As the old saying goes, “Never read Bizzarro Bazar while preparing dinner”.
A virtual version of the Library of Babel imagined by Borges has been online for some time now. Wandering around the hexagones and going through random books is a dizzying experience — there are volumes which contain your name, but also everything you’ve done today or you will do tomorrow; but to fully grasp the immense scope of the project, this analysis by Virio Guido Stipa is absolutely excellent [Italian language only].
F.A.Q.: what is one of the most disgusting things that could happen during decomposition? If you have to ask, you probably don’t know adipocere. Keep up with this Atlas Obscura article.
Did we need H. R. Giger to design the Alien egg? No, it would have been enough to look at this nice little mushroom called Clathrus archeri.
Remember my Museum of Failure? Here’s a recent addition: Caproni’s Transaereo. Featuring eight engines and three sets of triple wings, for a total of nine wings, it was designed to transport up to 100 passengers over the Atlantic ocean. It flew only two times, on February 12 and March 4 1921, taking off from Lake Maggiore. It plummeted into the water at the end of the second flight, suffering serious damages and thus ending the ambitious tests.
Italian newspaper Repubblica published a nice video on the Neapolitan tradition of femminielli — an incredible popular strategy to elaborate and accept diversity by making it “theatrical”. But then again, as Orson Welles put it, “Italy is the home of 50 million actors, and the only bad ones are on the stage“.
In 1671, Dutch writer Arnoldus Montanus wrote a book entitled “The New and Unknown World: or Description of America and the Southland, Containing the Origin of the Americans and South-landers, remarkable voyages thither, Quality of the Shores, Islands, Cities, Fortresses, Towns, Temples, Mountains, Sources, Rivers, Houses, the nature of Beasts, Trees, Plants and foreign Crops, Religion and Manners, Miraculous Occurrences, Old and New Wars: Adorned with Illustrations drawn from the life in America, and described by Arnoldus Montanus”.
The printed title was so long that, clearly, no space was left for a small caveat: the fact that good old Arnoldus had never actually left Europe his entire life. And, to be fair, the illustrations kind of gave it away:
In Varanasi the smoke of cremations never ceases; tourists take pictures, enraptured by this deep spiritual experience. But someone has a different view on things: Gagan Chaudhary, one of the “untouchables” who are in charge of the funeral pires. Alcohol and ganja, to which he’s been addicted since he was thirteen, allow him not to faint from the smell; his legs are devastated with wounds and scars; his life was spent amidst abuse, violence and horrible visions. He recounts his experience in a touching article on LiveMint: “I’ve seen bodies where the skin has been ripped apart; I’ve seen bodies with tongues hanging out and blood flowing from orifices. […] I’ve seen bodies cut up and stitched back to a whole. I’ve seen headless corpses; I’ve seen bodies covered with scars. And I’ve burnt them all.“
Balthus is back in the news, on the account of an online petition to remove (or at least contextualize, as it was subsequently declared, to adjust the tone) one of his works exhibited at New York MET. Once again the shadow of pedophilia haunts his paintings: an occasion to reflect on the role of art (is it pure signifier, or should we evaluate it from an ethical perspective?); and to reread the article I devoted to this thorny issue a couple of years ago.
WoodSwimmer is an incredible stop-motion video. Brett Foxwell produced it by cutting logs and pieces of wood in thin slices, and progressively scanning these sections. In his words, “a straightforward technique but one which is brutally tedious to complete“.
The tool in the following picture is a head clamp. In Victorian times it was used to secure the back of the neck of a subject in photographic sessions, during long exposure times.
You already figured out where we’re going: in post mortem pictures this was used to fix bodies into natural poses, as if they were still alive, right?
Well, not quite. Time for a bit of debunking on post mortem photography.
This image comes from an article entitled The Truth About Post Mortem Photography. Never write anything beginning with “The Truth About”.
During the last 59 years, Jim “Antlerman” Phillips has been scouring the hills of Montana looking for elk, deer or antelope antlers. He now has a collection of more than 16.000 pieces. (Thanks, Riccardo!)
They give birth astride of a grave,
the light gleams an instant,
then it’s night once more.
(S. Beckett, Aspettando Godot)
An Italian Horror Story
Castel del Giudice, Italy. On the 5th of August 1875, a pregnant woman, indicated in the documents with the initials F. D’A., died during labor, before being able to give birth to her child. On the following day, without respecting the required minimum waiting time before interment, her body was lowered into the cemetery’s fossa carnaria. This was a kind of collective burial for the poorest classes, still common at the time in hundreds of Italian communes: it consisted in a sealed underground space, a room or a pit, where the corpses were stacked and left to rot (some inside coffins, others wrapped in simple shrouds).
For the body of F. D’A., things began to get ugly right from the start:
She had to be lowered in the pit, so the corpse was secured with a rope, but the rope broke and D’A.’s poor body fell from a certain height, her head bumping into a casket. Some people climbed down, they took D’A. and arranged her on her back upon a nearby coffin, where she laid down with a deathly pale face, her hands tied together and resting on her abdomen, her legs joined by stitched stockings. Thus, and not otherwise, D’A. was left by the participants who buried her.
But when, a couple of days later, the pit was opened again in order to bury another deceased girl, a terrible vision awaited the bystanders:
F. D’A.’s sister hurried to give a last goodbye to her dead relative, but as soon as she looked down to the place where her sister was laid to rest, she had to observe the miserable spectacle of her sister placed in a very different position from the one she had been left in; between her legs was the fetus she had given birth to, inside the grave, and together with whom she had miserably died. […] Officers immediately arrived, and found D’A.’s body lying on her left side, her face intensely strained; her hands, still tied by a white cotton ribbon, formed an arch with her arms and rested on her forehead, while pieces of white ribbon were found between her teeth […]. At the mother’s feet stood a male newborn child with his umbilical cord, showing well-proportioned and developed limbs.
Imagine the horror of the poor woman, waking up in the dark in the grip of labor pains; with her last remaining energy she had succeeded in giving birth to her child, only to die shortly after, “besieged by corpses, lacking air, assistance or food, and exhausted by the blood loss suffered during delivery“. One could hardly picture a more dreadful fate.
The case had ahuge resonance all across Italy; a trial took place at the Court of Isernia, and the town physician, the mayor and the undertaker were found guilty of two involuntary murders “aggravated by gross negligence“, sentenced to six months in jail and fined (51 liras) – but the punishment was later cut by half by the Court of Appeal of Naples in November 1877. This unprecedented reduction of penalty was harshly criticized by the Times correspondant in Italy, who observed that “the circumstances of the case, if well analyzed, show the slight value which is attached to human life in this country“; the news also appeared in the New York Times as well as in other British and American newspapers.
This story, however scary – because it is so scary – should be taken with a pinch of salt. There’s more than one reason to be careful.
First of all, the theme of a pregnant woman believed dead and giving birth in a grave was already a recurring motif in the Nineteeth Century, as taphophobia (the fear of being buried alive) reached its peak.
Folklorist Paul Barber in his Vampires, Burial, and Death: Folklore and Reality (1988) argues that the number of people actually buried alive was highly exaggerated in the chronicles; a stance also shared by Jan Bondeson, who in one of the most complete books on the subject, Buried Alive, shows how the large majority of nineteenth-century premature burial accounts are not reliable.
For the most part it would seem to be a romantic, decadent literary topos, albeit inspired by a danger that was certainly real in the past centuries: interpreting the signs of death was a complex and often approximate procedure, so much so that by the 1700s some treatises (the most famous one being Winslow‘s) introduced a series of measures to verify with greater accuracy the passing of a patient.
A superficial knowledge of decomposition processes could also lead to misunderstandings. When bodies were exhumed, it was not uncommon to find their position had changed; this was due to the cadaver’s natural tendency to move during decomposition, and to be sometimes subjected to small “explosions” caused by putrefaction gasses – explosions that are powerful enough to rotate the body’s upper limbs. Likewise, the marks left by rodents or other scavengers (loose dirt, scratches, bite marks, torn clothes, fallen hair) could be mistaken for the deceased person’s desperate attempts at getting out.
Yet, as we’ve said, there was a part of truth, and some unfortunate people surely ended up alive inside a coffin. Even with all our modern diagnostic tools, every now and then someone wakes up in a morgue. But these events are, today like yesterday, extremely rare, and these stories speak more about a cultural fear rather than a concrete risk.
If being buried alive was already an exceptional fact, then the chances of a pregnant woman actually giving birth inside a grave look even slimmer. But this idea – so charged with pathos it could only fascinate the Victorian sensibility – might as well have come from real observations. Opening a woman’s grave and finding a stillborn child must have looked like a definitive proof of her premature burial. What wasn’t known at the time is that the fetus can, in rare circumstances, be expelled postmortem.
Anaerobic microorganisms, which start the cadaver’s putrefactive phase, release several gasses during their metabolic activity. During this emphysematous stage, internal tissues stretch and tighten; the torso, abdomen and legs swell; the internal pressure caused by the accumulation of gas can lead, within the body of a woman in the late stages of pregnancy, to a separation of amniotic membranes, a prolapse of the uterus and a subsequent total or partial extrusion of the fetus. This event appears to be more likely if the dead woman has been pregnant before, on the account of a more elastic cervix. This strange phenomenon is called Sarggeburt (coffin birth) in early German forensic literature.
The first case of postmortem delivery dates back to 1551, when a woman hanged on the gallows released, four hours after her execution, the bodies of two twins, both dead. (A very similar episode happened in 2007 in India, when a woman killed herself during labor; in that instance, the baby was found alive and healthy.) In Brussels, in 1633, a woman died of convulsions and three days later a fetus was spontaneously expelled. The same thing happened in Weißenfels, Saxony, in 1861. Other cases are mentioned in the first medical book to address this strange event,Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine, published in 1896, but for the most part these accidents occurred when the body of the mother had yet to be buried. It was John Whitridge Williams who, in his fortunate Obstetrics: a text-book for the use of students and practitioners (1904), pointed to the possibility of postmortem delivery taking place after burial.
Fetal extrusion after the mother’s death has also been observed in recent times.
A 2005 case involved a woman who died in her apartment from acute heroine intoxication: upon finding her body, it was noted that the fetus head was protruding from the mother’s underwear; but later on, during the autopsy, the upper part of the baby’s torso was also visible – a sign that gasses had continued to build in the abdominal region, increasing interior pressure. In 2008 a 38 year-old, 7 months pregnant woman was found murdered in a field in advanced state of decomposition, accelerated by tropical climate. During the autopsy a fetus was found inside the woman’s slips, the umbilical cord still attached to the placenta (here is the forensic case study – WARNING: graphic).
Life In Death
So, going back to that unfortunate lady from Castel del Giudice, what really happened to her? Sure, the autopsy report filed at the time and quoted in the trial papers mentioned the presence of air in the baby’s lungs, a proof that the child was born alive. And it’s possible that this was the case.
But on one hand this story fits all too perfectly within a specific popular narrative of its time, whose actual statistical incidence has been doubted by scholars; on the other, the possibility of postmortem fetal extrusion is well-documented, so much so thateven archeologists sometimes struggle to interpret ancient skeletal findings showing fetuses still partially enclosed within the pelvic bone.
The only certain thing is that these stories – whether they’re authentic or made up – have an almost archetypal quality; birth and death entwined in a single place and time.
Maybe they’re so enthralling because, on a symbolic level, they remind us of a peculiar truth, one expressed in a famous verse from Manilius‘ Astronomica:
Nascentes morimur, finisque ab origine pendet.
“As we are born we die, our end commences with our beginning.”
This is a good occasion to re-read a poem taken from The Flowers of Evil (1857), the extraordinary A Carcass, — a virtuoso piece of poetic reverie on decomposition and memento mori.
On YouTube you can find several lectures of this poem, more or less successful; but all of them sound solemn and declamatory.
Instead, I present you with a version put to music and recited by Léo Ferré, who interpreted Baudelaire’s lyrics as a grotesque wild ride, a vortex of visions and “black batallions” of insects assaulting our senses.
Back with Bizzarro Bazar’s mix of exotic and quirky trouvailles, quite handy when it comes to entertaining your friends and acting like the one who’s always telling funny stories. Please grin knowingly when they ask you where in the world you find all this stuff.
We already talked about killer rabbits in the margins of medieval books. Now a funny video unveils the mystery of another great classic of illustrated manuscripts: snail-fighting knights. SPOILER: it’s those vicious Lumbards again.
As an expert on alternative sexualities, Ayzad has developed a certain aplomb when discussing the most extreme and absurd erotic practices — in Hunter Thompson’s words, “when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro“. Yet even a shrewd guy like him was baffled by the most deranged story in recent times: the Nazi furry scandal.
In 1973, Playboy asked Salvador Dali to collaborate with photographer Pompeo Posar for an exclusive nude photoshoot. The painter was given complete freedom and control over the project, so much so that he was on set directing the shooting. Dali then manipulated the shots produced during that session through collage. The result is a strange and highly enjoyable example of surrealism, eggs, masks, snakes and nude bunnies. The Master, in a letter to the magazine, calimed to be satisfied with the experience: “The meaning of my work is the motivation that is of the purest – money. What I did for Playboy is very good, and your payment is equal to the task.” (Grazie, Silvia!)
Speaking of photography, Robert Shults dedicated his series The Washing Away of Wrongs to the biggest center for the study of decomposition in the world, the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State University. Shot in stark, high-contrast black and white as they were shot in the near-infrared spectrum, these pictures are really powerful and exhibit an almost dream-like quality. They document the hard but necessary work of students and researchers, who set out to understand the modifications in human remains under the most disparate conditions: the ever more precise data they gather will become invaluable in the forensic field. You can find some more photos in this article, and here’s Robert Shults website.
One last photographic entry. Swedish photographer Erik Simander produced a series of portraits of his grandfather, after he just became a widower. The loneliness of a man who just found himself without his life’s companion is described through little details (the empty sink, with a single toothbrush) that suddenly become definitive, devastating symbols of loss; small, poetic and lacerating touches, delicate and painful at the same time. After all, grief is a different feeling for evry person, and Simander shows a commendable discretion in observing the limit, the threshold beyond which emotions become too personal to be shared. A sublime piece of work, heart-breaking and humane, and which has the merit of tackling an issue (the loss of a partner among the elderly) still pretty much taboo. This theme had already been brought to the big screen in 2012 by the ruthless and emotionally demanding Amour, directed by Michael Haneke.
The inimitable Lindsey Fitzharris published on her Chirurgeon’s Apprenticea cute little post about surgical removal of bladder stones before the invention of anesthesia. Perfect read to squirm deliciously in your seat.
I ignore how or why things re-surface at a certain time on the Net. And yet, for the last few days (at least in my whacky internet bubble) the story of Portuguese serial killer Diogo Alves has been popping out again and again. Not all of Diogo Alves, actually — just his head, which is kept in a jar at the Faculty of Medicine in Lisbon. But what really made me chuckle was discovering one of the “related images” suggested by Google algorythms:
Remember the Tsavo Man-Eaters? There’s a very good Italian article on the whole story — or you can read the English Wiki entry. (Thanks, Bruno!)
And finally we get to the most succulent news: my old native town, Vicenza, proved to still have some surprises in store for me.
On the hills near the city, in the Arcugnano district, a pre-Roman amphitheatre has just been discovered. It layed buried for thousands of years… it could accomodate up to 4300 spectators and 300 actors, musicians, dancers… and the original stage is still there, underwater beneath the small lake… and there’s even a cave which acted as a megaphone for the actors’ voices, amplifying sounds from 8 Hz to 432 Hz… and there’s even a nearby temple devoted to Janus… and that temple was the real birthplace of Juliet, of Shakespearean fame… and there are even traces of ancient canine Gods… and of the passage of Julius Cesar and Cleopatra…. and… and…
And, pardon my rudeness, wouldn’t all this happen to be a hoax?
No, it’s not a mere hoax, it is an extraordinary hoax. A stunt that would deserve a slow, admired clap, if it wasn’t a plain fraud.
The creative spirit behind the amphitheatre is the property owner, Franco Malosso von Rosenfranz (the name says it all). Instead of settling for the traditional Italian-style unauthorized development — the classic two or three small houses secretely and illegally built — he had the idea of faking an archeological find just to scam tourists. Taking advantage of a license to build a passageway between two parts of his property, so that the constant flow of trucks and bulldozers wouldn’t raise suspicions, Malosso von Rosenfranz allegedly excavated his “ancient” theatre, with the intention of opening it to the public at the price of 40 € per visitor, and to put it up for hire for big events.
Together with the initial enthusiasm and popularity on social networks, unfortunately came legal trouble. The evidence against Malosso was so blatant from the start, that he immediately ended up on trial without any preliminary hearing. He is charged with unauthorized building, unauthorized manufacturing and forgery.
Therefore, this wonderful example of Italian ingenuity will be dismanteled and torn down; but the amphitheatre website is fortunately still online, a funny fanta-history jumble devised to back up the real site. A messy mixtre of references to local figures, famous characters from the Roman Era, supermarket mythology and (needless to say) the omnipresent Templars.
The ultimate irony is that there are people in Arcugnano still supporting him because, well, “at least now we have a theatre“. After all, as the Wiki page on unauthorized building explains, “the perception of this phenomenon as illegal […] is so thin that such a crime does not entail social reprimand for a large percentage of the population. In Italy, this malpractice has damaged and keeps damaging the economy, the landscape and the culture of law and respect for regulations“.
And here resides the brilliance of old fox Malosso von Rosenfranz’s plan: to cash in on these times of post-truth, creating an unauthorized building which does not really degrade the territory, but rather increase — albeit falsely — its heritage.
Well, you might have got it by now. I am amused, in a sense. My secret chimeric desire is that it all turns out to be an incredible, unprecedented art installations. Andthat Malosso one day might confess that yes, it was all a huge experiment to show how little we care abot our environment and landscape, how we leave our authenticarcheological wonders fall apart, and yet we are ready to stand up for the fake ones. (Thanks, Silvietta!)
I have sometimes talked about the false dichotomy between Nature and Culture, that weird, mostly Western aberration that sees mankind separated and opposed to the rest of the environment. This feeling of estrangement is what’s behind the melancholy for the original union, now presumed lost: we look at birds in a tree, and regret we are not that carefree and unrestrained; we look at our cities and struggle to find them “natural”, because we insisted in building them with rigid geometries rarely found elsewhere, as if to mark the difference with all other habitats in which straight lines seldom exist.
This vision of man as a creature completely different from other living beings has found an obvious declination in Western burials. It’s one of the very few traditions in which the grave is designed to keep the body from returning to earth (of course in the past centuries this also had to do with the idea of preserving the body for the ultimate Resurrection).
But there is someone who is trying to change this perspective.
Picture your death as a voyage through three different states of matter. Imagine crossing the boundaries between animal, mineral and plant kingdom.
This is the concept behind Capsula Mundi, an italian startup devised by Anna Citelli and Raoul Bretzel, which over the past decade has been trying to achieve a new, eco-friendly and poetic kind of burial. An egg made of biodegradable material will wrap the body arranged in fetal position, or the ashes; once planted underground, it will grow a specific tree, chosen by the deceased when still alive. One after the other, these “graves” will form a real sacred forest where relatives and friends can wander around, taking care of the very plants grown, fed and left as inheritance by their dear departed. A more joyful alternative to the heavy, squared marble gravestone, and a way of accepting death as a transition, a transformation rather than the end of life.
Actually the very idea of a “capsule” incorporates two separate connotations. On one hand there’s the scientific idea of a membrane, of a cell, of a seed for new life. And the shell enveloping the body — not by chance arranged in fetal position — is a sort of replica of the original embryo, a new amniotic sac which symbolically affirms the specularity (or even the identity) of birth and death. On the other, there is the concept of a “capsule” as a vehicle, a sci-fi pod, a vessel leading the corpse from the animal kingdom to the mineral kingdom, allowing all the body components to decompose and to be absorbed by the plant roots.
Death may look like a black monolith, but it gives rise to the cosmic fetus, the ever-changing mutation.
The planting of a tree on burial grounds also refers to the Roman tradition:
For the ancients, being buried under the trees enabled the deceased body to be absorbed by the roots, and matter to be brought back to life within the plant. Such an interpenetration between the corpse and the arboreal organism therefore suggested a highly symbolic meaning: plunging his roots inside mother earth and pushing his top towards the sky, it was like the deceased was stretching out his arms, to protect and save his descendants, in a continuing dialogue with posterity’s affection and memory.
(N. Giordano, Roma, potenza e simbologia: dai boschi sacri al “Miglio d’oro”, in SILVÆ – Anno VI n. 14)
I asked some questions to Anna Citelli, creator of Capsula Mundi along with Raoul Bretzel.
It is clear today that the attitude towards death and dying is changing, after a century of medicalization and removal: more and more people feel the need to discuss these topics, to confront them and above all to find new (secular) narratives addressing them. In this sense, Capsula Mundi is both a practical and symbolic project. From what did you draw inspiration for this idea? The “capsule” was shaped like an egg from the beginning, or were you initially thinking of something else?
We unveiled the Capsula Mundi project in 2003, at the Salone del Mobile in Milan. It was not the first time we exhibited at the Salon, albeit independently from one another. Our works at the time were already a reflection on sustainability, and when we had the occasion to work together we asked ourselves some questions about the role of designers in a society which appears removed from nature, well-satisfied and overwhelmed by objects for every necessity.
We decided to devote our work to a moment in life of extreme importance, charged with symbolic references, just like birth and wedding. Death is a delicate passage, mysterious and inevitable. It is the moment in which the person stops consuming or producing, therefore in theory it’s something distant from the glossy environment of design. But if we look at it as a natural phenomenon, a transformation of substances, death is the moment in which the being is reconnected with nature, with its perpetual changing. The coffin, an object neglected by designers, becomes a way of reflecting on the presumption that we are not part of the biological cycle of life, a reflection on a taboo. Adopting the perfect shape of the egg was an immediate and instinctive choice, the only one that could indicate our thought: that death is not an end or an interruption, but the beginning of a new path.
How does Capsula Mundi relate to the death-positive movement? Is your project, while not aspiring to replace traditional burials but rather to offer an alternative choice, also intended to promote a cultural debate?
We have been presenting the concept of Capsula Mundi for more than a decade now, and in the last few years in the public we have finally seen a rising need to talk about death, free from any negative cultural conditioning. It is a collective and transversal need which leads to an enrichment we’ve all been waiting for. We receive a lot of letters from all over the world, from architecture students to palliative treatments operators, from botany students to documentary filmmakers. A whole variety of human beings sharing different experiences, trying to achieve a social change through debate and confrontation, to gain a new perspective on the end of life.
What point is the project at, and what difficulties are you encountering?
Green burials are prohibited in Italy, but seeing the huge demand we receive every day we decided to start the production of the small version of Capsula Mundi, for cremated remains. In the meantime we are carrying on the studies to build capsules for the whole body, but we still need some time for research.
Green burials are already a reality in other countries, as are humanist funerals. Do you think the Italian legislation in funeral matters will change any time soon?
We think that laws are always a step behind social changes. In Italy cemetery regulations date back to Napoleonic times, and legislative change will not happen quickly. But the debate is now open, and sooner or later we too will have memorial parks. Regarding cremated remains, for instance, many things have already changed, almost all regions adjusted to the citizens requests and chose some areas in which the ashes can be spread. Up until some years ago, the urn had to be left within the cemetery, under lock and key and in the keeper’s custody.
How is the audience responding to your project?
Very well. Since the beginning, in 2003, our project never caused any uproar or complaint. It was always understood beyond our expectations. Now, with the help of social medias, its popularity has grown and we just reached 34.000 likes on Facebook. In november 2015 we presented Capsula Mundi to an English-speaking audience at TEDx Torino and it’s been a huge success. For us it is a wonderful experience.
Considerations about death in the age of social media
Take a look at the above Top Chart. Blackbird is a Beatles song originally published in the 1968 White Album.
Although Paul McCartney wrote it 46 years ago, last week the song topped the iTunes charts in the Rock genre. Why?
The answer is below:
Italian articles about “daddy Blackbird”.
Chris Picco lives in California: he lost his wife Ashley, who died prematurely giving birth to litle Lennon. On November 12 a video appeared on YouTube showing Chris singing Blackbird before the incubator where his son was struggling for life; the child died just four days after birth.
The video went immediately viral, soon reaching 15 million views, bouncing from social neworks to newspapers and viceversa, with great pariticipation and a flood of sad emoticons and moving comments. This is just the last episode in a new, yet already well-established tendency of public exhibitions of suffering and mourning.
Brittany Maynard (1984-2014), terminally ill, activist for assisted suicide rights.
A recent article by Kelly Conaboy, adressing the phenomenon of tragic videos and stories going viral, uses the expression grief porn: these videos may well be a heart-felt, sincere display to begin with, but they soon become pure entertainment, giving the spectator an immediate and quick adrenaline rush; once the “emotional masturbation” is over, once our little tear has been shed, once we’ve commented and shared, we feel better. We close the browser, and go on with our lives.
If the tabloid genre of grief porn, Conaboy stresses out, is as old as sexual scandals, until now it was only limited to particularly tragic, violent, extraordinary death accounts; the internet, on the other hand, makes it possible to expose common people’s private lives. These videos could be part of a widespread exhibitionism/vouyeurism dynamics, in which the will to show off one’s pain is matched by the users’ desire to watch it — and to press the “Like” button in order to prove their sensitivity.
During the Twentieth Century we witnessed a collective removal of death. So much has been written about this removal process, there is no need to dwell on it. The real question is: is something changing? What do these new phenomenons tell us about our own relationship with death? How is it evolving?
If death as a real, first-hand experience still remains a sorrowful mystery, a forbidden territory encompassing both the reality of the dead body (the true “scandal”) and the elaboration of grief (not so strictly coded as it once was), on the other hand we are witnessing an unprecedented pervasiveness of the representation of death.
Beyond the issues of commercialization and banalization, we have to face an ever more unhibited presence of death images in today’s society: from skulls decorating bags, pins, Tshirts as well as showing up in modern art Museums, to death becoming a communication/marketing/propaganda tool (terrorist beheadings, drug cartels execution videos, immense websites archiving raw footage of accidents, homicides and suicides). All of this is not death, it must be stressed, it’s just its image, its simulacrum — which doesn’t even require a narrative.
Referring to it as “death pornography” does make sense, given that these representations rely on what is in fact the most exciting element of classic pornography: it is what Baudrillard called hyper-reality, an image so realistic that it surpasses, or takes over, reality. (In porn videos, think of viewpoints which would be “impossibile” during the actual intercourse, think of HD resolution bringing out every detail of the actors’ skin, of 3D porn, etc. — this is also what happens with death in simulacrum.)
We can now die a million times, on the tip of a cursor, with every click starting a video or loading a picture. This omnipresence of representations of death, on the other hand, might not be a sign of an obscenity-bound, degenerated society, but rather a natural reaction and metabolization of last century’s removal. The mystery of death still untouched, its obscenity is coming apart (the obscene being brought back “on scene”) until it becomes an everyday image. To continue the parallelism with pornography, director Davide Ferrario (in his investigative book Guardami. Storie dal porno) wrote that witnessing a sexual intercourse, as a guest on an adult movie set, was not in the least exciting for him; but as soon as he looked into the camera viewfinder, everything changed and the scene became more real. Even some war photographers report that explosions do not seem real until they observe them through the camera lens. It is the dominion of the image taking over concrete objects, and if in Baudrillard’s writings this historic shift was described in somewhat apocalyptic colors, today we understand that this state of things — the imaginary overcoming reality — might not be the end of our society, but rather a new beginning.
Little by little our society is heading towards a global and globalized mythology. Intelligence — at least the classic idea of a “genius”, an individual achieving extraordinary deeds on his own — is becoming an outdated myth, giving way to the super-conscience of the web-organism, able to work more and more effectively than the single individual. There will be less and less monuments to epic characters, if this tendency proves durable, less and less heroes. More and more innovations and discoveries will be ascribable to virtual communities (but is there a virtuality opposing reality any more?), and the merit of great achievements will be distributed among a net of individuals.
In much the same way, death is changing in weight and significance.
Preservation and devotion to human remains, although both well-established traditions, are already being challenged by a new and widespread recycling sensitivity, and the idea of ecological reuse basically means taking back decomposition — abhorred for centuries by Western societies, and denied through the use of caskets preventing the body from touching the dirt. The Resurrection of the flesh, the main theological motivation behind an “intact” burial, is giving way to the idea of composting, which is a noble concept in its own right. Within this new perspective, respect for the bodies is not exclusively expressed through devotion, fear towards the bones or the inviolability of the corpse; it gives importance to the body’s usefulness, whether through organ transplant, donation to science, or reduction of its pollution impact. Destroying the body is no longer considered a taboo, but rather an act of generosity towards the environment.
At the same time, this new approach to death is slowly getting rid of the old mysterious, serious and dark overtones. Macabre fashion, black tourism or the many death-related entertainment and cultural events, trying to raise awareness about these topics (for example the London Month of the Dead, or the seminal Death Salon), are ways of dealing once and for all with the removal. Even humor and kitsch, as offensive as they might seem, are necessary steps in this transformation.
Human ashes pressed into a vinyl.
Human ashes turned into a diamond.
And so the internet is daily suggesting a kind of death which is no longer censored or denied, but openly faced, up to the point of turning it into a show.
In respect to the dizzying success of images of suffering and death, the word voyeurism is often used. But can we call it voyeurism when the stranger’s gaze is desired and requested by the “victims” themselves, for instance by terminally ill people trying to raise awareness about their condition, to leave a testimony or simply to give a voice to their pain?
Jennifer Johnson, mother of two children, in her last video before she died (2012).
The exhibition of difficult personal experiences is a part of our society’s new expedient to deal with death and suffering: these are no longer taboos to be hidden and elaborated in the private sphere, but feelings worth sharing with the entire world. If at the time of big extended families, in the first decades of ‘900, grief was “spread” over the whole community, and in the second half of the century it fell back on the individual, who was lacking the instruments to elaborate it, now online community is offering a new way of allocation of suffering. Condoleances and affectionate messages can be received by perfect strangers, in a new paradigm of “superficial” but industrious solidarity.
Chris Picco, “daddy Blackbird”, certainly does not complain about the attention the video brought to him, because the users generosity made it possible for him to raise the $ 200.000 needed to cover medical expenses.
I could never articulate how much your support and your strength and your prayers and your emails and your Facebook messages and your text messages—I don’t know how any of you got my number, but there’s been a lot of me just, ‘Uh, okay, thank you, um.’ I didn’t bother going into the whole, ‘I don’t know who you are, but thank you.’ I just—it has meant so much to me, and so when I say ‘thank you’ I know exactly what you mean.
On the other end of the PC screen is the secret curiosity of those who watch images of death. Those who share these videos, more or less openly enjoying them. Is it really just “emotional masturbation”? Is this some obscene and morbid curiosity?
I personally don’t think there is such a thing as a morbid — that is, pathological — curiosity. Curiosity is an evolutionary tool which enables us to elaborate strategies for the future, and therefore it is always sane and healthy. If we examine voyeurism under this light, it turns out to be a real resource. When cars slow down at the sight of an accident, it’s not always in hope of seeing blood and guts: our brain is urging us to slow down because it needs time to investigate the situation, to elaborate what has happened, to understand what went on there. That’s exactly what the brain is wired to do — inferring data which might prove useful in the future, should we find ourselves in a similar situation.
Accordingly, the history of theater, literature and cinema is full to the brim with tragedy, violence, disasters: the interest lies in finding out how the characters will react to the difficulties they come about. We still need the Hero’s Journey, we still need to discover how he’s going to overcome the tests he finds along the way, and to see how he will solve his problems. As kids, we carefully studied our parents to learn the appropriate response to every situation, and as adults our mind keeps amassing as much detail as possible, to try and control future obstacles.
By identifying with the father playing a sweet song to his dying son, we are confronting ourselves. “What is this man feeling? What would I do in such a predicament? Would I be able to overcome terror in this same way? Would this strategy work for me?”
The construction of our online persona comes only at a later time, when the video is over. Then it becomes important to prove to our contacts and followers that we are humane and sympathetic, that we were deeply moved, and so begins the second phase, with all the expressions of grief, the (real or fake) tears, the participation. This new paradigma, this modern kind of mourning, requires little time and resources, but it could work better than we think (again, see the success of Mr. Picco’s fund-raising campaing). And this sharing of grief is only possible on the account of the initial curiosity that made us click on that video.
And what about those people who dig even deeper into the dark side of the web, with its endless supply of images of death, and watch extremly gruesome videos?
The fundamental stimulus behind watching a video of a man who gets, let’s say, eaten alive by a crocodile, is probably the very same. At a basic lavel, we are always trying to acquire useful data to respond to the unknown, and curiosity is our weapon of defense and adaptation against an uncertain future; a future in which, almost certainly, we won’t have to fight off an alligator, but we’ll certainly need to face suffering, death and the unexpected.
The most shocking videos sometimes lure us with the promise of showing what is normally forbidden or censored: how does the human body react to a fall from a ten story building? Watching the video, it’s as if we too are falling by proxy; just like, by proxy but in a more acceptable context, we can indentify with the tragic reaction of a father watching his child die.
A weightlifter is lifting a barbell. Suddenly his knee snaps and collapses. We scream, jump off the seat, feel a stab of pain. We divert our eyes, then look again, and each time we go over the scene in our mind it’s like we are feeling a little bit of the athlete’s pain (a famous neurologic study on empathy proved that, in part, this is exactly what is going on). This is not masochism, nor a strange need to be upset: anticipation of pain is considered one of the common psychological strategies to prepare for it, and watching a video is a cheap and harmless solution.
In my opinion, the curiosity of those who watch images of suffering and death should not be stigmatized as “sick”, as it is a completely natural instinct. And this very curiosity is behind the ever growing offer of such images, as it is also what allows suffering people to stage their own condition.
The real innovations of these last few years have been the legitimization of death as a public representation, and the collectivization of the experience of grief and mourning — according to the spirit of open confrontation and sharing, typical of social media. These features will probably get more and more evident on Facebook, Twitter and similar platforms: even today, many people suffering from an illness are choosing to post real-time updates on their therapy, in fact opening the curtain over a reality (disease and hospital care) which has been concealed for a long time.
There’ll be the breaking of the ancient Western Code / Your private life will suddenly explode, sang Leonard Cohen in The Future. The great poet’s views expressed in the song are pessimistic, if not apocalyptc, as you would expect from a Twentieth century exponent. Yet it looks like this voluntary (and partial) sacrifice of the private sphere is proving to be an effective way to fix the general lack of grief elaboration codes. We talk ever more frequently about death and disease, and until now it seems that the benefits of this dialogue are exceeding the possible stress from over-exposure (see this article).
What prompted me to write this post is the feeling, albeit vague and uncertain, that a transition is taking place, before our eyes, even if it’s still all too cloudy to be clearly outlined; and of course, such a transformation cannot be immune to excesses, which inevitably affect any crisis. We shall see if these unprecedented, still partly unconscious strategies prove to be an adequate solution in dealing with our ultimate fate, or if they are bound to take other, different forms.
But something is definitely changing.
C’era una volta una famiglia di Giganti che stava attraversando le Alpi: scavalcando le montagne, falcata dopo falcata, verso chissà quale destinazione.
Il figlioletto, un bambino alto circa 100 metri, piangeva a dirotto, e i suoi singhiozzi riecheggiavano per le valli. Era disperato perché aveva perso il suo coniglio di peluche; ma purtroppo non c’era tempo per tornare indietro a cercarlo. Mamma Gigantessa lo prese in braccio per consolarlo, e la marcia continuò.
Questo è quanto potremmo immaginare imbattendoci nella strana fotografia satellitare qui sotto. Cosa ci fa un enorme coniglio rosa a 1600 metri di altitudine sulle montagne piemontesi?
Posto sul Colletto Fava vicino al Bar La Baita, proprio sopra al paesino di Artesina in provincia di Cuneo, il coniglio è lungo 50 metri, ricoperto di lana, imbottito con mille metri cubi di paglia, ed ha richiesto cinque anni di lavoro a maglia. È stato creato nel 2005 dal collettivo viennese Gelitin, composto da quattro artisti dalle idee bizzarre e spesso geniali.
Ma non lasciatevi ingannare: se l’idea di un coniglio rosa gigante vi sembra fin troppo kawaii, l’installazione ha in realtà un effetto davvero perturbante. Le dimensioni innaturali del peluche contrastano con il paesaggio, il colore rosa shocking lo stacca dal resto del panorama: l’idea di posizionarlo lontano dalle gallerie d’arte o dai centri urbani, elemento artificiale “abbandonato” in un contesto naturale, contribuisce alla sensazione di disagio. La posa del peluche, inoltre, dà l’inquietante impressione di qualcosa di morto e in effetti le interiora del coniglio (cuore, fegato, budella, tutte di lana) fuoriescono dal suo fianco.
E non è tutto. Il coniglio resterà esposto agli elementi fino al 2025. Questo significa che i visitatori potranno, nel tempo, assistere a una vera e propria dissoluzione dell’opera d’arte; già adesso, a distanza di quasi dieci anni dall’inizio del progetto, la decomposizione del coniglio è in fase avanzata. Se fino a qualche tempo fa ci si poteva ancora arrampicare sul corpo del peluche, e sdraiarsi sul suo petto a prendere il sole, oggi l’installazione comincia a mostrare il suo lato più crudele e beffardo. Le intemperie hanno squarciato in più punti la superficie del pupazzo, esponendo la paglia sottostante e donando al povero coniglio l’aspetto di una vera e propria carcassa.
Il collettivo artistico austriaco, ben conscio dell’effetto destabilizzante che nel tempo avrebbe assunto l’opera, ha usato queste splendide righe per descrivere il proprio lavoro:
Le cose che si possono trovare vagando nel paesaggio: cose familiari, e completamente sconosciute, come un fiore che non si è mai visto prima oppure, come Colombo scoprì, un continente inesplicabile; e poi, dietro una collina, come lavorato a maglia da nonne giganti, giace questo vasto coniglio, per farti sentire piccolo come una margherita. La creatura, rosa come carta igienica, è sdraiata sulla schiena: una montagna-coniglio come Gulliver a Lilliput. Che felicità scalarlo lungo le orecchie, quasi cadendo nella sua bocca cavernosa, fino alla cima della pancia, e guardare verso il rosa panorama lanoso del corpo del coniglio, un paese caduto dal cielo; orecchie e arti che si dipanano verso l’orizzonte; dal suo fianco veder fluire il cuore, il fegato e gli intestini. Felicemente innamorato scendi dal cadavere putrescente, verso la ferita, ora piccolo come una larva, sopra i reni e le budella di lana. Felice te ne vai come la larva che acquista le sue ali da una carcassa innocente sul bordo della strada. Tale è la felicità che diede forma a questo coniglio. Io amo il coniglio e il coniglio mi ama.
Fra dieci anni, quando l’opera si potrà dire definitivamente conclusa, del coniglio gigante non rimarrà più traccia. Sarà stato “digerito” e assorbito dalla natura, come accade a tutto e a tutti.
Anche le religioni muoiono. Un tempo il mazdeismo o zoroastrismo, fondato sugli insegnamenti di Zarathustra, il profeta che nacque ridendo, era la religione più diffusa al mondo, la principale nell’area mediorientale prima che vi si affermasse l’Islam. Oggi invece i seguaci sono meno di 200.000, e il numero continua a diminuire anche a causa della chiusura dell’ortodossia verso i non-credenti, tanto che nei prossimi decenni questa fede potrebbe addirittura scomparire. Attualmente sono i Parsi, emigrati secoli fa dall’Iran verso l’India, a mantenerne vivi i precetti.
Religione eminentemente monoteistica, il mazdeismo fa del dualismo fra bene e male la sua principale caratteristica: all’uomo è chiesto di scegliere fra la via della Verità e quella della Menzogna, tra la giustizia e l’ingiustizia, tra la luce e le tenebre, tra l’ordine e il disordine. Il puro, dunque, dovrà essere attento a non essere contaminato in nulla da azioni, oggetti o pensieri malvagi. Proprio per questo gli zoroastriani hanno elaborato un particolare rito funebre, volto a limitare e tenere distanti gli effetti nefasti della morte sui viventi.
Il cadavere è, infatti, impuro, perché appena dopo la morte viene invaso da demoni e spiriti che rischiano di contaminare non soltanto gli uomini retti, ma anche gli elementi. Non è possibile dunque cremare il corpo di un defunto, perché il fuoco – che è elemento sacro – ne sarebbe infettato; sotterrarlo, d’altra parte, porterebbe a un inquinamento della terra.
Così gli zoroastriani costruiscono da secoli un tipo speciale di struttura, chiamata dakhma, o “torre del silenzio”. Si tratta di una impalcatura di legno e argilla, talvolta simile a una vera e propria torretta, alta fino a 10 metri circa. La piattaforma superiore, dalla circonferenza rialzata e inclinata verso l’interno, è suddivisa in tre cerchi concentrici, talvolta suddivisi in celle, e ha al suo centro un’apertura o un pozzo.
Qui i cadaveri vengono disposti da speciali addetti, i Nâsâsâlar (letteralmente, “coloro che si prendono cura di ciò che è impuro”), gli unici che hanno la facoltà di toccare i morti: gli uomini vengono sistemati nel cerchio esterno, le donne in quello mediano e i bambini in quello più interno.
Lì vengono lasciati in pasto agli avvoltoi e ai corvi (che normalmente li divorano nel giro di tre o quattro ore) e rimangono sulla dakhma anche per un anno, finché le loro ossa non siano state completamente ripulite e sbiancate dagli uccelli, dal sole e dalla pioggia. Le ossa vengono infine gettate nel pozzo centrale, dove la pioggia e il fango le disintegreranno a poco a poco, facendo filtrare attraverso strati di carbone e sabbia quello che resta del corpo, prima di restituirlo alla terra e, ove possibile, al mare, tramite un acquedotto sotterraneo.
Il rituale delle torri del silenzio è oggi sempre più a rischio a causa di due enormi problemi: la sovrappopolazione e la scarsità di avvoltoi. Il numero sempre maggiore di cadaveri costringe a gettare nel pozzo centrale anche i corpi non ancora interamente decomposti, causando un intasamento che comporta evidenti problemi igienici, soprattutto se si pensa che a Mumbai il parco funebre sta sulla collina residenziale di Malabar Hill, a meno di trecento metri dai primi caseggiati. Nonostante la comunità Parsi abbia stanziato 200.000 euro l’anno per l’acquisto e l’allevamento di avvoltoi specificamente addestrati, sono sempre più numerosi i fedeli che optano per il cimitero o la cremazione.
Attualmente esistono all’incirca sessanta dakhma attive, a Mumbai, Pune, Calcutta, Bangalore e nello stato del Gujarat. Ma questa antica tradizione potrebbe presto scomparire: troppo lunga e troppo poco pratica.
Joel-Peter Witkin is considered one of the greatest and most original living photographers, who has risen over the years to become a true legend of modern photography. He was born in Brooklyn in 1939, to a Jewish father and a Catholic mother, who separated because of the irreconcilability of their religious positions. From a young age, therefore, Witkin knew the profound influence of the dilemmas of faith. As he repeatedly recounted, another pivotal episode was witnessing a car accident as a child going to mass one day with his mother and brother; in the confusion of sheet metal and shouting, little Joel suddenly found himself alone and saw something rolling toward him. It was the head of a young girl. Joel bent down to caress her face, talk to her and soothe her, but before he could reach out a hand, someone took him away. This seminal anecdote already contains some of what would become true thematic obsessions for Witkin: spirit, compassion for suffering, and the search for purity through overcoming what frightens us.
After graduating with a degree in the arts, and beginning his career as a war photographer in Vietnam, in 1982 Witkin obtained permission to take some photographs of anatomical preparations, and was loaned a longitudinally dissected human head for 24 hours. Witkin decides to place the twin halves in the act of kissing: the effect is destabilizing and moving, as if the moment of death were an extreme reconciliation with the self, a recognition of one’s divine part and finally loving it without reservation.
The Kiss is the shot that makes the photographer suddenly famous, for better or worse: while some critics immediately understand the powerful emotional charge of the photograph, many cry scandal, and the University itself, upon discovering his use of the preparation, decides that Witkin is persona non grata. He therefore moves to New Mexico, where he can at any time cross the border and thus circumvent the stringent American laws on the use of corpses. From that moment on, Witkin’s work focuses precisely on death, and on the “different.”
Working with corpses or body parts, with models who are transsexual, mutilated, dwarfed, or suffering from various deformities, Witkin creates baroque compositions with a clear pictorial matrix (prepared with maniacal precision from sketches and sketches), often reinterpreting great works by Renaissance masters or important religious episodes.
Shot rigorously in the studio, where every minute detail can be controlled at the artist’s leisure, the photographs are then further worked on in the development stage, in which Witkin intervenes by scratching the surface of the photos, drawing on them, ruining them with acids, cutting and reworking them according to a variety of techniques to achieve his unmistakable “antiqued” black and white in the manner of an old daguerreotype.
Despite the rough and extreme subjects, Witkin’s gaze is always compassionate and “in love” with the sacredness of life. Even the confidence that his subjects accord him, in being photographed, is precisely to be attributed to the sincerity with which he searches for signs of the divine even in the unfortunate or different physiques: Witkin has the rare gift of bringing out an almost supernatural sensuality and purity from the strangest and most twisted bodies, capturing the light that seems to emanate precisely from the suffering they have experienced. What is even more extraordinary, he does not need the body to be alive to see, and photograph, its blinding beauty.
Here are our five questions to Joel-Peter Witkin.
1. Why did you decide it was important for you to depict death in your photographic work?
Death is a part of everyone’s life. Death is also the great divider of human belief to secular’s — it is the timeless nod, to the religious, it is eternal life with God.
2. What would you say is the purpose, if any, of your post-mortem photography work? Are you just photographing the bodies, or do you seek something more?
To photograph death and human remains is “holy work”. What and whom I photograph is truly ourselves. I see beauty in the specimens I photograph.
3. As with all things that challenge our denial of death, the macabre and unsettling tone of your pictures could be regarded by some as obscene and disrespectful. Were you interested in a particular shock value, and how do you feel towards the taboo nature of your subject?
The great paintings and sculpture of the past have always dealt with death. I like to say that “Death is like lunch—it’s coming!”. Before, people were born and died in their homes. Now we are born and die in institutions. We wear numbers on our wrists. We die alone.
So, of course, people now are shocked at seeing, in a sense, themselves. I believe nothing should be taboo. In fact when I am privileged to photograph death, I am usually very touched by the spirit still present in people.
4. Was it difficult to approach the corpses, on a personal level? Are there any particular and interesting anecdotes regarding the circumstances of some of your photographs?
When I photographed Man Without a Head (a dead man sitting in a chair at a morgue whose head had been removed for research), he was wearing black socks. That made it a little more personal. The doctor, his assistant and I lifted this dead man from the dissecting table and placed the body on the steel chair. I had to work with the dead man, in that I had to balance his arms so that he didn’t fall onto the floor. The floor in the photograph was covered with the blood that streamed out of his neck where the head had been removed I was grateful to him for working with me.
5. Would you like a post-mortem picture be taken of you after you die? How would you like to imagine that photo?
I have already made arrangements to have my organs removed after my death in order to help the living. Whatever remains will be buried at a military cemetery since I am an army veteran. Therefore, I will miss the opportunity you have asked about!
P.S. [Referencing this blog’s motto] I don’t want to “keep the world weird” —I want to make it more loving!
Negli ultimi trent’anni Jack Burman ha esplorato il mondo alla ricerca dei morti. Da quando, negli anni ’80, ha visitato le catacombe dei Cappuccini a Palermo, la sua arte è divenuta instancabilmente concentrata sull’esplorazione di ciò che rimane del corpo dopo la morte.
Dal Sud America all’Italia, dalla Spagna alla Francia e alla Germania, Burman ha visitato luoghi sacri, musei di anatomia, obitori e scuole di medicina; in ognuno di questi luoghi ha fotografato quei morti che al tempo stesso “riposano” e “non riposano”, poiché le loro spoglie sono ancora visibili e intatte, che siano delle mummie o delle reliquie, o dei preparati conservati per lo studio medico.
L’approccio di Burman a questo soggetto macabro ed estremo è di grandissimo rispetto: spesso inquadrati di fronte a un backdrop nero, sapientemente illuminati, questi resti umani acquistano una nobiltà e un’astrazione inaspettate. La testa di una donna è racchiusa in un vaso di vetro: i suoi occhi socchiusi, la serenità dell’espressione, l’immobilità della carne le donano un’aura quasi sacra; questa donna ha conosciuto il segreto, è passata dall’altra parte e la sua seraficità ci parla di una conoscenza per noi irraggiungibile. Sarebbe facile parlare di memento mori – eppure forse c’è di più. Di fronte agli scatti di Burman, paradossalmente, il sentimento che proviamo non è quello della morte che conquista ogni cosa: non assistiamo alla decomposizione che annulla ogni speranza, ma siamo invece confrontati con un concetto forse ormai fuori moda – la dignità.
Le fotografie di Burman ci mostrano con estrema compassione la bellezza e il dramma dell’uomo, fissate per sempre nell’istante ultimo. Impossibile non immaginare le aspirazioni, le passioni, la vitalità dei soggetti ritratti: e le composizioni del fotografo sembrano perpetuare questa forza vitale, come se i morti fossero ancora in grado di parlarci della vita quaggiù, delle nostre stesse esistenze, piccole ma commoventi, in cui lo splendore e la miseria sono le due facce dell’identica medaglia. Più si guardano queste fotografie, e più cresce forte la sensazione di essere guardati. E chi ha attraversato la soglia forse ha elementi in più, ha per così dire un quadro più completo – ma il suo mistero è inaccessibile, e Burman immortala questi “resti”, cosciente di fotografare uno scrigno che non potrà mai essere aperto.
Ecco le nostre cinque domande a Jack Burman.
1. Perché hai deciso che era importante raffigurare la morte nei tuoi lavori fotografici?
Sebald ha scritto che “la fisicità è scolpita più fortemente, e la sua natura diviene più percettibile nell’indistinto confine con la trascendenza”. Io cerco di lavorare vicino al corpo e porre il mio lavoro proprio su quel confine.
2. Quale credi che sia lo scopo, se ce n’è uno, delle tue fotografie post-mortem? Stai soltanto fotografando i corpi, o sei alla ricerca di qualcos’altro?
Una parte di questa domanda trova già risposta nella prima. Fammi aggiungere questo: io cerco di trovare una parte della presenza del corpo. La forza del danno e della perdita. La durezza e i moti del tempo che si depositano sulla (e sotto la) pelle. Il sentimento.
3. Come succede per tutto ciò che mette alla prova il nostro rifiuto della morte, il tono macabro e sconvolgente delle tue fotografie potrebbe essere visto da alcuni come osceno e irrispettoso. Ti interessa scioccare il pubblico, e come ti poni nei riguardi della carica di tabù presente nei tuoi soggetti?
Ricordi i capelli della ragazza all’inizio di Dell’amore e di altri demoni di Garcia Marquez? I capelli sono le orecchie, gli occhi, i nervi della ragazza. Così ciascuna mano, ed il volto. Quando entro nella sfera privata dei morti, lo faccio con un lento e forte rispetto per le loro mani, braccia, spalle e occhi. I pochi collezionisti che comprano le mie stampe (o il mio libro) per portarle fra le loro mani e nelle loro stanze – almeno quelli che conosco – vedono le cose con lo stesso rigore.
4. È stato difficile approcciare i cadaveri, a livello personale? C’è qualche aneddoto particolare o interessante riguardo le circostanze di una tua foto?
No, non è stato mai difficile.
Tempo fa, il mio lavoro mi portò in una cittadina sulle Ande Peruviane. Ogni mattino, all’alba, una mandria di alpaca veniva condotta al pascolo attraverso uno stretto vicolo proprio dietro al muro contro il quale stava il mio letto. Il loro movimento attraversava il muro e faceva vibrare il letto. Era interessante poi alzarsi e andare a lavorare con dei cadaveri del 1500.
5. Riguardo alle foto post-mortem, ti piacerebbe che te ne venisse scattata una dopo che sei morto? Come ti immagini una simile foto?
Sì, mi piacerebbe, a condizione che la persona che la scatterà sia capace di vedere attraverso i miei occhi, il mio passato, i miei bisogni.
La immagino pulita; scura; danneggiata; semplice; punteggiata dalla luce.
Questo è il sito ufficiale dell’artista. Il suo libro fotografico The Dead può essere acquistato sul sito di Magenta.