Remembering a Spotlight Artist: Sarah Charlesworth
By Ashley Yu
At the end of the novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, a young boy imagines his father at the moment he jumped off the Twin Towers on 9/11. He envisions his father suspended in air mid-fall, floating eternally in the ether. This is the concept behind the late Sarah Charlesworth’s hauntingly beautiful images in her series Stills. First shown in 1980, Charlesworth appropriated images of people falling off of buildings, mostly from suicide or escaping catastrophes such as fires.
Drawing upon Andy Warhol’s copies of a found image of a falling man in 1964, Charlesworth’s series comprises of 14 compelling monochromatic photographs. In order to create the eerie feeling of homemade clippings, her images are torn and ragged at the edges. It is as if we’re flipping through a much-loved photo album that’s been hidden in the back of a bookshelf, yet this series embodies l’appel du vide--the Call of the Void, literally. The victims in the images are immortalized the split-second before their imminent death. We look at the photographs and know that their fates are sealed, but they are also preserved forever in a photograph for as long as the images exist.
We do not like to be reminded of death, but Charlesworth daringly confronts us with its reality and the surprising beauty of a memento mori. Some of her images are simply titled Unidentified Man/Woman. The anonymity becomes less tragic and more terrifying, especially when we realize that some of the people are victims of freak accidents that could happen to anyone. We’re all sitting ducks, but some prefer not to wait.
Exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago before her sudden death, some of the images from Stills were as tall as six and a half feet. Simultaneously imposing and compelling, Charlesworth’s harrowing pieces challenges viewers to not only stare at the tragedy, but also to look beyond the overly-publicized images of death and tragedy in the newspapers. Although she recognized the human instinct to sensationalize tragedy, she provides witness to the traumatic incidents that occur daily while also evoking an undeniably sense of intimacy between victim and viewer.
In 2013, Sarah Charlesworth passed away from a brain aneurysm at the age of 66. Considered as part of the The Pictures Generation that was an artist collective based in New York throughout the 70s and 80s, Charlesworth was courageous in her confrontation with trauma in her series Stills. Brimming with beauty in the face of tragedy, Charlesworth’s images have cheated death and the falling bodies will stay levitating in the photographs for eternity.
See more of Sarah Charlesworth’s work in our latest issue RISK