Artist plans to cover executed prisoner’s corpse in gold paint for show
Work is intended as a commentary on the death penalty in America, but legal questions remain
By Gareth Harris. Web only
Published online: 30 May 2013
A Danish artist says he plans to turn the body of a convicted murderer, currently awaiting execution on death row in Texas, into a work of art. Martin Martensen-Larsen intends to coat the corpse of Travis Runnels, who is incarcerated at the Allan B. Polunsky Unit prison in Livingston, in gold paint and mount his corpse on a chair. Runnels, whose execution date has not yet been scheduled, has agreed to donate his body for the piece which will be modelled on the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC.
“I want to confront people with the death penalty and demystify it, since for many it is an abstraction,” Martensen-Larsen says. “I am not celebrating the prisoner, it is American society, or in this case Texas, which places him on a pedestal through the media attention, millions of dollars spent on appeals and through the execution itself which promises redemption.”
The artist says that two galleries in Texas and Washington, DC have agreed to show the work: “They wish to remain anonymous due to the yet unsolved legal question of the Texas penal code on the ‘abuse of human corpses’. I do not believe it is abuse. I will argue that the state instead abuses the humans by injecting them with a lethal drug.”
The project is the final part of Martensen-Larsen’s trilogy examining issues around capital punishment in the US. In 2011 the artist sold tickets online to watch the planned execution by lethal injection of Runnels, initially scheduled to take place two years ago in Huntsville, Texas. Last year, the artist displayed the ashes of Karl Chamberlain, executed in Texas in 2008, in a church in Copenhagen; the remains of the convicted rapist were stored in an hourglass.
Artists continue to grapple with the concept of showing a dead body in the name of art. In 2008, Gene Hathorn, a convict on death row in Texas, agreed to give his body to another Denmark-based artist, Marco Evaristti, who aimed to first deep-freeze Hathorn’s body and then make fish food out of it. Hathorn’s death penalty has since been commuted to two life sentences, and he has been removed from death row.
In 2008 the German artist Gregor Schneider outlined plans to show a person dying as part of an exhibition. “My aim is to show the beauty of death,” Schneider said (The Art Newspaper, April 2008, p1), adding that he would like to stage the exhibition at the Haus Lange Museum in Krefeld, Germany.
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