Simon Costin (British, b. 1963). “Memento Mori” Necklace, 1986. Black synthetic tulle with jet-bead and rock-crystal embroidery, two bird claws, carved black wood beads, and three rabbit skulls with hematite eyes. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Alfred Z. Solomon-Janet A. Sloane Endowment Fund, 2006 (2006.354a–c).
Simon Costin’s work reflects his interest in decadent literature of the late nineteenth century. His use of taxidermy, seemingly retrieved from some obsessional collector’s cabinet, and his incorporation of materials evocative of the late Victorian cult of mourning are poised between poetic morbidity and necromantic glamour. Unlike Damien Hirst’s laboratory-like presentation of antiseptic carcasses, Costin’s pieces have a fetishistic and totemic allusiveness. The pronounced Gothic aspect of his work is underscored by the carefully crafted boxes in which his pieces are presented. Each one is inscribed by hand, not with the clinical nomenclature of the collector/amateur but with the subjective introspection of the romantic.
In order to take myself back to when I was making jewelry in the late 80s, when these two pieces were created, I dug through all my old sketchbooks and found the ones that contain the preparatory drawings and notes from the time. Littered throughout the pages are quotes ranging from Angela Carter, Walt Whitman, Morrisey, de Sade, Heraclitus, Tennyson, Poe and W. B.Yeats. During my time at art school I had been drawn towards the fin-de-siecle, Decadent artists: Gustave Moreau, Arnold Böcklin, Jean Delville, Odilon Redon, Edvard Munch, and particularity Max Klinger. Writers and poets of the time also had an influence: Verlaine, Rimbaud, and Baudelaire and later Wilde. My bible at the time was an astonishing novel, À Rebours (Against Nature), written in 1884 by J. K. Huysmans, which told of strange sins and twisted passions. It was to the hero of this book, the aristocratic aesthete, the Duc Jean Floressas des Esseintes, that many of my pieces were dedicated and in particular the “Memento Mori” necklace. Not having trained as a jeweler but having a basic grounding in taxidermy from when I was a child, many of the pieces I made used animal matter: teeth, bones, skin, and hide. I wanted them to be darkly Shamanic and fetishistic works. I was trying to clothe my psychological state in a personal symbolic language in order to visualise them. Symbols and Symbolist works, depicted the pattern of the human psyche.
I had been researching the way in which the early Christian church had tried to overlay a totally foreign religious practise onto that of the British Isles. It was the Christian theologians and their deep hatred of anything Pagan, who provided me with the starting point for the “Incubus” necklace. It was their insecurity and hypocrisy which led to an innocent Pagan sprite or “Bogel” to become the ideal excuse for the stained sheets of monks and the unexpected pregnancies of nuns. Within the Pagan mindset, the Bogel was thought to be an inanimate spirit who formed a corporeal body from mud and roots. Seen as nothing more than a nature elemental and something of a trickster. The early church saw in this sexless imp the possibility of passing off the suppressed but entirely natural inclinations of the clergy. They split the spirit in two, creating the male Incubus and the female Succubus. The Succubus was thought to visit sleeping men, usually of the most “robust” sort, and would proceed to have “carnal relations” with them in order to “draw out their most precious fluids”. These would be kept in glass vials and passed onto the Incubus who was then free to fly off and impregnate the nearest dozing nun.
Thus the early church began its appropriation of the earlier Pagan folklore for its own rather dubious ends in much the same way that the Pagan Horned God became the Devil. The positive force of the Old Religion became the negative one of the new.
The “Memento Mori” Necklace was inspired by À Rebours. In the novel there is a description of an extravagant dinner that the hero holds to mourn the temporary loss of his virility. It is an all-black feast featuring “Turtle soup, Russian Rye bread, ripe olives from Turkey, caviar, mullet botargo, black puddings from Frankfurt, game served in sauces the colour of liquorice and boot-polish, truffle jellies, chocolate creams, plum-puddings and black heart cherries.” I imagined myself a guest at the feast and created the necklace as a suitable adornment. It is formed from rotting Victorian jet, skulls, and a pair of huge talons. Many years later I went on to wear the piece at the first of an ongoing series of all-black banquets held every two years and entitled “Dine with Death.”