Death What’s In It For Me? Harland Miller
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Harland Miller first became critically acclaimed as a writer with the publication of his first novel Slow Down Arthur, Stick to Thirty (2000). Writing and literature has been an integral part of Miller’s practice. He continued to publish shorter novels as well as incorporating language directly into his artworks. In 2001, Miller began producing his Penguin classics works, inspired by the format of the dust jackets of Penguin books. In these iconic works, he appropriates the familiar format and motif of the Penguin title page, exploring the relationship between the abstract, bold background colour and the embedded text, coming up with his own ironic, humorous titles with the likes of Fuck Art Let’s Dance and Death What’s In It For Me?
Miller’s artworks based on dust jackets of Penguin books played a crucial role in kick starting his artistic career. His first inspiration for the series came from when he stumbled upon a box of Penguin books outside a second-hand English bookstore in Paris in 1992. Their dusty, old and damp smell apparently reminded him of Northern England and his hometown of Yorkshire. This is when he experienced a “Eureka!” moment:
“I realised that the design of those classics would throw all the focus on the title of the book, which is exactly what I wanted to do.(…) People are so used to the format already with the text in the middle that you could really say whatever you wanted.”
Death What’s In It For Me? was created in 2011. It takes the familiar format of a Penguin book cover, the title is bold against the coloured, photo realistic background. The cover is worn and rugged, evoking feelings of nostalgia whilst the Penguin logo is instantly recognisable. Miller elaborated on why he thought Penguin went with this logo in the first place, as well as his own choice for it in an interview with The Guardian:
“…And penguins seem to share this “all in it together” trait, with their thousand-strong hug, and they appear to have, or we ascribe to them, characteristics we like to think of as human. “
The Penguin works, and in particular Death What’s In It For Me?, are an exploration of the relationship between text, colour and their effect on the audience, while simultaneously formulating poignant social critique. Miller cites the likes of Ed Ruscha, Robert Rauschenberg, Anselm Kiefer and most importantly Mark Rothko as his main artistic influences.
“One of my favourite artists is Rothko. If you look at a lot of Rothko, when he got into the maroon phase he was dealing with a lot of oranges and this redness of orange. There is a Rothko which is essentially a Penguin book . . . the same format – the orange-white-orange – just without the graphic furniture”, the artist explains.
The impact of Rothko’s focus on colour and its effect on the viewer’s emotions and perception of the work is apparent in the Penguin series. In Death What's In It For Me? a light pink backdrop plays with the weightiness of the theme of death and gives it a more light-hearted context, manipulating the viewer’s engagement with the work and the topic. This work fetched £212,500 at auction with Christie’s in 2019. Thus, the use of specific colours and their relationship to the text is crucial in this series.
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