In his new photobook, the Belgian artist questions the nature of fatherhood via the fossils, ravens and corpses of rural Canberra
Wouter Van de Voorde’s Death is not hereis like a novel of images; a visual narrative from which you can derive your own story. The mildly morbid photobook is composed almost entirely of ambiguous motifs that hover on the border of life and death, from birth and burial, to the black-and-white blooming of fresh flowers.
“I was anticipating this book would be critiqued as being opaque,” Van de Voorde tells me. The volume includes self-described “disparate” imagery of still lifes made of fossils, ravens, local fauna, eggs, and importantly, both of his children: Felix, 8, who forms a central character, and Flora, who is just a year old.
If there is an opacity, it is one of the book’s greatest strengths, as it gives the distinct imagery room to communicate with itself, and forces you to flick back and forth between pages, scrutinising the shapes, formations and textures. The book contains lessons – parables, almost – scenes that begin to run in your mind. The depiction of a group of ravens establishing the pecking order, one of the book’s most fluid and fast-moving series, or the subtle display of gradual instances of decay is enough to say: this is life, this is how things are.
One of the most striking images is a simple hole, dug on their rural family land in Canberra. “In some ways, this was a performance piece and an abstract sculpture co-authored with my son,” Van de Voorde explains. The hole appears innocuous, before the outline is lit on fire and the scene takes on the aesthetic flavour of a ritual.
Felix, who lit the fire himself, initially dug the hole so that he and his father could play real-life Minecraft. As it grew, the innocent intentions were supplanted with deeper meaning, as Van de Voorde “almost instinctively started shaping it into the archetypal grave shape.”
This might’ve been lost on Felix, until the pair “cut through the remains of one of the chickens buried years ago.” The hole, then, became a central lesson for them both. For Felix, an overt commentary on mortality, permanence and death, and for his father, a tool to teach.
The book is filled with stories like this, where life and death mingle. Clay from the hole is fired into a skull shape; fossils – the physical remains of million-year-old beings – are arranged next to an egg; ravens devour the corpse of a kangaroo; a fresh hand is overlaid against a giant clam; Van de Voorde’s wife holds their newborn daughter. The images converge to show the simple truth that life and death are two sides of the same coin, and the volume successfully illuminates and captures the vitality present in both.
Death is not here is a fitting production from a man who is deeply aware of his own mortality. Speaking of the co-produced hole, Van de Voorde says: “[it] also made me think deeper about fossilisation and what it would take to turn myself into a fossil as a long-term project, which is a very surreal idea to contemplate. At times I resisted the urge to lie down and curl up inside the grave.”
While that image may seem extreme, it taps into a natural extension of fatherhood, where Van de Voorde has come to realise that “[his] life has meaning beyond [its own].” Death is not here ironically captures how a father’s familiarity with life grows his connection to death. “Being a father has moulded and evolved and deepened my relationship with death. I feel much more concerned about my temporality than before having children.”
Wouter Van de Voorde’s Death is not here is out now (Void).
Jacob Negus-Hill holds the position of Online Editor at Proper Mag and is the former Senior Writer at Sabukaru Online. He studied Philosophy at the University of Leeds and achieved an MSc in Environmental Policy from the University of Bristol. His words have appeared in The Face, The Basement, The British Journal of Photography, as well as numerous other zines and online publications.