Purge and Delete

Introduction:Purge and Delete

While using your computer, you will occasionally find a “purge” option. Then if you give it another glance you are likely to find a “delete” option as well, which makes you wonder about the difference between them. The two functions remove data but the fundamental difference is that the “delete” function still preserves data for the future.
On the other hand, “purge” deletes the data permanently. I have always thought of my artistic process as a form of self-tormenting where I revisit my past traumas. This is ironic because I have been struggling to forget my bad memories. In a sense, I realized that I was “deleting” my memories not “purging” them. My not-yet-perished memories are brought back to life as a form of art, and this process has made me question why people strive to preserve the deceased, dead memories, or dead figures.

Purge and Delete,
drawing on paper, 2022

Preserving dead memories

I have situated my art on a spectrum between embalming and vanitas still-life. Embalming defines the act of treating a dead body to protect it from decaying. The other definition is to preserve or to keep it in static condition. My work has a big resemblance to the process of embalming because it is intended to preserve a dying memory. However, it also has similar characteristics to the Japanese post-death drawings or vanitas-themed paintings in the way that they depict death and celebrate transience.

In order to proceed, I should make it clear what “dying memory” refers to. A “dying memory” is a fading memory. Sometimes it is a memory that should be effaced because it was there in your head for too long. To me, a “dying memory” is my past trauma that I’m willing to purge but doesn’t go away despite my intentions. In this essay, I’ll briefly introduce the history of embalming and vanitas-themed paintings and connect the two different genres to my recent art practice.

History of Embalming

To summarize the history of embalming, I must mention the most well-known example of the Egyptians. The mummies of human remains and animal carcasses were made under the strong belief that they have to preserve the flesh in order to transcend to the afterlife. Unlike Descartes’ mind-body dualism theory, the Egyptians believed that the soul exists within the body and the body remaining in the secular world keeps the soul alive in the spiritual world.

During the middle ages, embalming was practiced by removing the organs and immersing the body in alcohol and wax. In Christianity, a form of embalming was found as a reliquary, a vessel that contains a relic of the religious, saintly figure. These specific containers were embellished with gold, gems, and valuables. Sometimes they would preserve the whole body as a relic and declare them as “incorruptible”. Even though the incorruptible bodies of the saints couldn’t completely avoid decomposition, they remained as mummified figures and occasionally involved touch-ups. As time passed, due to the surging need for dissection embalming techniques became more sophisticated. From this time practicality and veracity became as important as aesthetics.

Relic of St. Francis, in the Crypt of the Medici Chapels and Church of San Lorenzo,
Florence, Italy, Late 17th century

In the 18th century, while people almost reached perfection in embalming, they yearned for an ever-lasting replica of a human body. The effigies were made mainly in Bologna, and Florence, Italy. The anatomical wax models, also known as “The Anatomical Venus”, were not made as a piece of fine art but served the role of an anatomical atlas. Ironically, it resulted in creating an anatomical textbook that looked appealing as it is educational. The reason behind this was to segregate science from the concept of death. By deploying idealized beauties with expressions as if she is in a state of ecstasy while the bowels were cascading out of their body.

Venerina (Little Venus), Clemente Susini, Palazzo Poggi Museum,
Bologna, Italy, 1782.

Eventually, these wax models acquired a function as a popular spectacle. Around this era, there were several attempts of exhibiting anatomized bodies. In the late 18th century London,  Martin Van Butchell a quack dentist commissioned the anatomist William Hunter to embalm his dead wife’s body. He dressed her up and fitted glass eyes and painted the flesh and presented her to the public gathering many Londoners to view this unusual spectacle. Also from the 16th century, public dissections were held and accordingly anatomy theaters were constructed all over Europe. The dissections were intended to draw scholars but they also allured aristocrats and masked revelers. These practices were looked down upon and violation of the corpse became more taboo due to the notorious incident in Edinburgh where people murdered 16 people to provide dissectible subjects.

For this reason, the anatomical wax models were able to survive as a viable spectacle for a long time. The external beauty of the Venus helped them disassociate themselves from the guilt of viewing slaughtered corpses, but the accurately depicted internal organs fulfilled the voyeuristic lusts.

As it became closer to modern times, the embalmed bodies became more personal and practical. Embalming was done to commemorate the lost ones in the war. The desire to reunite with their family member improved the techniques of preserving body parts and also made the process concise and accessible. Nowadays the most common embalmed bodies we encounter are at open-casket funerals. One thing in common with the various embalmments created throughout history is that it was made to resist change and resist the consequence of time. Despite the fact that some embalmments were made out of sentiment, at the core of this artistry there is a futile intention to defy transformation and a vain desire to control life.

History of Vanitas-themed art

Alongside the history of defying death, there is a long history of an antithetic concept. The famous trope “memento mori” Latin for “remember that you (have to) die” has been present from ancient Greece. This theme has thrived throughout history due to the growth of Christianity. There are several well-known visual motifs such as skulls, hourglasses, dead animals, wilting flowers, and decaying fruits. They were commonly introduced in the 16-17th century flemish still lifes categorized as Vanitas, which means “emptiness” and “worthlessness” in Latin.

In this section, I am using the word “ Vanitas-themed art ” not as a limited term that indicates a certain genre of 17th-century Dutch paintings but as an inclusive term referring to art that depicts the passage of time and life. Also, I’ll try to focus on rather unfamiliar examples from the past and contemporary, that can also fall into the category of  Vanitas. Lastly, I’m using this term to draw a spectrum of art that deals with death and point out how manners can differ.

While the embalmments and wax figures were efforts to control life, Vanitas embraced the brevity of life. In some ways, the two genres are both educational but the latter played a role as a moral reminder to show the consequences of living a life of dissoluteness and greed. During the 17th century when memento-mori was popular in Europe due to the aftermath of the big plague, artists began to make wax figures that were in indisposed condition. Sometimes involving allegorical texts and using pearls, flowers, and bugs as a symbol of vanity. Frederik Ruysch, an anatomist and an embalmer would collect fetal skeletons to create a real-life diorama as his contribution to the theme. The irony is that people tend to preserve a dead body or a faux substitute of it to show how worthless it is to fight death.

In the East Asia had a different approach to death. There are cases in China of people making mummies and dolls to preserve the bodies of the royals which can be sorted as a type of embalmment. However some Buddhist practices did not fight to preserve the corpse and contemplate the process of decomposition.

During the 18th century, the same period the anatomical wax figures were made, in Japan, the painters created a genre painting called “The Kusozu”. Kusozu which can be translated into “painting of the nine stages of a decaying corpse”, consisted of 9 sequences depicting the gradual decay of a female body. The female was meant to be depicted as alluring and aristocratic in order to show the contrast of how external possessions are merely a “shell” after death. The paintings were used as a visual aid to help monks’ discipline to avoid sexual urges toward the female body.

Kobayashi Eitaku (小林永濯), painted on silk scrolls, Tokyo-to, 1870s

image provided by the British Museum 

In contemporary art, we can easily find artworks that suggest questions about mortality and the ephemerality of life. “The Maybe” a collaborative artwork by Tilda Swinton and Cornelia Parker has a strong visual resemblance to the glassed framed anatomical venus, but the message of it is rather closer to vanitas-themed artwork. The performance was held for eight hours, for a week and Swinton exhibited herself sleeping in a museum surrounded by vitrines that carried historical relics that Parker chose. Just by witnessing this work viewers can feel the endurance that Swinton had to go through. Through this artwork we can sympathize with her effort to pass time, struggling to maintain a static position. “The Maybe” does not fight the nature of time, it rather shows us how impossible it is to do so by showcasing a mortal who challenges to stop time.

“The Maybe” a collaborative artwork by Tilda Swinton and Cornelia Parker
1995, Photo credit: Hugo Glendinning


Regardless of the medium, Vanitas-themed art aims to capture the moment of a temporal state. It’s almost like taking a picture of death in progress or picking a frame from a year's length of video that recorded the time-lapse of death. Silas Inoue, a contemporary artist based in Copenhagen, chose to capture the moment of decay but more like a form of video.

Inoue has made a collection of moldy artwork. He numbers these fungus paintings that are organically bloomed on wood panels and hermetically seals them in acrylic glass. Intuitively we connect mold to the concept of morbidity and death. To be more specific we connect it to our morbidity. However, Inoue tests the lifespan of the mold throughout this artwork showing the process of the mold gradually growing and also gradually dying. The sealed acrylic frame refrains moisture and air from coming in, which eventually makes the mold perish when they use up all the resources inside the frame. The mold is the actor of this performance that might take months or years. The fact that the mold is sealed is what gives this work a sense of Vanits. He does not intervene in nature’s job but controls the span by simply making an environment that will cause the demise of the mold.


Embalming and vanitas-themed art represent two extremes on a spectrum of how people visualize  death. However, many of the arts that were intended to be classified as either “embalming” or “vanitas” intersect. I find this quite natural since humans are inconsistent, ambivalent, and indecisive. Moreover, it is impossible for us to “purge” the desire to control.

As mentioned in the introduction, I find my artwork somewhere in between embalming and vanitas.
While researching the history of both and finding examples that can be a good contemporary addition to the group, I’ve reached the conclusion that I wanted to project the cycle of destruction and control through my art practice.

Does Chocolate Ever Go Bad?,
93 x 63.6 cm, screen printing and thin copper plate pressed on paper, audio, 2022

“Does Chocolate Ever Go Bad?” was the latest manifestation of this. I’ve decided to use chocolate as a symbol of love. It is shelf-stable and rarely goes bad, so we usually don’t take extra care of it to prevent it from decaying. Also, even when it is covered with white fat blooms and looks bad, it is still eatable because it still has plenty of time until the expiry date. The audio that accompanies the print is a record of a couple’s conversation. One partner believed the chocolate is expired because it doesn’t look good. The other partner forced the other to eat the chocolate because the date says it was still edible.

On the wrapper, the date says the chocolate expires on 3022, and the chocolate, which is made out of copper, is still slowly corroding even though it is barely noticeable. The mere screen print of the date extends time, and the oxidizing metal shortens the time. These two materials symbolize the contradicting endeavors of one who tries to save a dying relationship and one who wants to believe that their relationship has already died. One is aiming to embalm the relationship, and one accepts the demise just like vanitas.

During unit one, my aim was to portray the ambivalent state, showing the collision between two contradicting powers. For the next unit, my objective is to focus on experimenting with finite forms of art. My artworks can be explained as byproducts of the futile and contradicting struggles to erase my traumas and resurrect them. I want to enjoy watching their slow demise but ironically my art is giving life to my dead memories. This discovery leads me to preserve the process of my memories’ death. Because preserving this dying moment is a perfect metaphor for the process that is happening inside my head.

I’ve realized that the drive to put my art in a type of purgatory is driven by my self-tormenting tendencies. According to Erich Fromm, the desire to self-destruct comes from the feeling of insignificance. To overcome the compulsive thought of inferiority, masochistic people tend to erase their existence.  Sometimes people would do that by yielding themselves to be submerged in a greater power, people, and organization, or religion. However, despite the fact that I have a strong compulsion to erase myself, I have one constructive desire which is making art, manifesting my existence.