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Deborah Samuel: On Saving the World

There have been times when I wished I’d done something more with my life than make art. Like become a doctor, or a biologist, or anything that might tangibly help other beings. Which is why I felt genuinely happy the other day when I turned on Fashion TV and saw Vivienne Westwood showing off a workshop employing impoverished Africans in Kenya to make her new line of bags. “Fashion can save the world,” she told the camera.

It’s a similar motivation that inspired Deborah Samuel’s series Elegy, now on view at the Royal Ontario Museum. After learning of the BP oil spill in 2010 and being told she couldn’t document birds affected by it, Samuels went ahead and documented the tragedy in her own way. And the way she’s done it is haunting.

In Elegy, Samuel at times animates bird bones as a child might. The mixture of playfulness and gentleness this evokes reminds me very much of those chapels in Italy and Portugal where the walls are lined with the bones of monks. The spinal columns are often strategically placed along the ceiling supports and other bones are placed decoratively. The chapels were built with the intention to invite us to contemplate our impermanence, something I’m surprised to find myself doing among Samuel’s images.

It’s a strange thing when bones arouse tenderness—in this case, a bird’s foot or head. Much of this has to do with Samuel’s presentation. The bones are displayed like portraits and carefully composed against a formal black background. It’s a style more familiar when the subjects are human—and alive.

I begin my daily meditation with an aspiration that ends like this: “May all leave attachment to dear ones and aversion to others, and live believing in the equality of all that lives.” It’s always seemed the most difficult of things to realize, so much so that it’s often just noise to me. But in the room filled with Samuel’s pictures, I understand what it means—not just conceptually, but emotionally.

This isn’t the first time Samuels has shot like this. In her books Dog and Pup, she gives us shots of dogs and dog parts that read more like portraits of people than ones of animals. The images in Andres Serrano’s Body and Soul—details of human cadavers and the infamous Piss Christ (a shot of a crucifix in the artist’s urine)—read much the same way. The lighting picks out details and creates an environment filled with gravitas.

Samuel’s Elegy is provocative because it raises an ethical conundrum. It’s a similar conundrum to the one raised by the Toronto Vegetarian Association–supported ad campaign “Why Love One But Eat The Other?” Why do we dignify human tragedies with such fanfare, and ignore the tragedies of animals? Why honour one and not the other? A hundred years ago we had the clergy answering those questions. Since then, other voices have grown louder—and some of them belong to artists.

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