The short film The Death of David Cronenberg, published on September 19, 2021, is only 56 seconds long.
But these 56 seconds are disturbing, touching and unforgettable.
Signed by Cronenberg himself together with his daughter, the photographer Caitlin Cronenberg, it is a stripped-down scene focused on confronting one’s own mortality.
The Death of David Cronenberg is, according to the director himself, “a little metaphorical piece about a person embracing his own death. I embrace it, partially, because I have no choice: this is man’s fate.”
A brief and essential vision that is also intimately personal.
The director’s last years, in fact, were marked by two difficult griefs: in 2020 he lost Denise Cronenberg, his beloved sister and costume designer in most of his films, and three years earlier his wife Carolyn Zeifman had also passed away.
“[She] died in that house, in a bed, and it felt when she died, partly, like I died, and I still feel that. That corpse is my wife to me. […] It is a film about love and the transient aspect of being human.”
This dimension of personal confrontation also emerges from the peculiar genesis of this short film.
It all started with when his daughter Caitlin Cronenberg proposed him to make a short film to be tokenized as NFT.
Thinking of a possible project, the director was reminded of an episode that happened to him on the set of the SLASHER series, produced by Shudder.
As Cronenberg himself recounted, when he was working on the fourth season of the series “there was a moment, when the special effects people said, we’ve got a surprise for you,” Cronenberg said. “I was introduced to my corpse, and it was terrific.”
So, thinking back to that silicone prosthetic body, Cronenberg contacted Toronto’s Black Spot FX in order to borrow it, because “I have unfinished business with this dead version of me.”
Once the body was brought home (well hidden, so as not to alert the neighbors!), it was placed in Caitlin’s childhood bed. Cronenberg wasn’t immediately sure what to do with it: “I left it up there for a couple days and I’d occasionally just go and check it out. It had an emotional resonance for me.”
Therefore, in a sense, the short film accurately reflects the actual situation of the author, who in those days was locked in the house with the simulacrum of a corpse with his own features. A kind of bizarre shock therapy, as Cronenberg jokingly confirms: “To be able to actually kiss your [dead self], there’s no question it’s fantastic. I think everyone should do this. Everyone should have a corpse made by Black Spot FX.”
David Cronenberg’s cinema, in its entirety, proposes a complex artistic-philosophical reflection that is both surreal and materialistic: for the Canadian director, the exploration of the human psyche necessarily passes through the body, whose incessant and unpredictable mutations are the expression of the quivers of identity.
It is therefore not surprising that even his meditation on death and impermanence is rendered, in this very brief but incisive vision, in dramatically concrete, physical terms.
And at the same time the film is about the paradox of not being able to imagine one’s own death: even if I try to imagine what my funeral will be like, I need a hypothetical observer, because no image can exist without a point of view.
Even the death of others is no less elusive, because it is not empirical but on the contrary translates into a failure of the senses. I can depict in my mind the presence of a person but not their disappearance, which is expressed only “by proxy”, that is, in a sensory absence (all those moments in which the presence of the deceased was normal).
Figurative art — pictorial, plastic, photographic — has always been a way to overcome this impasse. As Mirko Orlando writes,
Death can only exist within the open circuit of life […] because its experience does not concern the deceased (those who die) but the community of survivors who mourn (those who survive). Death is an image because it is first of all imagined, because it can only be encountered on the horizon of its reflection; on the threshold of the corpse, of the photochemical or pictorial traces, of the imprecise boundaries of memories or in the labyrinths of the oneiric dimension. Only there can I meet the dead, only in their double, because it is clear that nothing else is allowed to me as long as I am alive.
(M. Orlando, Ripartire dagli addii, 2010)
That is why Cronenberg’s operation is also a hymn to the power of cinema: every artistic work is a representation, and this mise-en-scène makes it possible to manifest the impossible. Thanks to cinema, Cronenberg even allows himself to visualize the most elusive and inconceivable double: his own corpse, his own future “not being there”.
Finally, and it’s an even more subversive idea, he accepts that corpse, kisses it, cuddles it.
In an era in which at the center of every concern is the healthy body, whose failures (old age, illness, death) are not admitted or tolerated, this image is particularly unsettling and — a rare thing in his filmography — truly sweet.
Andreas Vesalius (of whom I have already written several times), was among the principal initiators of the anatomical discipline.
An aspect that is not often considered is the influence that the frontispiece of his seminal De Humani Corporis Fabrica has had on the history of art.
Vesalius was probably the first and certainly the most famous among medical scholars to be portrayed in the act of dissecting a corpse: on his part, this was obviously a calculated affront to the university practice of the time, in which anatomy was learned exclusively from books. Any lecture was just a lectio, in that it consisted in the slavish reading of the ancient Galenic texts, reputed to be infallible. With that title page, a true hymn to empirical reconnaissance, Vesalius was instead affirming his revolutionary stance: he was saying that in order to understand how they worked, bodies had to be opened, and one had to look inside them.
Johannes Vesling, Syntagma Anatomicum (1647).
Giulio Cesare Casseri, Tabulae Anatomicae (1627, here from the Frankfurt edition, 1656)
Thus, after the initial resistance and controversy, the medical community embraced dissection as its main educational tool. And if until that moment Galen had been idolized, it didn’t take long for Vesalius to take his place, and it soon became a must for anatomists to have themselves portrayed on the title pages of their treatises, in the act of emulating their new master’s autopsies.
Anatomy lecture, School of Bartolomeo Passarotti (1529-1592)
Frontispiece commissioned by John Banister (ca. 1580)
Apart from some rare predecessors, such as the two sixteenth-century examples above, the theme of the “anatomy lesson” truly became a recurring artistic motif in the 17th century, particularly in the Dutch university context.
In group portraits, whose function was to immortalize the major anatomists of the time, it became fashionable to depict these luminaries in the act of dissecting a corpse.
Michiel Jansz van Miereveld, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Willem van der Meer (1617)
However, the reference to the dissecting practice was not just realistic. It was above all a way to emphasize the authority and social status of the painted subjects: what is still evident in these pictures is the satisfaction of the anatomists in being portrayed in the middle of an act that impressed and fascinated ordinary people.
Nicolaes Eliaszoon Pickenoy, The Osteology Lesson of Dr. Sebastiaes Egbertsz (1619)
The dissections carried out in anatomical theaters were often real public shows (sometimes accompanied with a small chamber orchestra) in which the Doctor was the absolute protagonist.
It should also be remembered that the figure of the anatomist remained cloaked in an aura of mystery, more like a philosopher who owned some kind of esoteric knowledge rather than a simple physician. In fact an anatomist would not even perform surgical operations himself – that was a job for surgeons, or barbers; his role was to map the inside of the body, like a true explorer, and reveal its most hidden and inaccessible secrets.
Christiaen Coevershof, The Anatomy Lesson of Doctor Zacheus de Jager (1640)
Among all the anatomy lessons that punctuate the history of art, the most famous remain undoubtedly those painted by Rembrandt, which also constituted his first major engagement at the beginning of his career in Amsterdam. The Guild of Surgeons at the time used to commission this type of paintings to be displayed in the common room. Rembrandt painted one in 1632 and a second in 1656 (partially destroyed, only its central portion remains).
Rembrandt, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632)
Countless pages have been written about The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, as the painting is full of half-hidden details. The scene depicted here becomes theatrical, a space of dramatic action in which the group portrait is no longer static: each character is shown in a specific pose, turning his gaze in a precise direction. Thanks to an already wise use of light, Rembrandt exploits the corpse as a repoussoir, an element of attraction that suddenly pulls the viewer “inside” the painting. And the lifeless body seems to counterbalance the absolute protagonist of the picture, Dr. Tulp: slightly off-centered, he is so important that he deserves to have a light source of his own.
Perhaps the most ironic detail to us is that open book, on the right: it is easy to guess which text is consulted during the lectio. Now it is no longer Galen, but Vesalius who stands on the lectern.
Detail of the illuminated face of Dr. Tulp.
The umbra mortis, a shadow that falls on the eyes of the dead.
The navel of the corpse forms the “R” for Rembrandt.
Detail of the book.
Detail of tendons.
The way the dissection itself is portrayed in the picture has been discussed at length, as it seems implausible that an anatomical lesson could begin by exposing the arm tendons instead of performing the classic opening of the chest wall and evisceration. On the other hand, a renowned anatomist like Tulp would never have lowered himself to perform the dissection himself, but would have delegated an assistant; Rembrandt’s intent of staging the picture is evident. The same doubts of anatomical / historical unreliability have been advanced for the following anatomical lesson by Rembrandt, that of Dr. Deyman, in which the membranes of the brain may be incorrectly represented.
Rembrandt, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Deyman (1656)
But, apart from the artistic licenses he may have taken, Rembrandt’s own (pictorial) “lesson” made quite a lot of proselytes.
Cornelis De Man, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Cornelis Isaacz.’s Gravenzande (1681)
Jan van Neck, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Frederik Ruysch (1683)
Another curiosity is hidden in The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Frederck Ruysch by Jan van Neck. I have already written about Ruysch and his extraordinary preparations elsewhere: here I only remember that the figure that looks like a pageboy and exhibits a fetal skeleton, on the right of the picture, is none other than the daughter of the anatomist, Rachel Ruysch. She helped her father with dissections and anatomical preservations, also sewing lace and laces for his famous preparations. Upon reaching adulthood, Rachel set aside cadavers to become a popular floral painter.
Detail of Rachel Ruysch.
A century after the famous Tulp portrait, Cornelis Troost shows a completely different attitude to the subject.
Cornelis Troost, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Willem Roëll (1728)
This art work belongs to the transition period that takes us from humanism to modernism […]. Judging by the lack of interest in the students, the enlightened anatomy does not generate wonder in its students. A measure of disdain. The characters are dressed like French aristocrats with their powdered wig affecting wealth and power.
Anon., William Cheselden gives an anatomical demonstration to six spectators (ca. 1730/1740)
In Tibout Regters‘ version of the theme (below), the corpse has even almost completely disappeared: only a dissected head is shown, on the right, and it seems nothing more than an accessory to carelessly show off; the professors’ cumbersome pomposity now dominates the scene.
Tibout Regters, Lezione di anatomia del Dottor Petrus Camper (1758)
The rationalism and materialism of the Enlightenment era gave way, in the 19th century, to an approach largely influenced by romantic literature, as proof that science is inevitably connected with the imagination of its time.
Of all disciplines, anatomy was most affected by this literary fascination, which was actually bi-directional. On one hand, gothic and romantic writers (the Scapigliati more than anybody) looked at anatomy as the perfect combination of morbid charm and icy science, a new style of “macabre positivism”; and for their part the anatomists became increasingly conscious of being considered decadent “heroes”, and medical texts of the time are often filled with poetic flourishes and obvious artistic ambitions.
Thomas Eakins, The Gross Clinic (1875)
Thomas Eakins, The Agnew Clinic (1889)
This tendency also affected the representation of anatomical lessons. The two paintings above, by the American artist Thomas Eakins, painted respectively in 1875 and 1889, are not strictly dissections because they actually show surgical operations. Yet the concept is the same: we see a luminary impressing with his surgical prowess the audience, crowded in the shadows. The use of light underlines the grandiose severity of these heroic figures, yet the intent is also to highlight the innovations they supported. Dr. Gross is shown in the act of treating an osteomyelitis of the femur with a conservative procedure – when an amputation would have been inevitable until a few years earlier; in the second picture, painted fourteen years after the first, we can recognize how the importance of infection prevention was beginning to be understood (the surgical theater is bright, clean, and the surgeons all wear a white coat).
Georges Chicotot, Professor Poirier verifying a dissection (1886)
A painting from 1886 by physician and artist Georges Chicotot is a mixture of raw realism and accents of “involuntary fantasy”. Here, there’s no public at all, and the anatomist is shown alone in his study; a corpse is hanging from the neck like a piece of meat, bones lie on the shelves and purple patches of blood smear the tablecloth and apron. It’s hard not to think of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
Enrique Simonet Lombardo, Anatomy of the heart (1890)
But the 19th century, with its tension between romanticism and rationality, is all ideally enclosed in the Anatomy of the heart by the Spanish artist Enrique Simonet. Painted in 1890, it is the perfect summary of the dual soul of its century, since it is entirely played on opposites. Masculine and feminine, objectivity and subjectivity, life and death, youth and old age, but also the white complexion of the corpse in contrast with the black figure of the anatomist. Once again there is no audience here, this is a very intimate dimension. The professor, alone in an anonymous autopsy room, observes the heart he has just taken from the chest of the beautiful girl, as if he were contemplating a mystery. The heart, a favorite organ for the Romantics, is represented here completely out of metaphor, a concrete and bloody organ; yet it still seems to holds the secret of everything.
J. H. Lobley, Anatomy Lessons at St Dunstan’s (1919)
With the coming of the 20th century the topos of the anatomy lesson gradually faded away, and the “serious” depictions became increasingly scarce. Yet the trend did not disappear: it ended up contaminated by postmodern quotationism, when not turned into explicit parody. In particular it was Dr. Tulp who rose to the role of a true icon, becoming the protagonist – and sometimes the victim – of fanciful reinventions.
Édouard Manet, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp, copy from Rembrandt (1856)
Gaston La Touche, Anatomy of love (19 ??)
Georges Léonnec, The Anatomy Lesson of Professor Cupid (1918)
Although Manet had revisited the famous painting in the Impressionist manner in 1856, La Touche had imagined an ironic Anatomy of love, and Léonnec parroted Rembrandt with his cupids, it’s actually in the last quarter of the 20th century that Tulp began to pop up almost everywhere, in comics, films and television.
One of the most interesting variations was realized by Scottish photographer Laurence Winram: commissioned by the Edinburgh Medical School and featuring contemporary women medical students, it was designed to celebrate the “Edinburgh Seven“, the first group of female students enrolled in a British university in 1869, who were allowed to study medicine but not to graduate.
Laurence Winram (2020)
With the advent of the internet the success of the famous Doctor spread more and more, as his figure began to be photoshopped and replicated to infinity.
A bit like what happened to Mona Lisa, disfigured by Duchamp’s mustache, Tulp has now become the reference point for anyone who’s into black, un-pc humor.
Contemporary art increasingly uses the inside of the body as a subversive and ironic element. The fact that Tulp is still a “pop icon” on a global scale proves the enormous influence of Rembrandt’s painting; and of Vesalius who, with his frontispiece, started the motif of the anatomical lesson, thus leaving a deep mark in the history of visual arts.
Model Monique Van Vooren bowling with her kangaroo (1958).
We’re back with our bizarre culture column, bringing you some of the finest, weirdest reads and a new reserve of macabre anecdotes to break the ice at parties.
But first, a couple of quick updates.
First of all, in case you missed it, here’s an article published by the weekly magazine Venerdì di Repubblica dedicated to the Bizzarro Bazar web series, which will debut on my YouTube channel on January 27 (you did subscribe, right?). You can click on the image below to open the PDF with the complete article (in Italian).
Secondly, on Saturday 19 I’m invited to speak in Albano Laziale by the theater company Tempo di Mezzo: here I will present my talk Un terribile incanto, this time embellished by Max Vellucci’s mentalism experiments. It will be a beautiful evening dedicated to the marvelous, to the macabre and above all to the art of “changing perspective”. Places are limited.
And here we go with our links and curiosities.
In the 80s some lumberjacks were cutting a log when they found something extraordinary: a perfectly mummified hound inside the trunk. The dog must have slipped into the tree through a hole in the roots, perhaps in pursuit of a squirrel, and had climbed higher and higher until it got stuck. The tree, a chestnut oak, preserved it thanks to the presence of tannins in the trunk. Today the aptly-nicknamed Stuckie is the most famous guest at Southern Forest World in Waycross, Georgia. (Thanks, Matthew!)
Let’s remain in Georgia, where evidently there’s no shortage of surprises. While breaking down a wall in a house which served as a dentist’s studio at the beginning of the 20th century, workers uncovered thousands of teeth hidden inside the wall. But the really extraordinary thing is that this is has already happened on three other similar occasions. So much so that people are starting to wonder if stuffing the walls with teeth might have been a common practice among dentists. (Thanks, Riccardo!)
Artist Tim Klein has realized that puzzles are often cut using the same pattern, so the pieces are interchangeable. This allows him to hack the original images, creating hybrids that would have been the joy of surrealist artists like Max Ernst or Réné Magritte. (via Pietro Minto)
This year, August 9 will mark the fiftieth anniversary of one of the most infamous murders in history: the Bel Air massacre perpetrated by the Manson Family. So brace yourselves for a flood of morbidity disguised as commemorations.
In addition to the upcoming Tarantino flick, which is due in July, there are at least two other films in preparation about the murders. Meanwhile, in Beverly Hills, Sharon Tate’s clothes, accessories and personal effects have already been auctioned. The death of a beautiful woman, who according to Poe was “the most poetical topic in the world“, in the case of Sharon Tate has become a commodity of glam voyeurism and extreme fetishization. The photos of the crime scene have been all over the world, the tomb in which she is buried (embracing the child she never got to know) is among the most visited, and her figure is forever inseparable from that of the perfect female victim: young, with bright prospects, but above all famous, beautiful, and pregnant.
And now for a hypnotic dance in the absence of gravity:
In the forests of Kentucky, a hunter shot a two-headed deer. Only thing is, the second head belonged to another deer. So there are two options: either the poor animal had been going around with this rotting thing stuck between its horns, for who knows how long, without managing to get rid of it; or — and that’s what I like to think — this was the worst badass gangster deer in history. (Thanks, Aimée!)
Who was the first to invent movable-type printing? Gutenberg, right?Wrong.
Sally Hewett is a British artist who creates wonderful embroided portraits of imperfect bodies. Her anatomical skills focus on bodies that bear surgical scars or show asymmetries, modifications, scarifications, mastectomies or simple signs of age.
Her palpable love for this flesh, which carries the signs of life and time, combined with the elegance of the medium she uses, make these artworks touching and beautiful. Here’s Sally’s official website, Instagram profile, and a nice interview in which she explains why she includes in all her works one thread that belonged to her grandmother. (Thanks, Silvia!)
William Lanne, considered Tasmania’s last “full-blood” Aboriginal, was born in Coal River around 1835. At the age of seven, he and his family were transferred to Flinders Island‘s Aboriginal settlement; when he was twelve, the surviving Aboriginal people (a group of about 40) were moved to Oyster Cove, 56 kilometers south of Hobart. Here, in 1847, William entered Queen’s Orphan Asylum. It is precisely at Oyster Cove that, apart from his journeys at sea, Lanne spent all of her life.
William Lanne with his wife Truganini (left).
The Aboriginals were often employed aboard whaling boats, assigned to the mast because of their excellent sight. William Lanne, on the account of a cheerful spirit, became popular among fellow sailors as “King Billy” and despite this royal nickname, he led an anonymous existence, divided between the hard days at sea and drinking at the pub with his friends.
In February 1869, after a long trip aboard the Runnymede, William returned unhealthy. He spent his last wages in beer and rum at the local tavern, a hangout for prostitutes and whalers, and after a week he fell ill with choleric diarrhea. On March 3rd he died while getting dressed for the hospital.
His body was brought to the General Hospital by order of Dr. Crowther. And here the trouble began, because to many people William Lanne’s body looked incredibly tempting.
∼The Object of Desire ∼
In the 19th century, comparative anatomy was among the hottest themes within the scientific community. The study of the shape of the skull, in particular, was of paramount importance not so much on a medical level as in the broader context of the theory of races.
Through craniometric and phrenological measurements, and by comparing various physical characteristics, racial classifications were compiled: for example, it was claimed that one race was equipped with a heavier brain than the other, an irrefutable proof of greater intelligence; the physiognomic peculiarities of a race proved its proximity to monkeys, thus ranking it further down the racial scale; a robust constitution was deemed to increase the chances of survival, and so on. No need to wonder who occupied the peak of evolution, in these charts created by white men.
If the Europeans were the most suitable for survival, then it was all too clear that the Aboriginal Tasmanians (who were often confined to the bottom ranks of these charts) would soon be extinct just like dodos and dinosaurs. Any violence or abuse was therefore justified by the inevitable, “natural” white supremacy.
To prove these theories, ethnologists, anatomists and archaeologists were constantly looking for prime examples of skulls. Aboriginal human remains, however, were very scarce and therefore among the most requested.
This was the reason why, as soon as the last “full-blood” Tasmanian was dead, a war broke out to decide who would win his skeleton: William Lanne received more attention after his death than he ever had while he was alive.
William Crowther (1817-1885)
Right from the start two opposing factions formed around the issue of his remains.
On one side was Dr. William Crowther, the doctor who had pronounced him dead. For a long time he had been desperately searching for an Aboriginal skeleton to send to the curator of London’s Hunterian Museum. He claimed that this gift would benefit relationships betweeen Tasmania and the British Empire, but in all evidence his true intent was to curry favour with the prestigious Royal College of Surgeons.
On the opposite front, the most powerful scientific society of Tasmania, the Royal Society, claimed that the precious remains were a national heritage and should remain in the Society’s own museum.
Disguised under an alleged scientific relevance, this was actually a political struggle.
The premier Richard Dry immediately realized this, being called to decide on the delicate matter: his move was initially favorable to the Royal Society, perhaps because it had strict ties to his government, or perhaps because Dry had had some pretty rough political divergences with Crowther in the past.
Anyways, it was established that the body would remain in Tasmania; but Dry, being a fervent Christian, decided that the last Aboriginal would need, first of all, to be granted a proper funeral. Well aware of Crowther’s impatience to get his hands on the skeleton, he ordered the new head of the hospital, Dr. George Stockell, to prevent anything happening to the body.
∼The Desecration, Act One: Crowther ∼
The following day Stockell and Crowther met on the street and they immediately went into a dispute; Crowther claimed to have a right on the body, and Stockell replied he had received clear orders to protect Lanne’s corpse.
When surprisingly Crowther invited him to dinner at 8pm, Stockell must have naively thought it was an attempt to reconcile. Upon showing up at Crowther’s at the agreed time, however, he discovered that the doctor was absent: he found his wife instead, who welcomed him into their home and who seemed particularly loquacious, and “kept him talking“…
Meanwhile Crowther had to act quickly with the favor of twilight.
Assisted by his son, he entered the hospital and headed for the morgue. There he focused on the body of an elderly white gentleman: he beheaded the old man, and swiftly peeled his head to get hold of his skull. He then moved to the adjoining room, where William Lanne’s body was laying.
Crowther made an incision down the side of Lanne’s face, behind his right ear; removing the skin off the face and forcing his hands underneath, he extracted the Aboriginal’s skull and replaced it with the one he had just taken from the other corpse.
He then stitched up Lanne’s face, hoping no one would notice the difference, and disappeared into the night with his precious loot.
Stockell remained with Crowther’s wife until 9pm, when he eventually sensed something was wrong and returned to the hospital. Despite Crowther’s precautions, it did not take Stockell very long before he figured out what had just happened.
∼The Desecration, Act Two: Stockell and the Royal Society ∼
Instead of alerting the authorities, Stockell immediately notified the secretary of the Royal Society regarding the mutilations carried out on the corpse. After a brief consultation with other society members, it was deemed imperative to secure the most important parts of the body before Crowther attempted to return for more.
Therefore Lanne’s feet and hands were cut off and hidden in the Royal Society museum.
The funeral took place on the scheduled day, Saturday 6 March. An unexpectedly large crowd gathered to salute King Billy, the last true Aboriginal: there were mainly sailors, including the Captain of the Runnymede who had payed for the funeral, and several Tasmanian natives.
However, rumors began to spread of a horrific mutilation suffered by Lanne’s corpse, and Dry was asked to exhume the body for verification. The premier, waiting to open the official investigation, ordered the grave be guarded by two police agents until Monday.
But early on Sunday it was discovered that the burial place had been devastated: the coffin lay exposed on loose earth. There was blood all around, and Lanne’s body was gone. The skull of the old man, the one that had been substituted inside the corpse, had been discarded by the graverobbers and thrown next to the grave.
Meanwhile, an increasingly furious Crowther was far from giving up, especially now that he’d seen the missing parts of “his” Aboriginal stolen that way.
On Monday afternoon he broke into the hospital with a group of supporters. When Stockell commanded him to leave, Crowther responded by hammering in a panel of one of the wards and forcing the morgue door.
Inside the scene was gruesome: on the dissecting table there were pieces of meat and bloody fat masses. Lanne had been deboned.
Not finding the coveted skeleton, Crowther and his mob left the hospital.
∼When All Are Guilty, No One Is ∼
The investigation led to an unfavorable result especially for Crowther, who was suspended from the medical profession, while his son saw his permission to study at the hospital revoked. As for the Royal Society, although Stockell admitted he had cut the hands and feet off the corpse, it was felt that there was not sufficient evidence for a conviction.
Even if nothing came out of the investigation, this terrible episode shook the public opinion for more than one reason.
On the one hand, events had uncovered the rotten reality of scientific and state institutions.
William Lanne’s body had been profaned – likewise, that of a white man had been desecrated.
The doctors had been proven to be abject and unscrupulous – and so had the cops, who were evidently bribed into leaving their post guarding the grave.
Hospital security measures had proved to be laughable – the same was true of St. David’s, the largest urban cemetery in the city.
The government’s actions had been far from impartial or decisive – but the behavior of the Royal Society had been equally obscure and reprehensible.
As a newspaper summed it up, the incident had shown that “the common people have a better appreciation of decency and propriety than such of the so-called upper classes and men of education“.
John Glover, Mount Wellington and Hobart Town from Kangaroo Point (1834)
But the second reason for indignation was that the last Aboriginal had been treated as meat in a slaughterhouse.
A horrendous act, but sadly in line with the decimation of Tasmanian natives in what has been called a full-on genocide: in little more than seventy years since the first settlers arrived, virtually the entire population of the island had been wiped out. Just like his land and his people before him, William Lanne had been avidly divided among whites – who were seeking to demonstrate his racial inferiority.
Even with all the racist rhetoric of the time, it was hard not to feel guilty. When someone proposed to erect a memorial for Lanne, shame prevailed and no memorial was built.
∼Epilogue: Much Horror About Nothing ∼
The one who eventually earned himself an impressive statue, however, was William Crowther.
The doctor entered politics shortly after the bloody events, and a successful career led him to be elected prime minister of Tasmania in 1878.
No wonder he had so many supporters, because nothing is ever just black or white: despite the murky episode, Crowther was well-liked because as a doctor he had always provided medical care for the poor and the natives. He remained in politics until his death in 1885; he declared he never lost a night’s sleep over “King Billy’s head”, as he always claimed the whole affair had been a set-up to discredit him.
Statue of William Crowther, Franklin Square, Hobart.
Stockell, for his part, was not reappointed house surgeon at the hospital at the end of his probationary period, and moved to Campbell Town where he died in 1878.
The Lanne scandal had at least one positive consequence: in the wake of the controversy, Tasmania promulgated its first Anatomy Bill in August 1869, regulating the practice of dissections.
What about the bones of William Lanne?
His skeleton was almost certainly hidden among the properties of the Royal Society museum. We ignore what happened to it.
The same goes for his skull, as no one ever heard of it anymore. Yet strangely, Crowther was appointed a gold medal from the Royal College of Surgeons in 1874 for his “valuable and numerous contributions” to the Hunterian museum. What exactly these contributions were, we do not know exactly; but it is natural to suspect that the honorary fellowship had something to do with the infamous Lanne skull, maybe shipped to London in secret.
However, there is not enough evidence to prove beyond doubt that the skull ever got to England, and the Royal College of Surgeons’ collection of human crania was destroyed during the Nazi bombings.
Royal College of Surgeons, early 20th century.
What is certain is that Crowther risked everything he had, his reputation and his profession, for that one skull. And here is the bitter irony: in 1881, the Hunterian curator himself publicly questioned the validity of craniology in determining the alleged races.
Today it is clear that this axious cataloguing and classifying was “a futile effort“, since “the concept of race in the human species has not obtained any consensus from the scientific point of view, and it is probably destined not to find it” (from The History and Geography of Human Genes, 2000).
Regardless of where they were kept hidden, neither the skull nor the skeleton of William Lanne were ever scientifically studied, and they did not appear in any research.
After all that was done to expropriate them, conquer them and annex them to one collection or another, and despite their supposedly fundamental relevance to the understanding of evolution, those human remains were forgotten in some crate or closet.
The important thing was to have them colonized.
The main source for this article is Stefan Petrow, The Last Man: The Mutilation of William Lanne in 1869 and Its Aftermath (1997), PDF available online.
Also interesting is the story of Truganini, William Lanne’s wife and the last “full-blood” Aboriginal woman, who suffered a less dramatic but somewhat similar post-mortem calvary.
The procedure used by Crowther to replace a skull without disfiguring the corpse has its own fascinating story, as told by Frances Larson in Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found (2014) – a book I can never praise enough.
Italian conductor Guido Rimonda, a violin virtuoso, owns an exceptional instrument: the Leclair Stradivarius, built in 1721.
Just like every Stradivarius violin, this too inherited its name from its most famous owner: Jean-Marie Leclair, considered the father of the French violin school, “the most Italian among French composers”.
But the instrument also bears the unsettling nickname of “black violin” (violon noir): the reason lies in a dark legend concerning Jean-Marie Leclair himself, who died in dramatic and mysterious circumstances.
Born in Lyon on May 10, 1697, Leclair enjoyed an extraordinary career: he started out as first dancer at the Opera Theatre in Turin – back in the day, violinists also had to be dance teachers – and, after settling in Paris in 1728, he gained huge success among the critics and the public thanks to his elegant and innovative compositions. Applauded at the Concerts Spirituels, author of many sonatas for violin and continuous bass as well as for flute, he performed in France, Italy, England, Germany and the Netherlands. Appointed conductor of the King’s orchestra by Louis XV in 1733 (a position he held for four years, in rotation with his rival Pierre Guignon, before resigning), he was employed at the court of Orange under Princess Anne. His decline began in 1746 with his first and only opera work, Schylla and Glaucus, which did not find the expected success, despite the fact that it’s now regarded as a little masterpiece blending Italian and French suggestions, ancient and modern styles. Leclair’s following employment at the Puteaux Theatre, run by his former student Antoine-Antonin Duke of Gramont, ended in 1751 because of the Duke’s financial problems.
In 1758 Leclair left his second wife, Louise Roussel, after twenty-eight years of marriage and collaboration (Louise, a musician herself, had copper-etched all of his works). Sentimentally as well as professionally embittered, he retired to live alone in a small house in the Quartier du Temple, a rough and infamous Paris district. Rumors began to circulate, often diametrically opposite to one another: some said that he had become a misanthropist who hated all humanity, leading a reclusive life holed up in his apartments, refusing to see anyone and getting his food delivered through a pulley; others claimed that, on the contrary, he was living a libertine life of debauchery.
Not even the musician’s death could put an end to these rumors – quite the opposite: because on the 23rd of October 1764, Jean-Marie Leclair was found murdered inside his home. He had been stabbed three times. The killer was never caught.
In the following years and centuries, the mystery surrounding his death never ceased to intrigue music lovers and, as one would expect, it also gave rise to a “black” legend.
The most popular version, often told by Guido Rimonda himself, holds that Leclair, right after being stabbed, crawled over to his Stradivarius with his last breath, to hold it against his chest.
That violin was the only thing in the world he still truly loved.
His corpse was found two months later, still clutching his musical instrument; while the body was rotting away, his hand had left on the wood a black indelible stain, which is still visible today.
The fact that this is indeed a legend might be proved by police reports that, besides never mentioning the famous violin, describe the discovery of the victim the morning after the murder (and not months later):
On the 23rd of October 1764, by early morning, a gardener named Bourgeois […] upon passing before Leclair’s home, noticed that the door was open. Just about that time Jacques Paysan, the musician’s gardener, arrived at the same place. The violinist’s quite miserable abode included a closed garden.Both men, having noticed Leclair’s hat and wig lying in the garden, looked for witnesses before entering the house. Together with some neighbors, they went inside and found the musician lying on the floor in his vestibule. […] Jean-Marie Leclair was lying on his back, his shirt and undershirt were stained with blood. He had been stabbed three times with a sharp object: one wound was above the left nipple, one under his belly on the right side, and the third one in the middle of his chest. Around the body several objects were found, which seemed to have been put there deliberately. A hat, a book entitled L’élite des bons mots, some music paper, and a hunting knife with no blood on it. Leclair was wearing this knife’s holster, and it was clear that the killer had staged all of this. Examination of the body, carried out by Mister Pierre Charles, surgeon, found some bruises on the lumbar region, on the upper and lower lips and on the jaw, which proved that after a fight with his assassin, Leclair had been knocked down on his back.
The police immediately suspected gardener Jascques Paysan, whose testimony was shaky and imprecise, but above all Leclair’s nephew, François-Guillaume Vial.
Vial, a forty-year-old man, was the son of Leclair’s sister; a musician himself, who arrived in Paris around 1750, he had been stalking his uncle, demanding to be introduced at the service of the Duke of Gramont.
According to police report, Vial “complained about the injustice his uncle had put him through, declared that the old man had got what he deserved, as he had always lived like a wolf, that he was a damned cheapskate, that he begged for this, and that he had left his wife and children to live alone like a tramp, refusing to see anyone from the family”. Vial provided a contradictory testimony to the investigators, as well as giving a blatantly false alibi.
And yet, probably discouraged by the double lead, investigators decided to close the case. Back in those days, investigations were all but scientific, and in cases like this all the police did was questioning neighbors and relatives of the victim; Leclair’s murder was left unsolved.
But let’s get back to the black stain that embellishes Rimonda’s violin. Despite the fact that the sources seem to contradict its “haunted” origin, in this case historical truth is much less relevant than the legend’s narrative breadth and impact.
The violon noir is a uniquely fascinating symbol: it belonged to an artist who was perfectly inscribed within the age of Enlightenment, yet it speaks of the Shadows.
Bearing in its wood the imprint of death (the spirit of the deceased through its physical trace), it becomes the emblem of the violence and cruelty human beings inflict on each other, in the face of Reason. But that black mark – which reminds us of Leclair’s last, affectionate and desperate embrace – is also a sign of the love of which men are capable: love for music, for the impalpable, for beauty, for all that is transcendent.
If every Stradivarius is priceless, Rimonda’s violin is even more invaluable, as it represents all that is terrible and wonderful in human nature. And when you listen to it, the instrument seems to give off several voices at the same time: Rimonda’s personality, as he sublimely plays the actual notes, blends with the personality of Stradivari, which can be perceived in the amazingly clear timber. But a third presence seems to linger: it’s the memory of Leclair, his payback. Forgotten during his lifetime, he still echoes today through his beloved violin.
You can listen to Rimonda’s violin in his album Le violon noir, available in CD and digital format.
Published by Logos and featuring Carlo Vannini‘s wonderful photographs, the book explores the life and work of Paolo Gorini, one of the most famous “petrifiers” of human remains, and places this astounding collection in its cultural, social and political context.
I will soon write something more exhaustive on the reason why I believe Gorini is still so relevant today, and so peculiar when compared to his fellow petrifiers. For now, here’s the description from the book sheet:
Whole bodies, heads, babies, young ladies, peasants, their skin turned into stone, immune to putrescence: they are the “Gorini’s dead”, locked in a lapidary eternity that saves them from the ravenous destruction of the Conquering Worm.
They can be admired in a small museum in Lodi, where, under the XVI century vault with grotesque frescoes, a unique collection is preserved: the marvellous legacy of Paolo Gorini (1813-1881). Eccentric figure, characterised by a clashing duality, Gorini devoted himself to mathematics, volcanology, experimental geology, corpse preservation (he embalmed the prestigious bodies of Giuseppe Mazzini and Giuseppe Rovani); however, he was also involved in the design of one of the first Italian crematory ovens.
Introverted recluse in his laboratory obtained from an old deconsecrated church, but at the same time women’s lover and man of science able to establish close relationships with the literary men of his era, Gorini is depicted in the collective imagination as a figure poised between the necromant and the romantic cliché of the “crazy scientist”, both loved and feared. Because of his mysterious procedures and top-secret formulas that could “petrify” the corpses, Paolo Gorini’s life has been surrounded by an air of legend.
Thanks to the contributions of the museum curator Alberto Carli and the anthropologist Dario Piombino-Mascali, this book retraces the curious historic period during which the petrifaction process obtained a certain success, as well as the value and interest conferred to the collection in Lodi nowadays.
These preparations, in fact, are not silent witnesses: they speak about the history of the long-dated human obsession for the preserving of dead bodies, documenting a moment in which the Westerners relationship with death was beginning to change. And, ultimately, they solve Paolo Gorini’s enigma: a “wizard”, man and scientist, who, traumatised at a young age by his father’s death, spent his whole life probing the secrets of Nature and attempting to defeat the decay.
7 centimeters-long, carved from the bone of an unidentified bird, this perfect needle (complete with an eye to insert a thread) was produced more than 50.000 years ago – not by proper Homo sapiens, but by the mysterious Denisova hominin: settled on mount Altaj in Siberia, these human predecessors are partly still an enigma for paleontologists. But this needle, found in 2016 from their cave, is a proof of their technological advancement.
Needles Under The Skin The inexplicable delay of Western medicine
The effects of the bites of venomous snakes and insects pointed clearly to the possibility of the introduction of drugs through punctures in the skin. In primitive societies, the application for therapeutic purposes of plant and animal products through cutaneous incisions is practiced […], and the use of poisoned arrows may be regarded as a crude precursor of hypodermic and intramuscular medication.
We could trace another “crude precursor” of intramuscular injections back to Sir Robert Christison‘s 1831 proposal, suggesting that whalers fix a vial of prussic acid to their harpoons in order to kill whales more quickly.
And yet, despite of all these clues, the first proper hypodermic injection for strict medical purposes did not take place before mid-Nineteenth Century. Until then, syringes (which had been around for centuries) were mainly used for suction, for instance to draw the fluids which accumulated in abscesses. Enemas and nasal irrigation were used since Roman times, but nobody had thought to inject medications under the skin.
Physicians had tried, with varying results, to scar the epydermis with irritants and to deposit the drug directly on the resultin ulcer, or they sliced the skin with a lancet, as in bloodletting, and inserted salts (for example morphine) through the cut. In 1847, G. V. Lafargue was the first to have the intuition of combining inoculation with acupuncture, and to build a long and thick hollow needle filled with morphine paste. But other methods were being tested, such as sawing a silk thread, imbued in drugs, directly into the patient’s skin.
The first true hypodermic syringe was invented in 1853 by Scottish doctor Alexander Wood, as reported in his New Method of Treating Neuralgia by Subcutaneous Injection (1855). Almost at the same time, the French physician Charles Pravaz had devised his own version. By the end of the Nineteenth Century, hypodermic injections had become a widespread procedure in the medical field.
Needles In The Flesh The bizarre clinical case of the “needle woman”
Published in 1829 by Giuseppe Ferrario, Chief Surgeon at the Ospedale Maggiore in Milan, La donna dagli aghi reports a strange case that began in June 1828.
A young 19-year-old woman, Maria Magni, “peasant, of scrofulous appearance, but with a passionate temper” was admitted to the hospital because of severe pain.
One April morning, the year before, she had found a light blue piece of paper on the ground which contained 70/80 steel sewing needles. In order not to lose them, she had pinned them on her blouse cuff. But Maria suffered from epileptic fits, and a few hours later, as she was working in the vineyard, “she fell victim of the usual spasms, and convulsive bouts. Under these abnormal and violent muscular movements […] she believes that she unwillingly pushed the needles she had pinned to her shirt through her right arm – which was naked, as is the case among our peasants – as well as through her breast”. The needles didn’t cause her any trouble until three months later, when the pain had become unbearable; she then decided to go to the hospital.
The doctor on duty hesitated to admit her, for fear she had syphilis: Magni had tried alternative treatments, and had applied “many varied remedies, catplasms, ointments, blistering drugs and other ulcerating substances, etc, with the intention of exciting the needles out of her skin”, but this only resulted in her body being covered by sores.
Enter Doctor Ferrario, who during the first 35 days of treatment submitted her to bloodletting for 16 times, applied more than 160 leeches to her temples, administered vesicants, frictions, decoctions, salts and various tinctures. But the daily epileptic fits were terrible, and nothing seemed to work: “all the physicians, stunned by the woman’s horrible condition, predicted an approaching and inevitable death”.
Upon hearing the story of the needles, though, Ferrario began to wonder if some of them were still sticking inside the young woman’s body. He examined her wounds and actually started feeling something thin and hard within the flesh; but touching those spots triggered some epileptic fits of unheard violence. Ferrario described these bouts with typical 19th-Century literary flourishes, in the manner of Gothic novels, a language which today sounds oddly inappropriate in a medical context:
the poor wretched girl, pointing her nape and feet, pushed her head between her shoulders while jumping high above the bed, and arched her bust and arms on the account of the spasmodic contraction of dorsal muscles […] she was shaking and screaming, and angrily wrapped her body in her arms at the risk of suffocating […]. There was involuntary loss of urine and feces […]. Her gasping, suffocated breath, her flaccid and wrinkled breast which appeared beneath her hirst, torn to pieces; the violence with which she turned her head on her neck, and with which she banged it against the walls and threw it back, hanging from the side of the bed; her red and bulging eyes, sometimes dazed, sometimes wide open, almost coming out of their socket, glassy and restless; the obscene clenching of her teeth, the foamy, bloody matter that she squirted and vomited from her dirty mouth, her swollen and horribly distorted face, her black hair, soaked in drool, which she flapped around her cranium […] all this inspired the utmost disgust and terror, as it was the sorrowful image of an infernal fury.
Ferrario then began extracting the needles out of the woman’s body, performing small incisions, and his record went on and on much in the same way: “this morning I discovered a needle in the internal superior region of the right breast […] After lunch, having cut the upper part of the arm as usual, I extracted the needle n. 14, very rusty, with its point still intact but missing the eye […] from the top of the mons pubis I extracted the needle n. 24, rusty, without point nor eye, of the length of eight lines.”
The pins were hard to track down, they moved across the muscles from one day to the other, so much so that the physician even tried using big horseshoe magnets to locate the needles.
The days went by, and as the number of extracted needles grew, so did the suspect that the woman might be cheating on the doctors; Maria Magni just kept expelling needles over and over again. Ferrario began to wonder whether the woman was secretly inserting the needles in her own body.
But before accusing her, he needed proof. He had them searched, kept under strict surveillance, and he even tried to leave some “bait” needles lying around the patient’s bed, to see if they disappear. Nothing.
In the meantime, starting from extraction number 124, Miss Magni began throwing up needles.
The physician had to ask himself: did these needles arrive into the digestive tract through the diaphragm? Or did Magni swallow them on purpose? One thing is sure: vomiting needles caused the woman such distress that “having being so unwell, I doubt she ever swallowed any more after that, but she might have resorted to another less uncomfortable and less dangerous opening, to continue her malicious introduction of needles in the body”.
The “less uncomfortable opening” was her vagina, from which many a new needle was removed.
As if all this was not enough, rumors had spread that the “needle woman” was actually a witch, and hospital patients began to panic.
An old countrywoman, recovering in the bed next to Magni’s, became convinced that the woman had been victim of a spell, and then turned into a witch on the account of the magic needles. Being on the bed next to her, the old lady believed that she herself might fall under the spell. She didn’t want to be touched by the young woman, nor by me, for she believed I could be a sorcerer too, because I was able to extract the needles so easily. This old lady fell for this nonsense so that she started screaming all day long like a lunatic, and really became frenzied and delirious, and many leeches had to be applied to her head to calm her down.
Eventually one day it was discovered where Magni had been hiding the needles that she stuck in her body:
Two whole needles inside a ball of yarn; four whole needles wrapped in paper between the mattress and the straw, all very shiny; a seventh needle, partly rusted, pinned under a bed plank. Several inmates declared that Maria Magni had borrowed four needles from them, not returning them with the excuse that they had broken. The ill-advised young woman, seeing she was surrounded and exposed […] faked violent convulsions and started acting like a demon, trashing the bed and hurting the assistants. She ended by simulating furious ecstasy, during which she talked about purely fictional beings, called upon the saints and the devils, then began swearing, then horribly blasphemed angels, saints, demons, physicians, surgeons and nurses alike.
After a couple of days of these performance, Magni confessed. She had implanted the needles herself under her skin, placed them inside her vagina and swallowed them, taking care of hiding the pierced areas until the “tiny red hole” had cicatrized and disappeared.
In total, 315 needles were retrieved from Maria Magni’s body.
In the epilogue of his essay, Ferrario points out that this was not even the first recorded case: in 1821, 363 needles were extracted from the body of young Rachel Hertz; another account is about a girl who survived for more than 24 years to the ingestion of 1.500 needles. Another woman, Genueffa Pule, was born in 1763 and died at the age of 37, and an autopsy was carried out on her body: “upon dissecting the cadaver, in the upper, inner part of each thigh, precisely inside the triceps, masses of pins and needles were found under the teguments, and all the muscles teemed with pins and needles”.
Ferrario ascribes the motivations of these actions to pica, or superstition. Maria claimed that she had been encouraged by other women of the village to swallow the needles in order to emulate the martyr saints, as a sort of apotropaic ritual. More plausibly, this was just a lie the woman told when she saw herself being cornered.
In the end, the physician admits his inability to understand:
It is undoubtedly a strange thing for a sane person to imagine how pain – a sensation shunned even by the most ignorant people, and abhorred by human nature – could be sometimes sought out and self-inflicted by a reasonable individual.
As I was going through pathology archives, in search of studies that could have some similarities with the Magni story, I came upon one, then two, then several other reports regarding an even more unbelievable occurrence: sewing needles found in the encephalon of adult patients, often during routine X-rays.
The answer is quite awful. These are all cases of failed infanticide.
The possibility of infanticide by inserting pins through the fontanelle is mentioned in the Enciclopedia legale ovvero Lessico ragionato by F. Foramiti (1839), where the author includes a (chilling) list of all the methods with which a mother can kill her own child, among which appears the “puncturing the fontanelle and the brain with a thin sharp dagger or a long and strong needle”.
But the practice, properly documented in medical literature only by 1914, already appeared in Persian novels and texts: perhaps the fact that the method was well-known in the ancient Middle East, is the reason why most of the forty recorded cases were documented in Turkey and Iran, with a minority coming from Southeast Asia, Europe and the United States. In Italy there were two known cases, one in 1987 and the 2010 case mentioned above.
Most of these patients didn’t show any particular neurological symptom: the sewing needles, having been embedded in the brain for so many years, are not even removed; a surgical procedure, at this point, would be more dangerous than leaving them in situ.
This was the case for the only known occurrence reported in Africa, a 4-year-old child carrying a 4,5 cm needle through his brain. At the time the report was filed, in 2014, the needle was still there: “no complications were noted, the child had normal physical and mental development with excellent performance at school”.
Of course, discovering at the age of forty that someone – your parents, or maybe your grandparents – tried to kill you when you were just months old must be a shock.
It happened to Luo Cuifen, a chinese lady who was born in 1976, and who showed up at the hospital because of blood in her urine in 2007, and who discovered she had 26 sewing needles in her body, piercing vital organs such as lungs, liver, kidneys and brain. Her story is related to the discriminations towards female newborn children in rural China, where a son is more welcome than a daughter because he can carry on the family name, perform funeral rituals for ancestors, and so on. In Luo’s case, it was most likely her grandparents who attempted the infanticide when she was but months old (even if this theory cannot be proven, as her grandparents already passed away).
In more recent cases, recorded in Tunisia, China and Brazil, it was discovered that the children had respectively three, twelve and even fifty needles stuck in their bodies.
The cases of people surviving for decades with a needle in their brain are obviously an exception – as one of the studies put it, this is the “tip of the iceberg”.
A needle wound can be almost invisible. What is really disquieting is the thought of all those infanticides who are carried out “successfully”, without being discovered.
Sometimes the smallest objects can turn out to be the most useful. And the most lethal.
My gratitude goes to Mariano Tomatis, who recommended La donna dagli aghi, which he discovered during his studies on 19th-century magnetism, and which started this research.
This is the account of a peculiar exploration, different from any other abandonded places I had the chance to visit: this place, besides being fascinating, also had a macabre and mysterious twist.
It was November, 2016. We were venturing — my father, my sister, two friends and I — towards an ex convent, which had been abandoned many years before.
The air was icy-cold. Our objective stood next to a public, still operational structure: the cemetery.
The thorny briers were dead and not very high, so it was simple for us to cut through the vegetation towards the side of the convent that had the only access route to the building, a window.
With a certain difficulty, one by one we all managed to enter the structure thanks to a crooked tree, which stood right next to the small window and which we used as ladder.
Once we caught our breath, and shook the dust off our coats, we realized we just got lost in time. That place seemed to have frozen right in the middle of its vital cycle.
The courtyard was almost entirely engulfed in vines and vegetation, and we had to be very careful around the porch, with its tired, unstable pillars.
Two 19th-Century hearses dominated one side of the courtyard, worn out but still keeping all their magnificence: the wood was dusty and rotten, but we could still see the cloth ornaments dangling from the corners of the carriage; once purple, or dark green, they now had an indefinable color, one that perhaps dosen’t even exist.
We went up a flight of stairs and headed towards a series of empty chambers, the cells where the Friars once lived; some still have their number carved in marble beside the door.
Climbing down again, we stumbled upon a sort of “office” where we were greeted by the real masters of the house – two statues of saints who seemed to welcome and admonish us at the same time.
As we were taking some pictures, we peeked inside the drawers filled with documents and papers going back to the last years of the 18th Century, so old that we were afraid of spoiling them just by looking.
We got back out in the courtyard to enjoy a thin November sun. We were still near the cemetery, which was open to the public, so we had to move carefully and most silently, when all of a sudden we came upon a macabre find: several coffins were lying on the wet grass, some partly open and others with their lid completely off. Just one of them was still sealed.
My friends prefer to step back, but me and my sister could not resist our curiosity and started snooping around. We noted some bags next to the coffins, on which a printed warning read: ‘exhumation organic material‘.
A vague stench lingered in the air, but not too annoying: from this, and from the coffins’ antiquated style, we speculated these exhumations could not be very recent. Those caskets looked like they had been lying there for quite a long time.
And today, a year later, I wonder if they’re still abandoned in the grass, next to that magical ghost convent…
Imagine you live in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.
The “City of Evil”, one of the most violent places on the entire planet. Here, in the past few years, murders have reached inconceivable numbers. More than 3000 victims only in 2010 – an average of eight to nine people killed every day.
So every day, you leave your home praying you won’t be caught in some score-settling fight between the over 900 pandillas (armed gangs) tied to the drug cartels. Every day, like it or not, you are a witness to the neverending slaughter that goes on in your town. It’s not a metaphor. It is a real, daily, dreadful massacre.
Now imagine you live in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, and you’re a woman aged between 15 and 25.
Your chances of not being subjected to violence, and of staying alive, drastically drop. In Juárez women like you are oppressed, battered, raped; they often disappear, and their bodies – if they’re ever found – show signs of torture and mutilations.
If you were to be kidnapped, you already know that in all probability your disappearance wouldn’t even be reported. No one would look for you anyway: the police seem to be doing anything but investigating. “She must have had something to do with the cartel – people would say – or else she somehow asked for it“.
Finally, imagine you live in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, you’re a woman and you’re an artist.
How would you explain this hell to those who live outside Juárez? How can you address the burden of desperation and suffering this carnage places upon the hearts of the relatives? How will you be heard, in a world which is already saturated with images of violence? How are you going to convey in a palpable way all this anguish, the sense of constant loss, the waste of human life?
Teresa Margolles, born in 1963 in Culiacán, Sinaloa, was a trained pathologist before she became an artist. She now lives in Mexico City, but in the past she worked in several morgues across South America, including the one in Ciudad Juárez, that terrible mortuary where an endless river of bodies keeps flowing through four huge refrigerators (each containing up to 120 corpses).
“A morgue for me is a thermometer of a society. What happens inside a morgue is what happens outside. The way people die show me what is happening in the city.“
Starting from this direct experience, Margolles oriented her whole research towards two difficult objectives: one one hand she aims at sabotaging the narrative, ubiquitous in Mexican media and society, which blames the victims (the afore-mentioned “they were asking for it“); on the other, she wants to make the consequences of violence concrete and tangible to her audience, translating the horror into a physical, universal language.
But a peculiar lucidity is needed to avoid certain traps. The easiest way would be to rely on a raw kind of shock art: subjecting the public to scenes of massacre, mutilated bodies, mangled flesh. But the effect would be counter-productive, as our society is already bombarded with such representations, and we are so used to hyperreal images that we can hardly tell them apart from fiction.
It is then necessary to bring the public in touch with death and pain, but through some kind of transfer, or translation, so that the observer is brought on the edge of the abyss by his own sensitivity.
This is the complex path Teresa Margolles chose to take. The following is a small personal selection of her works displayed around the world, in major museums and art galleries, and in several Biennials.
En el aire (2003). The public enters a room, and is immediately seized by a slight euforia upon seeing dozens of soap bubbles joyfully floating in the air: the first childish reaction is to reach out and make them burst. The bubble pops, and some drops of water fall on the skin.
What the audience soon discovers, though, is those bubbles are created with the water and soap that have been used to wash the bodies of homicide victims in the morgue. And suddenly everything changes: the water which fell on our skin created an invisible, magical connection between us and these anonymous cadavers; and each bubble becomes the symbol of a life, a fragile soul that got lost in the void.
Vaporización (2001). Here the water from the mortuary, once again collected and disinfected, is vaporized in the room by some humidifiers. Death saturates the atmosphere, and we cannot help but breathe this thick mist, where every particle bears the memory of brutally killed human beings.
Tarjetas para picar cocaina (1997-99). Margolles collected some pictures of homicide victims connected with drug wars. She then gave them to drug addicts so they could use them to cut their dose of cocaine. The nonjudgemental metaphor is clear – the dead fuel narco-trafficking, every sniff implies the violence – but at the same time these photographs become spiritual objects, invested as they are with a symbolic/magic meaning directly connected to a specific dead person.
Lote Bravo (2005). Layed out on the floor are what look like simple bricks. In fact, they have been created using the sand collected in five different spots in Juárez, where the bodies of raped and murdered women were found. Each handmade brick is the symbol of a woman who was killed in the “city of dead girls”.
Trepanaciones (Sonidos de la morgue) (2003). Just some headphones, hanging from the ceiling. The visitor who decides to wear one, will hear the worldess sounds of the autopsies carried out by Margolles herself. Sounds of open bodies, bones being cut – but without any images that might give some context to these obscene noises, without the possibility of knowing exactly what they refer to. Or to whom they correspond: to what name, broken life, interrupted hopes.
Linea fronteriza (2005). The photograph of a suture, a body sewed up after the autopsy: but the detail that makes this image really powerful is the tattoo of the Virgin of Guadalupe, with its two halves that do not match anymore. Tattoos are a way to express one’s own individuality: a senseless death is the border line that disrupts and shatters it.
Frontera (2011). Margolles removed two walls from Juárez and Culiacán, and exhibited them inside the gallery. Some bullet holes are clearly visible on these walls, the remnants of the execution of two policemen and four young men at the hands of the drug cartel. Facing these walls, one is left to wonder. What does it feel like to stand before a firing squad?
Furthermore, by “saving” these walls (which were quickly replaced by new ones, in the original locations) Margolles is also preserving the visual trace of an act of violence that society is eager to remove from collective memory.
Frazada/La Sombra (2016). A simple structure, installed outdoors, supports a blanket, like the tent of a peddler stand. You can sit in the shade to cool off from the sun. And yet this blanket comes from the morgue in La Paz, where it was used to wrap up the corpse of a femicide victim. The shadow stands for the code of silence surrounding these crimes – it is, once again, a conceptual stratagem to bring us closer to the woman’s death. This shroud, this murder is casting its shadow on us too.
Pajharu/Sobre la sangre (2017). Ten murdered women, ten blood-stained pieces of cloth that held their corpses. Margolles enrolled seven Aymara weavers to embroider this canvas with traditional motifs. The clotted blood stains intertwine with the floreal decorations, and end up being absorbed and disguised within the patterns. This extraordinary work denounces, on one hand, how violence has become an essential part of a culture: when we think of Mexico, we often think of its most colorful traditions, without taking notice of the blood that soaks them, without realizing the painful truth hidden behind those stereotypes we tourists love so much. On the other hand, though, Sobre la sangre is an act of love and respect for those murdered women. Far from being mere ghosts, they are an actual presence; by preserving and embellishing these blood traces, Margolles is trying to subtract them from oblivion, and give them back their lost beauty.
Lengua (2000). Margolles arranged funeral services for this boy, who was killed in a drug-related feud, and in return asked his family permission to preserve and use his tonge for this installation. So that it could speak on. Like the tattoo in Linea frontizera, here the piercing is the sign of a truncated singularity.
The theoretical shift here is worthy of note: a human organ, deprived of the body that contained it and decontextualized, becomes an object in its own right, a rebel tongue, a “full” body in itself — carrying a whole new meaning. Scholar Bethany Tabor interpreted this work as mirroring the Deleuzian concept of body without organs, a body which de-organizes itself, revolting against those functions that are imparted upon it by society, by capitalism, by the established powers (all that Artaud referred to by using the term “God”, and from which he whished “to have done with“).
37 cuerpos (2007). The remnants of the thread used to sew up the corpses of 37 victims are tied together to form a rope which stretches across the space and divides it like a border.
¿De qué otra cosa podríamos hablar? (2009). This work, awarded at the 53rd Venice Biennial, is the one that brought Margolles in the spotlight. The floor of the room is wet with the water used to wash bodies at the Juárez morgue. On the walls, huge canvases look like abstract paintings but in reality these are sheets soaked in the victims blood.
Outside the Mexican Pavillion, on a balcony overlooking the calle, an equally blood-stained Mexico flag is hoisted. Necropolitics takes over the art spaces.
It is not easy to live in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to be a woman, and to be an artist who directly tackles the endless, often voiceless violence. It is even more difficult to try and find that miraculous balance between rawness and sensitivity, minimalism and incisivity, while maintaining a radical and poetic approach that can upset the public but also touch their heart.