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.


Everything is art–AFM4 (unable to embed,Embedding disabled by request)

In the first in a series of video interviews, Adrian Searle sits down with artist Ryan Gander to discuss his irreverent and thought-provoking work. Gander explains: ‘It’s just being interested in the world. It’s enjoying keeping your eyes open and your wits about you.’

Quotes from Adrian Searle

“Living is a creative art…”

“Creativity is embedded in living…”

“… starting point and catalyst for people’s thinking”

“… if your eyes are open, everything is absurd.”









I is… (I), 2012, marble, dimensions variable (it is actually a cast of his daughter’s attempt at making a fort at home, and taking a closer look, one could see the outline of the objects the daughter used)

Andrian Searle opened my eyes to how art is not confined to what is out there in the museums or what is deemed “art”. He taught me the lesson of how our lives are art itself and that we just have to observe. Observation is the hard part now, with how our lives are going with the fast paced media and culture the world is heading towards. Not just plain observation but really connecting with the little things, seeing the observation beyond it’s physicality, but what it truly means to you. Connecting this to my project, it opened my mind to the idea that existence is far more than just looking inwards and observing oneself, it’s the connection to what’s around you.

His quote about how everything is absurd if your eyes are open struck a chord with me in regards to the absurdity in life and how people shy away from the absurdity to be “normal”. I figured that my existential crisis and the questions I was asking all led to a certain point of conformity and how I didn’t want to question these conformities as it’ll led to the freedom of making decisions which in turn will led to responsibility, aka bad faith.

Thus to sum up,

My existential crisis = How I may not fit well into what society wants me to be.

For my final works, I want to acknowledge the absurdity in life, using art. Challenging society perspective of what art should be and breaking the conformity that has been restricting me.

The one thing to say about art is that it is one thing. Art is art-as-art and everything else is everything else. Art as art is nothing but art. Art is not what is not art.

Ad Reinhardt

Art isn’t the stronghold of the elite, it is everywhere, it surrounds us.”

Ryan Gander

Art in Singapore: Context from Current Generation Artists

Artists featured

  • Wong Lip Chin
  • Ruben Pang
  • Donna Ong
  • Gilbert & George (UK)

Key take-away points

In Singapore, there isn’t a sense of individualism, as from young, we are taught to stay within the line and not to stand out or be different, unlike the culture in the west. But a contemporary artist is an individualist, thus being an artist in Singapore, there is tension.

We are all taught to fit into the system, get a white collared job, be a banker. High rise buildings everywhere. It’s from these situation that our art is affected.

To paraphrase Ruben Pang, the attitude of the artist, if we grew up with the pre-conceived notion that we are being watched (controlled environment /system), there is without a doubt, a degree of self censorship that we do on a subconscious level. We don’t know how deeply it is in our vines already but I guess we are plugged into the system.

Donna Ong ended by saying “Art comes from a certain lack and in a place like Singapore, in a place so controlled, art is as a uncontrollable factor, it is all the more pertinent”.

I guess the “I” is affected not only by one’s own consciousness but the surroundings and cultural upbringing plays a huge role in shaping one’s thinking.



Visuals: Spaces and Perception

Dear reader. Don’t read by: Ulises Carrión
La Trahison des images (Ceci n’est pas une pipe) by: Rene Magritte

‘The Treachery of Images’ cleverly highlights the gap between language and meaning. The first work I linked by Ulises Carrion was something I came across a few days back in Museo Reina Sofía, Madrid. The simple framed text pulls the viewer in to read, to ponder, to visualise. While the meaning in the text contradicts the setting of it and the environment it’s in.

by: Andrea Fraser (1991)
by: Andrea Fraser (1991)

This got me interested in the setting and space a work is placed in. A performance piece by Andrea Fraser perfectly sums up the thoughts I feel about how a space affects the work. Creating illusion and elevating a work to a certain status just because it is framed and in a certain space. I caught the video work in a museum in Barcelona but couldn’t find a good link online to share. (

Visuals: LED Mix Medium

Kanagawa Cowabunga” by island6 (Liu Dao)

“Old Homes after it’s all Said and Done” (故园风雨后)

Modern LED (light emitting diodes), neon installation and laser technology, together with traditional medium of arts, such as paper cutting and painting. island6 aims to create an avant-garde art scene from this collaboration of all things new and old.

The mix of the “old” arts with the new is one visual I’m really interested in, and having seen his gallery in Shanghai before, it was truly a unique experience. This breaks the perception that I had of a framed work being static and flat. The ability to tell a story with a gif is also what pulls me towards this mix medium.

The Space In-between

This is the second proposal I have floating in my brain at the same time as I guess it’ll be good to just put it out there. I figure I could somehow tie it together with my first idea.

Gist / Details:

My aim is to find answers or create them about the question I always had in the back of my mind, what happens before life happens and after life fades away? This unknown plays a huge factor in how a life is being lived. Imagine knowing that there is actually nothing after death, would morals and social etiquette matter anymore?

The significance of this project is that by having an understanding of the before and after of one’s life, one would live their life differently, maybe with a purpose, maybe with a different outlook of how they should behave, but overall with a change.

References and proposed readings:

Ma: Harmony, Balance and the In-Between (FYP 2012/2013)

by: Tan Luting

Religious Texts of all Faith

eg. Bible, Quran, Buddhist text on Nirvana / After-life

Kant’s take on Faith

eg. (

(More Philosophy text, need more research on this)

Scientific Journal on the moments before death / near death experience.

eg. (

Black Hole : Point of Entry or Departure.

This is the main idea I’m looking to work on and expand with. The medium I’m currently toying around is either an interactive panel or a zine with a short film. I’ll update with more visuals / writings / sketches once I’m back from overseas in late June.


Gist of the Idea:

The perception of the human mind and sight to the entry and the departure of life.The breaking away of the fear of the afterlife and the uncertainty one feels for death or for life itself.

The different perception of a Black Hole through,

scientific approach

religious approach

personal approach

The key tasks for this FYP would be to allow the Scientific, Religious and Personal aspect of the Black Hole to blend together to create a unifying conclusion to my fear of the unknown.


The aim of this project is to understand my own fear of the unknown and face it, using the black hole as a metaphor of the uncertainty and unknowns in my life. Through this journey I hope to eventually be able to face the future for what it is, both a way in or out.

The fear of the unknown is the base for the research into the black hole, with so little being known about it still and my fascination of it being a possibility into another dimension, breaking our concept of time and space.

According to NASA, “A black hole is a place in space where gravity pulls so much that even light can not get out. The gravity is so strong because matter has been squeezed into a tiny space. This can happen when a star is dying. Because no light can get out, people can’t see black holes. They are invisible.”

I chose the Black Hole as a representation because of the different ways you could perceive it. It could be seen as a new beginning to an alternate universe, an end to one’s life when the singularity shreds one’s body to pieces or a point where time stops. A black hole drawn on a piece of paper could be also seen as either an entry or a departure just base on one’s perception.

Works / Movements References:

Group Zero

Lucio Fontana – Concetto spaziale, Attese

“Destroy the Picture: Painting the Void, 1949-1962”

Azra Aghighi Bakhshayeshi