I first encountered David Orr’s photography at the Death Salon in San Francisco in October 2014. David gave a talk about his project All That is Solid Melts into Air, which combines heavy survey markers displayed on a gallery floor with photos of sky suspended above them. The markers and skies record places where people died violently.
At the Death Salon, David showed slides of remarkably beautiful images of clouds or sunrises. I felt rattled physically by the juxtaposition of looking at this natural beauty while being told about the violent deaths that had occurred in these specific spots. I had the sense of lying on my back beneath the sky, as if it was the last image I would see before death. The skies were so lovely and uncaring that vertigo overwhelmed me.
David’s photography has been shown extensively in the United States and internationally. His work is in public collections alongside such artists as Ansel Adams, John Baldessari, Jim Dine, David Hockney, the Brothers Quay, Edward Weston, and Joel-Peter Witkin.
David’s new show, Perfect Vessels, is on display this March at San Francisco’s Five Months Gallery. It’s part of Marvelous Strange, curated in part by Annetta Black of the Odd Salon. Check out the gallery’s hours and the series of lectures here.
I’ve wanted to interview David for quite some time, so I asked him about his photography and death.
How did you get interested in death as the subject of your art?
David Orr: It didn’t start that way. Most of my early work dealt with symmetry and the ways in which it creates formal order. Repeating a form makes it resolve. From there, I began to become more and more interested in order systems, how we catalog and make sense of the world around us. I often end up in an area where art, science, and philosophy manage to intersect.
Then some personal history began to work its way in. My father died when I was 10. My mother was Dutch and had been in a Japanese Internment camp in Jakarta during WWII. Most of her friends were fellow Europeans who had been through their own war experiences. All had dramatic stories to tell about who and what they’d lost — how things can shift in an instant. These things all shaped me and, particularly after my mother died, began to manifest themselves in my work.
My series All That is Solid Melts Into Air, where I travel to the locations of violent deaths and photograph the skies above, was originally meant simply to illustrate absence. When it’s installed, with the sky images mounted on the ceiling and the details about about the person and their death etched into survey markers below, it’s an exploration of context creating meaning, because without the captions telling you where these photographs of clouds were taken — they’re just images of clouds. Once you know the context, everything changes. It’s an interesting installation to do, because it becomes a kind of Rorschach Test for belief systems. I showed it in Dublin, and a priest said: “See? They’re at peace now!” An atheist said: “See? This proves there’s nothing!” A Buddhist said: “See? This illustrates that all is interconnected…”
Interestingly, the Buddhist’s take is backed up by hard science: on a molecular level, elements of our matter still exist in the world after we go. Neil DeGrasse Tyson has a great quote where he points out that a molecule of every sip of water you drink also passed through the kidneys of Ghandi, Napoleon, or “any other historical person of your choosing.” The same concept applies to the air we breathe. Isn’t that great?
Are you continuing to show ALL THAT IS SOLID MELTS INTO AIR?
Yes. All That is Solid Melts into Air is an ongoing project. It will continue to be shown in various venues with varying configurations. I’ve photographed over 140 locations over the past eight years.
We met through the Death Salon in San Francisco. You were showing photos of skulls then. How is this show different?
The images I showed at Death Salon in 2015 were proofing images leading toward the finals I’m showing at Marvelous Strange. The end images are dye-infused onto 30-inch diameter aluminum discs, which take on the feeling of a mandala. They are also very high gloss, so the viewer can see themselves reflected as well: a memento mori.
I’m showing them in combination with Sub-Rosa, a work that uses heraldic symbols to illustrate the turmoil we keep hidden from the public. The phrase Sub-Rosa, or “under the rose,” means to keep a secret. It was derived from an ancient Roman practice of placing a wild rose on the door of a room where secret or confidential matters were to be discussed. The term is still in use to describe black-ops military actions.
How would you describe PERFECT VESSELS?
Well, the origin of Perfect Vessels goes back to my early studies of symmetry. A skull is a much more forgiving form to reflect than a human face. A face mirrored looks immediately unreal, but most don’t even notice a skull mirrored at first.
We tend to gravitate towards symmetrical forms because we are, ourselves, symmetrical. Studies have shown that a person with a more symmetrical face is more likely to be considered attractive, earn more, be trusted, and be chosen during sexual selection.
I also liked that by mirroring one side of a skull’s ‘face,’ I created an image that both reinforces the original shape and creates many areas of abstraction within that shape. Many of these occur in areas considered auspicious in Eastern thought.
What’s with the ‘VESSELS’ part of the title?
The word ‘vessel’ has multiple meanings: A craft one travels (or has traveled) in. A container. A conduit for powerful energy. A utilitarian artifact (like a vase or urn), now considered art. I wanted to evoke all of those meanings.
There’s actually a very interesting history of skulls being used as practical vessels. Did you know that Lord Byron had a skull-cup that he drank wine from? He actually wrote a poem about it. Victors often drank from the skulls of the vanquished. Tibetan Buddhists drink from a skull-cup, called a kapala, to reinforce impermanence.
This association isn’t new. The oldest carbon dating of a skull-cup is 12,700 BC, but many think it goes back much further. And, linguistically, the words for ‘cup’ and ‘head’ have the same roots, in Sanskrit that extends to include ‘skull.’ I was surprised to learn that “noggin” originally meant “cup.”
Will you put together a book for people who can’t see your photos in person?
I am hard at work on books for both Perfect Vessels and All That is Solid Melts Into Air.
I’m having a solo show of Perfect Vessels at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia starting July 14th, running through January 2017. The Mütter is where many of the skulls images were shot, so I’m especially excited to be exhibiting them there, where you can go down the hall and see the source!
Keep up with David’s upcoming exhibitions at his website.