Michele Turriani - 'Endangered'- Vestiges of Vanishing Species
Three Highgate Gallery, London N6 5JR
Curated by James Putnam
June 23- September 12, 2023
Michele Turriani’s series of works offer a new take on Memento Mori, the genre of Dutch 17th century still life painting that typically featured flowers with skulls, and other symbols alluding to the transience of human life - hence the Latin phrase meaning 'remember you must die'.
In a startling shift of the key element of the genre, Turriani substitutes human skulls with those of endangered animals. This confronts us, simultaneously, with both the philosophical question of our own position within the natural world, and the undeniable responsibility we have for its destruction. Ironically the human race is itself at risk of becoming an endangered species through its abuse of Mother Nature. All the skulls featured in Turriani’s works belong to animals on the Red List of Threatened Species. They come from the Powell-Cotton Museum in Kent where Turriani spent considerable time studying and photographing the diverse collection of animal specimens, in a temporary studio set up on museum’s premises.
The museum was founded by Major Percy Powell-Cotton (1866-1940), an explorer, zoologist and big game hunter, to host the specimens he collected in his travels across Africa and Asia. Some of the skulls show evidence of the violence involved in the animals’ demise. This seems especially poignant and thought provoking with image of a mass of Chimpanzee skulls. In this direct reference to a vanitas still life by the 17th century Dutch artist, Aelbert Jansz van der Schoor, Turriani alludes to both the fleetingness of existence and the magnitude of destruction of our closest relative.
The 17th century Memento Mori artists strove to achieve a sense of realism, which required a high level of technical virtuosity so that their paintings almost resemble high-resolution photographs. By the same token Turriani’s photographs, with their carefully considered compositions are like hyper-realistic paintings, using the play of light to focus on incredibly meticulous details. He manages to capture the natural opulence, almost otherworldly beauty of the flowers that are painstakingly arranged in his compositions with keen attention to their colour combinations and the same soft, diffused lighting inspired by the historic paintings.