessation of blood flow, it appears to move gradually toward the centre of the brain and subsequently the brain stem over a period of time (somewhere between six and eighteen minutes, in some cases longer).  But people don’t experience this part consciously.  We may well harbour a fear of no longer existing, of no longer being “switched on”, but the process of departing is more than likely something that we as individuals will never know.  In a strange way, this process parallels our births.  We don’t recall them either (although some rare souls claim to have vestigial memories of this experience).  For the majority however, we only ever know consciousness.  We take our places in this world only ever knowing life and leave with that same knowledge.  And that may well soothe some anxieties at least.


The final comments on this topic are perhaps best left to Boo Saville – quoted by Holly Fraser in the same article – when asked about her current psychological relationship with death,

“It’s now just part of life to me. I don’t see it in a macabre, “monster under the bed” kind of way. It also helps me come to terms with ageing and my own body”.  And how should people cope with the knowledge that they will one day make an exit from this mortal coil?  Well?

“Making art is an amazing way of leaving something behind.”