I haven’t been updating the blog lately, because it has been an intense period. Together with director Francesco Erba we completed the filming of the second season of the Bizzarro Bazar web series inside the spectacular Civic Museums of Reggio Emilia, and now post-production has begun.
However, I did not miss the opportunity to have a little chat with The Thinker’s Garden, one of the most stimulating spaces on the web: during the interview we talked about my relationship with Padua (and in particular about an autobiographical episode that ties me to the Morgagni Museum), about the Master in Death Studies organized by prof. Ines Testoni, and about the latest news regarding the series.
And with this little update, I wish you happy holidays!
The wonderful photo above shows a group of Irish artists from the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin, including Margaret Clarke and Estella Solomons (via BiblioCuriosa). And let’s start with the usual firing of links and oddities!
This is the oldest diving suit in the world.It is on exhibit in the Raahe museum in Finland, and dates back to the eighteenth century.It was used for short walks under water, to repair the keels of ships.Now, instead, “it dives into your nightmares” (as Stefano Castelli put it).
On the facade of the Cologne Town Hall there is a statue of Bishop Konrad von Hochstaden.The severity of his ecclesiastical figure is barely surprising;it’s what’s under the pedestal that leaves you stunned.
The figure engaged in an obscene autofellatio is to be reconnected to the classic medieval marginalia, which often included grotesque and bizarre situations placed “in the margin” of the main work — which could be a book, a fresco, a painting or, as in this case, a sculptural complex.
Given that such figures appear on a good number of churches, mainly in France, Spain and Germany, there has been much speculation as to what their purpose and meaning might have been: these were not just echoes of pagan fertility symbols, but complex allegories of salvation, as this book explains (and if you read French, there’s another good one exclusively dedicated to Brittany). Beyond all conjectures, it is clear that the distinction between the sacred and the profane in the Middle Ages was not as clear and unambiguous as we would be led to believe.
Let’s remain in the Middle Ages. When in 1004 the niece of the Byzantine emperor dared to use a fork for the first time at table, she caused a ruckus and the act was condemned by the clergy as blasphemous.(No doubt the noblewoman had offended the Almighty, since He later made her die of plague.)
Also dead, for 3230 years, but with all the necessary papers: here is the Egyptian passport issued in 1974 for the mummy of Ramesses II, so that he could fly to Paris without a hitch at the check-in. [EDIT: this is actually an amusing fake, as Gabriel pointed out in the comments]
Alex Eckman-Lawn adds disturbing and concrete “layers” to the human face. (Thanks, Anastasia!)
Another artist, Arngrímur Sigurðsson, illustrated several traditional figures of Icelandic folklore in a book called Duldýrasafnið, which translated means more or less “The Museum of Hidden Beings”.The volume is practically unobtainable online, but you can see many evocative paintings on the official website and especially in this great article.(Thanks, Luca!)
Forget Formula One! Here’s the ultimate racing competition!
A new study of the University of Naples on Herculaneum shows the victims died worse than we thought.Or better, depending on your point of view.Blood instantly evaporating and heads exploding — it’s hard to think of a quicker way to go.
Marco Meucci (here’s his Facebook page) deals with reprints of ancient books and artistic ligatures.He also creates miniature ossuaries and crypts, complete with tiny mummies.Look at this creation of his (which takes inspiration from both the Catacombs of Palermo and the Crypt of Via Veneto) and tell me if it isn’t adorable.
Several distinguished professors of philosophy, jurisprudence, ethics and informatics answer the question about the future that, let’s face it, is tormenting all of us: would a kinky robot, specifically designed to handcuff us to the bed and whip our butts, violate Asimov’s first law?(via Ayzad)
And finally, let’s dive into the weird side of porn for some videos of beautiful girls stuck in super glue — well, ok, they pretend to be.You can find dozens of them, and for a good reason: this is a peculiar immobilization fetishism (as this short article perfectly summarizes) combining classic female foot worship, the lusciousness of glue (huh?), and a little sadistic excitement in seeing the victim’s useless attempts to free herself.The big plus is it doesn’t violate YouTube adult content guidelines.
The hybrid anatomies created by Nunzio Paci,born in Bologna in 1977, encountered a growing success, and they granted him prestigious exhibitions in Europe, Asia and the US.
The true miracle this artist performs on his canvas is to turn what is still usually perceived as a taboo – the inside of our bodies – into something enchanting.
But his works are complex and multilayered: in his paintings the natural elements and creatures fuse together and as they do so, all boundaries lose their meaning, there is no more an inside and an outside; each body explodes and grows branches, becoming indefinable. Even if besides the figures there still are numbers, anatomical annotations and “keys”, these unthinkable flourishes of the flesh tend to checkmate our vision, sabotage all categories and even dismantle the concept of identity.
But rather than just writing about it, I thought it best to interview Nunzio and let our chat be an introduction to his art.
You began as a street artist, in a strictly urban environment; what was your relationship with nature back then? Did it evolve over the years?
I was born and raised in a small country town in the province of Bologna and I still live in a rural area. Nature has always been a faithful companion to me. I too did go through a rebellious phase: in those years, as I recall them, everything looked like a surface I could spray paint or write on. Now I feel more like a retired warrior, seeking a quiet and dimly lit corner where I can think and rest.
In the West, man wants to think himself separated from nature: if not a proper dominator, at least an external observer or investigator. This feeling of being outside or above natural laws, however, entails a feeling of exclusion, a sort of romantic longing for this “lost” connection with the rest of the natural world. Do you think your works express this melancholy, a need for communion with other creatures? Or are you suggesting that the animal, vegetable and mineral kingdoms have actually always been inertwined, and all barriers between them are a cultural construct, an illusion?
I think my work is about “longing for what we constantly lose” – voices, perfumes, memories… I often have the feeling I’m inventing those fragments of memories I had forgotten: I believe this is a form of self-defense on my part, to survive the melancholy you mention. For this reason, through my work, I try to translate what cannot be preserved through time into a visual form, so that I can retrieve these memories in my most nostalgic moments.
Yours are autoptic visions: why do you feel the need to dissect, to open the bodies you draw? As the inside of the body is still a taboo in many ways, how does the public react to the anatomical details in your works?
I need to be selfish. I never think about what the audience might feel, I don’t ask myself what others would or wouldn’t want to see. I am too busy taming my thoughts and turning my traumas into images.
I can’t recall exactly when I became interested in anatomy, but I will never forget the first time I saw somebody skin a rabbit. I was a very young child, and I was disturbed and at the same time fascinated – not by the violent scene in itself, but by what was hidden inside that animal. I immediately decided I would never harm a living being but I would try and understand their “engineering”, their inner design.
Later on, the desire to produce visionary artworks took over, and I started tracing subjects that could be expressive without offending any sensibility. But in the end what we feel when we look at something is also a product of our own background; so generally speaking I don’t think it’s possible to elicit am unambiguous sensation in the public.
You stated you’re not a big fan of colors, and in fact you often prefer earthy nuances, rusty browns, etc. Your latest woks, including those shown in the Manila exhibit entitled Mimesis, might suggest a progressive opening in that regard, as some floral arrangements are enriched by a whole palette of green, purple, blue, pink. Is this a way to add chromatic intricacy or, on the contrary, to make your images “lighter” and more pleasing?
I never looked at color as a “pleasing” or “light” element. Quite the opposite really. My use of color in the Mimesis cyle, just like in nature, is deceptive. In nature, color plays a fundamental role in survival. In my work, I make use of color to describe my subjects’ feelings when they are alone or in danger. Modifying their aspect is a necessity for them, a form of self-defense to protect themselves from the shallowness, arrogance and violence of society. A society which is only concerned with its own useless endurance.
In one of your exhibits, in 2013, you explicitly referenced the theory of “signatures”, the web of alleged correspondences among the different physical forms, the symptoms of illness, celestial mutations, etc. These analogies, for instance those found to exist between a tree, deer antlers and the artery system, were connected to palmistry, physiognomy and medicine, and were quite popular from Paracelsus to Gerolamo Cardano to Giambattista della Porta. In your works there’s always a reference to the origins of natural sciences, to Renaissance wunderkammern, to 15th-16th Century botanics. Even on a formal level, you have revisited some ancient techniques, such as the encaustic technique. What’s the appeal of that period?
I believe that was the beginning of it all, and all the following periods, including the one we live in, are but an evolution of that pioneering time. Man still studies plants, observes animal behavior, tries in vain to preserve the body, studies the mechanisms of outer space… Even if he does it in a different way, I don’t think much has really changed. What is lacking today is that crazy obsession with observation, the pleasure of discovery and the want to take care of one’s own time. In learning slowly, and deeply, lies the key to fix the emotions we feel when we discover something new.
A famous quote (attributed to Banksy, and inspired by a poem by Cesar A. Cruz) says: “Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable”. Are your paintings meant to comfort or disturb the viewer?
My way of life, and my way of being, are reflected in my work. I never felt the urge to shock or distrub the public with my images, nor did I ever try to seek attention. Though my work I wish to reach people’s heart. I want to do it tiptoe, silently, and by asking permission if necessary. If they let me in, that’s where I will grow my roots and reside forever.
Werner Herzog, a filmmaker who often addressed in his movies the difficult relationship between man and nature, claims in Grizzly Man (2006) that “the common denominator of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility, and murder”. Elsewhere, he describes the Amazon jungle as a never-ending “collective massacre”. As compared to Herzog’s pessimistic views, I have a feeling that you might see nature as a continuum, where any predator-pray relationship is eventually an act of “self-cannibalism”. Species fight and assault each other, but in the end this battle is won by life itself, who as an autopoietic system is capable of finding constant nourishment within itself. Decomposition itself is not bad, as it allows new germinations. What is death to you, and how does it relate to your work?
As far as I’m concerned, death plays a fundamental role, and I find myself constantly meditating on how all is slowly dying. A new sprout is already beginning to die, and that goes for all that’s living. One of the aspects of existence that most fascinate me is its decadence. I am drawn to it, both curious and scared, and my work is perhaps a way to exorcise all the slow dying that surrounds us.
Part of the pleasure of collecting curiosities lies in discovering the reactions they cause in various people: seeing the wonder arise on the face of onlookers always moves me, and gives meaning to the collection itself. Among the objects that, at least in my experience, evoke the strongest emotional response there are without doubt mourning-related accessories, and in particular those extraordinary XIX Century decorative works made by braiding a deceased person’s hair.
Be it a small brooch containing a simple lock of hair, a framed picture or a larger wreath, there is something powerful and touching in these hairworks, and the feeling they convey is surprisingly universal. You could say that anyone, regardless of their culture, experience or provenance, is “equipped” to recognize the archetypical value of hair: to use them in embroidery, jewelry and decoration is therefore an eminently magical act.
I decided to discuss this peculiar tradition with an expert, who was so kind as to answer my questions.
Courtney Lane is a real authority on the subject, not just its history but also its practical side: she studied the original techniques with the intent of bringing them back to life, as she is convinced that this ancient craft could accomplish its function of preserving memory still today.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I am a Victorian hair artist, historian, and self-proclaimed professional weirdo based in Kansas City. My business is called Never Forgotten where, as an artist, I create modern works of Victorian style sentimental hairwork for clients on a custom basis as well as making my own pieces using braids and locks of antique human hair that I find in places such as estate sales at old homes. As an academic, I study the history of hairwork and educate others through lectures as well as online video, and I also travel to teach workshops on how to do hairwork techniques.
Hairwork by Courtney Lane.
Where does your interest for Victorian hairwork come from?
I’ve always had a deep love for history and finding beauty in places that many consider to be dark or macabre. At the young age of 5, I fell in love with the beauty of 18th and 19th century mausoleums in the cemeteries near the French Quarter of New Orleans. Even as a child, I adored the grand gesture of these elaborate tombs for memorializing the dead. This lead me to developing a particular fondness for the Victorian era and the funerary customs of the time.
Somewhere along the line in studying Victorian mourning, I encountered the idea of hairwork. A romantic at heart, I’d already known of the romantic value a lock of hair from your loved one could hold, so I very naturally accepted that it would also be a perfect relic to keep of a deceased loved one. I found the artwork to be stunning and the sentiment to be of even greater beauty. I wondered why it was that we no longer practiced hairwork widely, and I needed to know why.
I studied for years trying to find the answers and eventually I learned how to do the artwork myself. I thoroughly believed that the power of sentimental hairwork could help society reclaim a healthier relationship with death and mourning, and so I decided to begin my business to create modern works, educate the public on the often misunderstood history of the artform, and ensure that this sentimental tradition is “Never Forgotten”.
How did hairwork become a popular mourning practice historically? Was the hair collected before or post mortem? Was it always related to grieving?
Hairwork has taken on a variety of purposes, most of which have been inherently sentimental, but it has not always been related to grieving. With the death of her husband, Queen Victoria fell into a deep mourning which lasted the remaining 40 years of her life. This, in turn, created a certain fashionability, and almost a fetishism, of mourning in the Victorian era. Most people today believe all hairwork had the purpose of elaborating a loss, but between the 1500s and early 1900s, hairwork included romantic keepsakes from a loved one or family mementos, and sometimes served as memorabilia from an important time in one’s life. As an example, many of the large three-dimensional wreaths you can still see actually served as a form of family history. Hair was often collected from several (often living) members of the family and woven together to create a genealogy. I’ve seen other examples of hairwork simply commemorating a major life event such as a first communion or a wedding. Long before hairwork became an art form, humans had already been exchanging locks of hair; so it’s only natural that there were instances of couples wearing jewelry that contained the hair of their living lovers.
As far as mourning hairwork is concerned, the hair was sometimes collected post mortem, and sometimes the hair was saved from an earlier time in their life. As hair was such an important part of culture, it was often saved when it was cut whether or not there was an immediate plan for making art or jewelry with it.
The idea of using hair as a mourning practice largely stems from Catholicism in the Middle Ages and the power of saintly relics in the church. The relic of a saint is more than just the physical remains of their body, rather it provides a spiritual connection to the holy person, creating a link between life and death. This belief that a relic can be a substitute for the person easily transitioned from public, religious mourning to private, personal mourning.
Of the types of relics (bone, flesh, etc), hair is by far the most accessible to the average person, as it does not need any sort of preservation to avoid decomposition, much as the rest of the body does; collecting from the body is as simple as using a pair of scissors. Hair is also one of the most identifiable parts of person, so even though pieces of bone might just be as much of a relic, hair is part of your loved one that you see everyday in life, and can continue to recognize after death.
Was hairwork strictly a high-class practice?
Hairwork was not strictly high-class. Although hairwork was kept by some members of upper class, it was predominantly a middle-class practice. Some hairwork was done by professional hairworkers, and of course, anyone commissioning them would need the means to do so; but a lot of hairwork was done in the home usually by the women of the family. With this being the case, the only expenses would be the crafting tools (which many middle-class women would already likely have around the home), and the jewelry findings, frames, or domes to place the finished hairwork in.
How many people worked at a single wreath, and for how long? Was it a feminine occupation, like embroidery?
Hairwork was usually, but not exclusively done by women and was even considered a subgenre of ladies’ fancy work. Fancy work consisted of embroidery, beadwork, featherwork, and more. There are even instances of women using hair to embroider and sew. It was thought to be a very feminine trait to be able to patiently and meticulously craft something beautiful.
As far as wreaths are concerned, it varied in the number of people who would work together to create one. Only a few are well documented enough to know for sure.
I’ve also observed dozens of different techniques used to craft flowers in wreaths and some techniques are more time consuming than others. One of the best examples I’ve seen is an incredibly well documented piece that indicates that the whole wreath consists of 1000 flowers (larger than the average wreath) and was constructed entirely by one woman over the span of a year. The documentation also specifies that the 1000 flowers were made with the hair of 264 people.
Why did it fall out of fashion during the XX Century?
Hairwork started to decline in popularity in the early 1900’s. There were several reasons.
The first reason was the growth of hairwork as an industry. Several large companies and catalogues started advertising custom hairwork, and many people feared that sending out for the hairwork rather than making it in the home would take away from the sentiment. Among these companies was Sears, Roebuck and Company, and in one of their catalogues in 1908, they even warned, “We do not do this braiding ourselves. We send it out; therefore we cannot guarantee same hair being used that is sent to us; you must assume all risk.” This, of course, deterred people from using professional hairworkers.
Another reason lies with the development and acceptance of germ theory in the Victorian era. The more people learned about germs and the more sanitary products were being sold, the more people began to view the human body and all its parts as a filthy thing. Along with this came the thought that hair, too, was unclean and people began to second guess using it as a medium for art and jewelry.
World War I also had a lot to do with the decline of hairwork. Not only was there a general depletion in resources for involved countries, but more and more women began to work outside of the home and no longer had the time to create fancy work daily. During war time when everybody was coming together to help the war effort, citizens began to turn away from frivolous expenses and focus only on necessities. Hair at this time was seen for the practical purposes it could serve. For example, in Germany there were propaganda posters encouraging women to cut their long hair and donate it to the war effort when other fibrous materials became scarce. The hair that women donated was used to make practical items such as transmission belts.
With all of these reasons working together, sentimental hairwork was almost completely out of practice by the year 1925; no major companies continued to create or repair hairwork, and making hairwork at home was no longer a regular part of daily life for women.
19th century hairworks have become trendy collectors items; this is due in part to a fascination with Victorian mourning practices, but it also seems to me that these pieces hold a special value, as opposed to other items like regular brooches or jewelry, because of – well, the presence of human hair. Do you think we might still be attaching some kind of “magical”, symbolic power to hair? Or is it just an expression of morbid curiosity for human remains, albeit in a mild and not-so-shocking form?
I absolutely believe that all of these are true. Especially amongst people less familiar with these practices, there is a real shock value to seeing something made out of hair. When I first introduce the concept of hairwork to people, some find the idea to be disgusting, but most are just fascinated that the hair does not decompose. People today are so out of touch with death, that they immediately equate hair as a part of the body and don’t understand how it can still be perfectly pristine over a hundred years later. For those who don’t often ponder their own mortality, thinking about the fact that hair can physically live on long after they’ve died can be a completely staggering realization.
Once the initial surprise and morbid curiosity have faded, many people recognize a special value in the hair itself. Amongst serious collectors of hair, there seems to be a touching sense of fulfillment in the opportunity to preserve the memory of somebody who once was loved enough to be memorialized this way – even if they remain nameless today. Some may say it is a spiritual calling, but I would say at the very least it is a shared sense of mortal empathy.
What kind of research did you have to do in order to learn the basics of Victorian hairworks? After all, this could be described as a kind of “folk art”, which was meant for a specific, often personal purpose; so were there any books at the time holding detailed instructions on how to do it? Or did you have to study original hairworks to understand how it was done?
Learning hairwork was a journey for me. First, I should say that there are several different types of hairwork and some techniques are better documented than others. Wire work is the type of hairwork you see in wreaths and other three-dimensional flowers. I was not able to find any good resources on how to do these techniques, so in order to learn, I began by studying countless wreaths. I took every opportunity I could to study wreaths that were out of their frame or damaged so I could try to put them back together and see how everything connected. I spent hours staring at old pieces and playing with practice hair through trial and error.
Other techniques are palette work and table work. Palette work includes flat pictures of hair which you may see in a frame or under glass in jewelry, and table work includes the elaborate braids that make up a jewelry chain such as a necklace or a watch fob.
The Lock of Hair by Alexanna Speight and Art of Hair Work: Hair Braiding and Jewelry of Sentiment by Mark Campbell teach palette work and table work, respectively. Unfortunately, being so old, these books use archaic English and also reference tools and materials that are no longer made or not as easy to come by. Even after reading these books, it takes quite a bit of time to find modern equivalents and practice with a few substitutions to find the best alternative. For these reasons, I would love to write an instructional book explaining all three of these core techniques in an easy to understand way using modern materials, so hairwork as a craft can be more accessible to a wider audience.
Why do you think this technique could be still relevant today?
The act and tradition of saving hair is still present in our society. Parents often save a lock of their child’s first haircut, but unfortunately that lock of hair will stay hidden away in an envelope or a book and rarely seen again. I’ve also gained several clients just from meeting someone who has never heard of hairwork, but they still felt compelled cut a lock of hair from their deceased loved one to keep. Their eyes consistently light up when they learn that they can wear it in jewelry or display it in artwork. Time and again, these people ask me if it’s weird that they saved this hair. Often, they don’t even know why they did. It’s a compulsion that many of us feel, but we don’t talk about it or celebrate it in our modern culture, so they think they’re strange or morbid even though it’s an incredibly natural thing to do.
Another example is saving your own hair when it’s cut. Especially in instances of cutting hair that’s been grown very long or hair that has been locked, I very often encounter people who have felt so much of a personal investment in their own hair that they don’t feel right throwing it out. These individuals may keep their hair in a bag for years, not knowing what to do with it, only knowing that it felt right to keep. This makes perfect sense to me, because hair throughout history has always been a very personal thing. Even today, people identify each other by hair whether it be length, texture, color, or style. Different cultures may wear their hair in a certain way to convey something about their heritage, or individuals will use their own creativity or sense of self to decide how to wear their hair. Whether it be for religion, culture, romance, or mourning, the desire to attach sentimental value to hair and the impulse to keep the hair of your loved one are inherently human.
I truly believe that being able to proudly display our hair relics can help us process some of our most intimate emotions and live our best lives.
If you read Bizzarro Bazar, you might know that I have long been following with admiration the work of Ayzad, who is an expert in alternative sexualities.
A great deal of intelligence, and a perfect lucidity are essential in order to tackle such sensible topics with a reliable yet light approach.
It’s not by chance that Ayzad’s website has been recently nominated by Kinkly fourth-best sex blog written by a male worldwide, and in the 27th overall position (among approximately 500 candidates).
His books and his blog are not just a treasure trove of scrupulous information, which is bound to surprise even those who fancy being experts in BDSM or extreme eros: Ayzad also willingly pursues a taste for the weird, in a constant balance between the fascination for our sexuality’s strangest incarnations, and a liberating laugh — because love among the Homo sapiens, let’s admit it, can sometimes be frankly comical.
Therefore, when he asked me if I would answer some questions for his website, I did not hesitate. What came out of it is not an interview, on the account of the intelligence I mentioned before, but rather an exchange of experiences between two seekers of oddities: one of the best discussions I had recently, where, perfectly at ease with each other, we even delved into some quite personal details (and avoided a quarrel, albeit a friendly one, by a narrow margin).
We shouldn’t fear autopsies.
I’m not using this term in its strict legal/medical meaning (even though I always advise anybody to go and see a real autopsy), but rather in its etymological sense: the act of “seeing with one’s own eyes” is the basis for all knowledge, and represents the first step in defeating our fears. By staring directly at what scares us, by studying it and domesticating it, we sometimes discover that our worries were unfounded in the first place.
This is why, on these webpages, I have often openly explored death and all of its complex cultural aspects; because the autoptic act is always fruitful and necessary, even more so if we are addressing the major “collective repressed” in our society.
Bringing forward these very ideas, here is someone who has given rise to a real activist movement advocating a healthier approach to death and dying: Caitlin Doughty.
Caitlin, born in 1984, decided to pursue a career as a mortician to overcome her own fear of death; even as a novice, picking up corpses from homes in a van, preparing them, and facing the peculiar challenges of the crematorium, this brilliant girl had a plan – she intended to change the American funeral industry from the inside. Modern death phobia, which Caitlin directly experienced, has reached paradoxical levels, making the grief elaboration process almost impossible. This irrational anxiety towards dead bodies is the reason we delegate professionals to completely remove the corpse’s “scandalous” presence from our familiar environment, thus depriving relatives of the necessary time to understand their loss. Take the extreme example of online cremation services, through which a parent, for instance, can ship out his own child’s dead body and receive the ashes a few days later: no ritual, no contact, no last image, no memory of this essential moment of transition. How can you come to terms with grief, if you even avoid watching?
From these premises, her somewhat “subversive” project was born: to bring death into people’s homes, to give families the opportunity of taking back their loved ones’ remains, and to turn the undertaking profession into a support service, not preventing relatives from preparing the body themselves, but rather assisting them in a non-invasive way. Spending some time in contact with a dead body does not usually pose any sanitary problem, and could be useful in order to concretely process the loss. To be able to carry out private rituals, to wash and dress the body, to talk to our loved ones one last time, and eventually to have more disposal options: such a positive approach is only possible if we learn to talk openly about death.
Caitlin therefore decided to act on several fronts.
On one hand, she founded The Order of the Good Death, an association of funeral professionals, artists, writers and academics sharing the will to change the Western attitude towards death, funerals, and grief. The Order promotes seminaries, workshops, lectures and organizes the annual Death Salon, a public gathering in which historians, intellectuals, artists, musicians and researchers discuss the various cultural aspects of death.
On the other hand, Caitlin created a successful YouTube channel with the purpose of answering user submitted questions about what goes on behind the scenes of the funeral industry. Her Ask A Mortician webseries doesn’t draw back from any horrific detail (she talks about the thorny problem of post-mortem poo, about the alleged presence of necrophiliacs in the industry, etc.), but her humorous and exuberant approach softens the darker tones and succeeds in passing the underlying message: we shouldn’t be afraid of talking about death.
Finally, to reach an even wider and heterogeneous audience, Caitlin published the thought-provoking Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, an autobiographical account of her time as a funeral home apprentice: with her trademark humor, and to the reader’s secret delight, Caitlin dispenses several macabre anecdotes detailing her misadventures (yes, some chapters ought to be read on an empty stomach), yet she does not hesitate to recount the most tragic and touching moments she experienced on the job. But the book’s main interest really lies in following her ruminations about death and the way her own feelings evolved – eventually leading her to actively try and change the general public attitude towards dying. Smoke Gets In Your Eyes immediately became a best-seller, as a further proof of the fact that people actually want to know more about what is socially kept out of sight.
As an introduction to her work for the Italian readership, I asked Caitlin a few questions.
Has working as a mortician affected the way you look at death?
It has made me more comfortable being around dead bodies. More than that, it has made me appreciate the dead body, and realize how strange it is that we try our best as an industry to hide it. We would be a happier, healthier culture in the West if we didn’t try to cover up mortality.
Did you have to put up some sort of psychological defense mechanism in order to deal with dead bodies on a daily basis?
No, I don’t think so. It’s not the dead bodies that are the issue psychogically. It is far more difficult on the emotions working with the living, taking on their grief, their stories, their pain. You have to strike a balance between being open to the families, but not bringing everything home with you.
“He looks like he’s sleeping” must be the best compliment for a mortician. You basically substitute the corpse with a symbol, a symulacrum. Our society decided long ago that death must be a Big Sleep: in ancient Greece, Tanathos (Death) and Hypnos (Sleep) were brothers, and with Christianity this analogy solidified for good – see f.i. the word “cemetery”, which literally means “sleeping, resting place”. This idea of death being akin to sleep is clearly comforting, but it’s just a story we keep telling ourselves. Do you feel the need for new narratives regarding death?
“He looks like he’s sleeping” wouldn’t necessarily be a compliment to me. I would love for someone to say “he looks dead, but he looks beautiful. I feel like seeing him like this is helping me accept he’s gone”. It’s harder to accept the loss when we insist that someone is perpetually sleeping. They’re not. They’re dead. That’s devastating, but part of the acceptance process.
In your book, you extensively talk about medicalization and removal of death from our societies, a subject which has been much discussed in the past. You made a step further though, becoming an activist for a new, healthier way to approach death and dying – trying to lift the taboo regarding these topics. But, within every culture, taboos play an important role: do you feel that a more relaxed relationship with death could spoil the experience of the sacred, and devoid it of its mystery?
Death will always be mysterious and sacred. But the actual dying process and the dead body, when made mysterious and kept behind the scenes, are made scary. So often someone will say to me, “I thought my father was going to be cremated in a big pile with other people, thank you for telling me exactly how the process works”. People are so terrified of what they don’t know. I can’t help people with spiritual life after death, I can only help with the worldly realities of the corpse. And I know education makes people less afraid. Death is not taboo in many cultures, and there are many scholars who think it’s not a natural or ingrained taboo at all, only when we make it one.
Has the internet changed the way we experience death? Are we really on the verge of a revolution?
The internet has changed death, but that’s not really something we can judge. Everyone got so angry at the teenagers taking selfies at funerals, but that’s just an expression of the new digital landscape. People in the United States in the 1960s thought that cremation was pagan devil sinful stuff, and now almost 50% of Americans choose it. Each generation takes things a step in a new direction, death evolves.
By promoting death at home and families taking care of their own dead, you are somehow rebelling against a multi-million funeral industry. Have you had any kind of negative feedback or angry reactions?
There are all kinds of funeral directors that don’t like me or what I’m saying. I understand why, I’m questioning their relevancy and inability to adapt. I’d hate me too. They find it very difficult to confront me directly, though. They also find it difficult to have open, respectful dialogues. I think it’s just too close to their hearts.
Several pages in your book are devoted to debunking one of the most recent but well-established myths regarding death: the idea that embalming is absolutely necessary. Modern embalming, an all-American practice, began spreading during Civil War, in order to preserve the bodies until they were carried back home from the front. As this procedure does not exist in Italy, we Italians are obviously unaware of its implications: why do you feel this is such an important issue?
First of all, embalming is not a grand important historical American tradition. It’s only a little more than a hundred years old, so it’s silly to pretend like it’s the fabric of our death culture. Embalming is a highly invasive process that ends with filling the bodies with dangerous chemicals. I’m not against someone choosing to have it done, but most families are told it’s necessary by law or to make the body safe to be around, both of which are completely untrue.
The Order of the Good Death is rapidly growing in popularity, featuring a calendar of death-positive events, lectures, workshops and of course the Death Salon. Most of the organizers and members in the Order are female: why do you think women are at the front line in the death awareness movement?
This is the great mystery. Perhaps it has to do with women’s historical connection to death, and the desire to reclaim it. Perhaps it is a feminist act, refusing to let men have control of our bodies in reproduction, healthcare, or death. There are no solid answers, but I’d love someone to do a Phd on this!
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!