Sarah Sparkes
Seminar in Visual Culture 2010: The Art of Murder
Institute of Germanic & Romance Studies, Room ST 274
(School of Advanced Study, Stewart House, 32 Russell Square, WC1B 5DN London)
Wednesday 26 May 2010, 6.30pm – 8.00pm

Sarah Sparkes, “Never Afraid – Murder at Crimes Town”
A illuminated sign with the words NEVER AFRAID spelt out in fairy lights and pulsating like a slow heartbeat hung over the threshold of a forbidding looking metal door. This sign was in fact an artwork created for my recent solo exhibition 'Never Afraid' at the North London gallery 'Crimes Town’. The sign was both a welcome and a challenge to enter and to explore an exhibition that questioned our fears and superstitions. Part of the work included an installation with a coffin acting as a focal point in place of a TV or fireplace in a domestic living room. I had also created a series of cursed artworks, which visitors could have free but which came with a curse laid on the work by myself and promising 'misfortune, ill health and an untimely end’. The show was going well, it received a good review and lots of people visited and were responding to the questions that the work was meant to provoke - the superstitions we cling to to ward off death and our living fear of this great unknown. And then, half way through the exhibition a young man was murdered outside the gallery’s main entrance. Almost overnight the entrance was turned into a shrine, which grew daily in scale and content. The decision was made by the gallery directors to take down the 'Never Afraid' sign from above this 'real' ritual site and to limit access to the gallery to a side door and by appointment only. Effectively the art was safely isolated and sealed off from the real world, a doorway sealed out of fear or respect for a greater force?

Lisa Downing, “Monochrome Mirror: Representing Dennis Nilsen”
Perhaps more than any other British serial killer except Jack the Ripper, Dennis Nilsen, a homosexual necrophile strangler, who killed at least 15 young men between 1978 and 1983 in London, has caught the imagination of artists and writers. This paper will explore a series of aesthetic representations of Nilsen, including Dieter Rossi's portrait in oils "Dennis Nilsen" (1993), physical theatre company DV8’s performance of David Hinton’s "Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men" (1989), and the postmodern gothic novel "Exquisite Corpse" (1996) by Poppy Z. Brite. Alongside these cultural products, I will consider extracts from Nilsen's journal and his own sketches. My paper will pursue the argument that the representations created by the murderer, and those created OF the murderer, exist within a continuum. In his journals, Nilsen describes in detail his wishful identification with the corpses he created on the one hand, and his attempts to render them aesthetically pleasing as objects on the other (positioning them, washing them, dressing them, photographing them, drawing them). In the artistic/ literary representations discussed, the figure of Nilsen becomes the art object that is beheld. The represented, fictionalized, mediated Nilsen can be seen to function for the viewer/ reader much as the corpses functioned for Nilsen – as a mirror to an alterity tamed by the processes of (violent, aesthetic) fixing. Nilsen fascinates the artists who portray him, I suggest, because the idea that his project resembles a more extreme, more ethically troubling, version of their own is one deeply ingrained in our cultural imaginary.

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