It was Gloria the cat that first brought Gemma Kirby Davies the “gift” that started her photographing dead animals.
“It started about 18 months ago when Gloria (the cat) brought me a gift,” Gemma tells Dangerous MInds. “A perfectly intact, but totally lifeless mouse–which as it fell from her mouth to the floor, seemed to sink into the earth with a complete sense of purpose and ultimate timeliness. It was his time to go, and the earth swallowed him back up. It made me feel a huge sense of peace toward death.
“Gloria rarely eats her prey, and so the mouse’s corpse was given back to nature. In one of my favourite books, Jim Crace’s Being Dead, there are beautiful descriptions of nature reclaiming nature and how through the death and decomposition of living things, nature is renewed and the dead (once living matter), prevail in the earth, the soil and the plants.”
Gloria’s gift inspired Gemma to begin photographing dead animals, when and wherever she discovered their bodies, and then curating these beautiful and moving pictures on her website Peace at Last. It should be made clear that Gemma has nothing to do with the demise of any of the animals photographed, and her work aims to preserve something of each creature’s final beauty. The site is introduced by the poem “Death Be Not Proud” by John Donne:
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost over throw
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure - then, from thee much more must flow;
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones and soul’s delivery.
Thou’rt slave to fate, chance, kings and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war and sickness dwell;
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well,
And better than thy stroke. Why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more. Death thou shalt die.
Gemma Kirby Davies: We, like all animals will one day die. It’s something I find sad, but reassuringly certain. I hope my photographs evoke a sense of how I perceive death; wholly still, eternally quiet and completely calm.
I see death as stillness and as sleep. Not all of my images are cute and fluffy; some animals may have come to a brutal end and their visceral wounds reflect that. But death for me is always an end to chaos: an end to suffering, peace at last.
Dangerous Minds: What attracted you to this subject matter?
Gemma Kirby Davies: Growing up I was always interested in dark themes in art; Francis Bacon’s paintings and macabre literature. I love Taxidermy, and have been extremely inspired by this art trend, especially the exquisite work of modern artists like Polly Morgan and Nancy Foutts.
Yes, there is a deeper meaning behind what I am doing, but I think the colours and composition of my pictures work on a superficial level too – dead animals can be visually stunning… and much easier to photograph when still.
DM: What has the response to your work been?
Gemma Kirby Davies: It’s not for everyone. My aunt’s response to the invite to my recent exhibition was, “Of course I’ll come and support you dear—as long as you don’t expect me to ever put any of it up on my walls!” and on applying for a stall at Spitalfields Art Market, I was advised that my work wasn’t family friendly and cautioned that my photographs could be “interpreted as disturbing”… I didn’t have the heart tell them that that was sort of the point!
I think art should always incite feeling, and if we all got excited about the same things then life would be rather boring. Reactions like that - especially from an art market in London’s seemingly edgy East End - prove that there is a real stigma around portraying death in art. If I have hit a nerve with this subject matter then I am glad of positive and negative responses as it opens up a debate.
Gemma is now developing a Peace At Last book, which will include pictures sent to her by other artists. If you are genuinely interested in submitting a picture, “your personal interpretations of this theme (photos of ‘peaceful’ dead animals),” then please send your images to email@example.com Alas, Gemma can’t offer a fee, but if published in the book each artist will be credited and “of course get free champagne at the book launch!”