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 (


Artist Research #4: Digital Age Artistes/Designers : Charlie Clark (Interactive Designer) , Bredan Dawes (Designer / Artist), Andy Willis (Designer / Artist)

Big bang data

I got interested in working with analogue and converting to a digital output through one of the work (Cinema Redux) by Bredan Dawes at the Big Bang Data exhibition in the Art Science Musuem. The idea of using a huge collection of data to translate an overall emotion and to provide another point of view that creates a dialogue with the audience is an output that I felt would work with what I am trying to portray at the end.

1.) Charlie Clark

A site designed and developed by Charlie Clark exploring the use of color in movies.

How It Works:

  •  A bash script runs ffmpeg to export frames from a video file.
  • The frame rate of the exports depends on the length of the video.
  • The bash script then calls a PHP script which extracts the average color from each frame.
  • The results are spit out as a JSON file with the hex values in an array.
  • The front-end runs on backbone, and presents the color data.
  • Navigate the colors in a number of ways, and compare the color to each frame.

2.)Bredan Dawes

Vertigo by Stanley Kubrick



“Cinema Redux creates a single visual distillation of an entire movie; each row represents one minute of film time, comprised of 60 frames, each taken at one second intervals. The result is a unique fingerprint of an entire movie, born from taking many moments spread across time and bringing all of them together in one single moment to create something new.”

3.)Andy Willis

Wall-E (left), Moonrise Kingdom (right)










A Python-based project that conceptualizes classic movies not in words or storyboards, but highly-detailed color patterns.

It translates every second of a film into a single block of color, based on a composite of every frame within that second. These blocks are then arranged in chronological order for every film, with 60 in each row (representing one minute of screen time). The result is a massive, pixelated map that allows viewers to visualize the chromatic contours of a film in a single glance.

Artist Research #3 : Roman Opalka

roman opalka

Roman Opalka’s Numerical Destiny

“It’s important that my last Detail should not be finished by me, but my life.”

One body of work ,from 1965 — 2011(death)

Opalka was painting small numbers in white pigment using a number “0” brush, creating rhythmical horizontal striations against a black background. Each canvas, or Detail, as he called it, would begin in the upper left corner and gradually move to the lower right. Each application of white paint would continue until the brush became dry whereupon he would dab the brush and continue on as before. This process (or procedure) would occur slowly over time. His painterly method was to embed the trace of these white numbers against the black surface, to make them appear tangible.

He would count aloud each numeral while coordinating the tiny movements of his brush. In the process, he was inexorably bound to the medium in which he worked. Upon completion, each canvas — or Detail — constituted a part of the whole.

Opalka began to add 1% white pigment to the black background. Gradually, over time, as more paintings were painted, the black surface would become gray. As he continued to count and to paint five, six, and seven digit numbers, he discreetly added 1% white to each canvas, thus making the surfaces appear increasingly lighter. In the late 1970s he declared that the background of his canvases would eventually appear white, the same white used to paint the numerals that would finally dissolve into the surface, embody the surface. Ultimately, there would be no distinction between the white numerals and the white surface; they would culminate as a form of blankness, possibly transcendent, as the numerals grew invisible within the prospect of infinity, the Samadhior highest level of meditation.

Combined clear conceptual thinking with painterly materials

The work of painting has become meditation. The intellectual and emotional sides of the work are absorbed through the medium of the spiritual.

His work was always just beyond the present, like Heidegger’s phenomenology, where the horizon of thought kept appearing and disappearing.


Artist Research #2 : Tehching Hsieh

Tehching Hsieh Book

Tehching Hsieh is a performance artist who’s works deals mainly with the concept of time. Using it as an artistic material and tool. His main works were 5 One Year Performance and a Thirteen Year Plan. What I got out from his work was his perseverance and his mental strength to push through for a long period of time.

Quotes from Book #1

“How time is lived and felt in a body; how it leaves its marks in material things, how the past lives in the present; how singular lives and time remains.” : Adrian Heathfield

“Hsieh story is all about becoming a sentient witness of time.”

“… in their absolute conception and enactment of art and life as simultaneous processes.”

“Hsieh is working with and from the direct experience of the present, using time as an artistic material and tool.”

“… a desire to make the process of thinking about art an artwork.”

“Hsieh’s work reflects an interest in the destablisation of art’s objecthood through the refiguring of art as the process of ideas.”

“For Hsieh, the artwork is not just the index of a preceding and largely unseen duration, it is the lived duration itself, a lived time that includes numerous indexical forms and varying degree of visibility.” pg.17

Books Researched

1.) Heathfield, A. (2008). Tehching Hsieh: Out of now: The lifeworks of Tehching Hsieh. Cambridge: The MIT Press.

Artist Research #1 : On Kawara

On Kawara Book

On Kawara created paintings, drawings, books, and recordings that examined chronological time and its function as a measure of human existence. Artistic practice was characterized by its meditative approach to concepts of time, space, and consciousness.

Works of On Kawara that interest me

  • “Today” Series
  • “I Got Up, I Met and I Went.”
  • “I Am Still Alive”




4.JUNI 2001, 2001

from “Today” series, 1966-2013
Acrylic on canvas





On Kawara, I Went 1968–79. Clothbound loose-leaf binders with plastic sleeves and inserted printed matter. Inserts: Ink on photocopy


On Kawara I am still alive


On Kawara, Telegram to Sol LeWitt, February 5, 1970. From I Am Still Alive, 1970–2000. Telegram. 5 3/4 x 8 in. (14.6 x 20.3 cm).



Quotes from book #1

‘Words are essentially flawed by arbitrariness and that art exist “beyond languages” ‘ pg.50

In Japan, railway timetable are always accurate within 30seconds, while in Mexico, the railways to the countryside could be late even for days. This “relativity of time” the idea that even the perception of time might be culturally determined. pg.53

The logical conclusion clearly is that anybody, anywhere and anytime, can make art un-self-consciously out of anything. pg.55

“Pure consciousness” is a classroom where ‘I don’t know’ is the right answer. pg.105

Books researched

1.) Watkins, J., Denizot, R., & Kawara, O. (2002). On Kawara: ‘tribute’ London: Phaidon.

2.) Kawara, O. (2002). On Kawara: Consciousness, mediatation, watcher on the hills. Dijon: Presses du réel.