A tribute to the highly respected creature, treated by many cultures as a source of life, cow skulls were hung on walls and brought to sacred ceremonies. The Aztecs excelled in skull and bone design. Although it’s carved in our minds when we see a skull it recalls death, in many traditions it promises new beginning; resurrection. With cross-references to Christianity as well as his own playful symbolism his works.
The cow skulls tell us to not take things for granted as life eventually ends. It says ‘Et in Arcadia ego’ or simply ‘Vanitas’. The vanitas genre – a genre that flourished in the Netherlands in the late 16th, early 17th century as a metaphor for meaningless earthly life and transience of earthly goods and pursuits – found a clear revival in modern and contemporary art. Animal corpses seem to add a modern twist to the ‘memento mori’ iconography. Contemporary Vanitas ( ‘emptiness’ in Latin) serves as a commentary on the vainglory and self-admiration dominating our celebrity-obsessed society.
A contemporary Vanitas symbol used by Herck in this series is the stiletto. Shoes are associated with wealth, freedom as well as vanity and arrogance. The Stiletto, as the prime symbol of erotic femininity, inspires simultaneous fantasies of vulnerability and power.
Stiletto consists a gilded skull. The artist carefully selected the materials based on their characteristics. Tom literally uses the skull as material and starting point to examine destruction and vanity. Placing them on a granite surface, favoured for its mirroring effect. Inspired by ancient and native skull and bone engravings, Tom incorporates a symbolism inherent in Christianity. Construction and deconstruction are an important factor in Toms work. Often ‘slaughtering’ his own works -followed by a process of re-embellishment- he makes conscious use of randomness. His goal is not to manipulate the process and to get rid of his own vanity and control.
A new phase in the Stiletto series will be marked by an exploration of the human skull and bone -as a universal theme of war and death-, interacting with the cow skull. The Totenkopf, German skull-and-crossbones, was the perfect sigil for the SS. National Socialism took it as a dark, foreboding symbol of courage and self sacrifice, built upon two centuries of traditional use in the German military, dating to the reign of Friedrich the Great himself. Destruction plays an immense role in contemporary art as rebellion or protest, as spectacle and release, or as an essential component of re-creation and restoration. Nietzsche's announcement in the 19th century that God is dead was significant in art's 'Big Bang'. In recent years, art often reflects life in the age of terrorism and destructive images shoot across the Internet at such incredible speeds that we see so much of this every day. Extreme examples of artists destroying their own work are John Baldessari’s Cremation project (1970), burning 13 years’ worth of 'boring art' he’d made and of course Ai Weiwei’s Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995).