Alive: Rankin in Liverpool

Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

Alive: In The Face of Death, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

Are you alive, really alive? Do you know what it means to be alive?
Do we have to be ill to know what it means to be alive?
This exhibition is about being alive. It’s also about faces, facing up to and facing down life and death.

The beautiful essence of Alive: In The Face of Death can bring comfort to you if, like Rankin, the idea of death terrifies you. Here, in more than 70 images, we get an opportunity to stare death in the face for as long as we choose. Or really stare at people, looking for signs in the faces of those who have already faced death in some way.


Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

Eroding statue outside Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

In the video alongside the exhibition, Rankin admits he is afraid of dying — of death. He implies that he therefore is afraid of illness too. Sections are divided into self portraits of Rankin, death masks of famous people, portraits of those who have cheated death, those who work with death every day and those who are dealing with a terminal illness.


“If you cannot live now – when can you? Have a go. Give it your best shot. These brave folk put us to shame.”

These courageous people were asked to choose how they want to be depicted in the photographic portraits by Rankin. Known for celebrity portraits, perhaps it seems Rankin is giving them celebrity status as if that mattered — and of course, for some, it does. In many ways they are glamourised and shown as if they are themselves celebrities, whilst the celebrities are portrayed through death masks. It’s an interesting and thought-provoking role reversal.



Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

This death mask section of the exhibition is the only part that could be considered morbid. Masks are made from the faces of celebrites. However, the expressionless results are not immediately recognisable. The masks are made the way death masks were traditionally made, providing a final (and unglamorous) record of someone after they had passed away.


“This exhibition will give hope to those who didn’t know they had any.”


In modern times, we prefer a more positive, glossy approach towards life that focuses on the living. This exhibition mainly is about the living. The only memorial to the dead is a section showing photographs of Rankin’s now dead parents — the inspiration for this exhibition.


Another statue of someone long dead.

Another statue of someone long dead.

Although these sections may seem incongruous at first, thinking of them as a whole reminds us that we all are mortals. We are all going to die, celebrities included.

I could sense a subtle nod to ancient practices of turning humans into gods and immortalising the dead. The greatest comfort here is that death is the great leveller – a reminder rather than a startling revelation. The exhibition allows us to really stare at faces of those who are facing death, deal with death or have cheated death. We cannot, in reality, stare at people for any length of time without making them feel uncomfortable. But can we connect with that through a photograph? Perhaps.


“I was scared that this exhibition would have me in tears all the way through but instead I feel inspired and proud of everyone in there. Very beautiful.”

At times it feels like I’m walking through a special giant edition of a glossy magazine with different features focusing on one thing or another about death. But in the end we are left to deal with our thoughts and fears of death privately. And this is powerful, emotional, uplifting. Sadly, you will find out that one of the subjects died soon after the exhibition opened.

All the above quotes are taken from the Walker Gallery’s comments wall. Take some time to visit the comments wall outside the exhibition space (look for the forest of colourful post-it sticky notes). It’s worth it. The gallery has recorded some of those comments here.

Alive: In The Face of Death is showing at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool until 15 September 2013. Entry is free.

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