Vanitas symbols and motifs + installation

Pieter Claesz
Pieter Claesz

Vanitas – Still Life, Pieter Claesz, 29.5 × 34.5 cm (11.6 × 13.6 in), Oil Painting

A vanitas painting contains collections of objects symbolic of the inevitability of death and the transience and vanity of earthly achievements and pleasures; it exhorts the viewer to consider mortality and to repent. (

Using motifs to symbolise the futility of life, the presence of death, mortality and the transient nature of life. It’s is more commonly seen in paintings but branches out to the other art forms such as ceramics and in more modern times, installations.

Skulls -a clear memento mori message or the transience of life, a universally recognized symbol of death.

Bubbles -the brevity of life and suddenness of death

Hourglass / Clock -time is limited and is passing, therefore, use it wisely.

Candles –  the futility of the moment, the transience of human life and the certainty of the end of all existence.

Verena Friedrich is an artist that ties in the concept of a vanitas painting which is normally done in the visuals of a still-life, but displaying it in her own way as installations. The simplicity of the installation contrasting with the heavy thought provoking ideology behind it provides a perfect balance which I’m interested in representing in my FYP.

A soap bubble usually remains stable for only a few moments – it is a perfectly formed sphere with an iridescent surface that reflects its surroundings. However, due to the force of gravity and the thinning of the membrane it bursts after a few seconds and is irretrievably lost. As one of the classical vanitas symbols the soap bubble traditionally stands for the transience of the moment and the fragility of life.

The installation VANITAS MACHINE addresses the desire for eternal life and the potential of life-prolonging measures. Based on a candle which – by means of technical intervention – burns down very slowly, VANITAS MACHINE creates a contemporary analogy to the endeavour of prolonging the human lifespan with the help of science and technology.

Being one of the classical vanitas symbols, a burning candle recalls the futility of the moment, the transience of human life and the certainty of the end of all existence. But is this end really still inevitable?



Artist references for transient nature of art : Alwar Balasubramaniam

from the comments section of his TED talk:

…it was a reminder to view the world as a continuum and also, to let the imagination explore rather than be rooted in what we expect to see.

Jane Hill

The art in itself is not where the attention is meant to focus here. But on questions of perception, creation possibilities, and everything that lies beyond seeing the mere physical form of his artwork.

Clint Pace

For me the drifting from a purely visual platform for art make sense by decreasing a focus on the visual art once again ingages(engages) individuals. By focusing on ideas, the public attention can be grabbed. One thing I feel is that ideas have the potential to be beautiful.

Tanatswa Pfende

His approach to the “trace” of his subject is along the lines of anticipation. Where the absence of something we know we will get or will happen creates the anticipation which in itself is nothingness. It is the energy created between subjects without complete transference of that energy.

kevin m.

Alwar Balasubramaniam’s Ted talk opened my eyes to the idea of the temporary, the traces and the idea of perception. The two works below are the best examples of the idea of perception and traces. One could look at the work as what it is physically using only one’s own experiences and see it for the surface value it has, or one could ponder and see beyond the physicality. Art has to transcend the spoon-feeding phase that the media of our generation has wired the public to, we as artist have to challenge the viewer to see beyond.


Breath, Two holes in wall 64ʺ x 0.63ʺ 2007 | Courtesy of Talwar Gallery, New York / New Delhi © Alwar Balasubramaniam

His sculpture ‘Breath’ is a perfect example of the minimalist way in which he conveys complex ideas. The piece consists of two small holes drilled a few centimeters apart in a white wall. Whilst superficially simplistic, the skill of the artist is not intended to be demonstrated through the making of the sculpture itself, but through the raising of a question. The wall with the two holes stands in front of another wall, leaving a space of air in between. What the spectator sees are just the two holes, demarcating where air is being circulated in and out of the space between the two walls. In so doing, Bala conjures a way to almost tangibly see air circulation.

Kristina Camilleri-Grygolec (


Untitled, Sand fiberglass, evaporating compound, acrylic and wood (Cast from self) 18ʺ x 24ʺ x 20ʺ (Each of 2) 2004 Private Collection, New York | Courtesy of Talwar Gallery, New York / New Delhi © Alwar Balasubramaniam

Bala also plays with the idea of appearance and disappearance and how our judgements are relative to the context in which we make them. His self-portrait, made out of solidified air freshener, slowly evaporates and disappears into the air that we inhale and exhale.

Kristina Camilleri-Grygolec (


The Absurd Life – reading

“The absurd enlightens me on this point: there is no future. Henceforth this is the reason for my inner freedom.”

Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus (pg.56)

Albert Camus is a French philosopher, author, and journalist. His books were the cornerstones for my research into Existentialism.

Myth of Sisyphus

From the book, The Myth of Sisyphus,

“It’s absurd” means “it’s impossible” but also: “It’s contradictory”. pg.28

…a man is always a prey to his truths. Once he has admitted them, he cannot free himself from them. One has to pay something. A man who has become conscious of the absurd is for ever bound to it. pg.30

The important thing, as Abbe Galiani said to Mme d Epinay, is not to be cured, but to live with one’s ailments. pg.37

The revolt gives life its value. Spread out over the whole length of a life, it restores it’s majesty to that life. pg.53

Thus the absurd man realizes that he was not really free. pg.56

The absurd enlightens me on this point: there is no future. Henceforth this is the reason for my inner freedom. pg.56

The absurd man thus catches sight of a burning and frigid, transparent and limited universe in which nothing is possible but everything is given, and beyond which all is collapse and nothingness. He can then decide to accept such a universe and draw from it his strength, his refusal to hope, and the unyielding evidence of a life without conclusion. pg.58

But he rejects regret, that other form of hope. pg.70

For the absurd man it is not a matter of explaining and solving, but of experiencing and describing. pg.91

If the descent is thus sometimes performed in sorrow, it can also take place in joy. pg.117

One must imagine Sisyphus happy. pg.119

My conclusion from the book is this :

Life is absurd, we are born with death ever present, how are we suppose to live it? We are never free from the impending death, no one is. We know the end, condemned to the truth. But like Sisyphus we have to be happy otherwise it would be a punishment to live. By being aware of the absurdity of life, we are bound to it, but in this condemnation, we gained inner freedom, the knowledge of the transient nature of our lives.


Understanding Simple Machines – Pulley System

To decide between using either a purely mechanical system where the audience get’s to interact with the installation or setting up an electronic system and let the audience become a button pusher is a decision I’ve to make before going into the construction of the prototype. With the only knowledge I have of the mechanical system coming from my secondary school physics lesson, I started my research where it’s the easiest to understand, Youtube.

MA (mechanical advantage) = Force Out (object) / Force In (for my project, it is the human energy)

This video gave a simple breakdown of how a pulley system works and the amount of effort it helps reduces. A simple set up but the concern with safety and how to make it easier for the audience to interact with the installation is an issue I’ve to deal with.

I’ll be looking to make my bubble frame out of either acrylic or thin wood, but the issue is that the frame has to be slightly weighted to prevent it from moving too much while suspended.

So, less force needed = more length of rope needed to be pulled.

Another issue to look at is the speed of the pulley system and the distance it would need to travel. Also on how the mechanism would lock at the top to prevent it from being lowered before it is required.