Here is a talk that I gave today, my penultimate day, in Dundee. I am looking forward to developing the work I did here back in the studio, and also to returning to CAHID next year hopefully to pick up where I left off!
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more, death, thou shalt die.
John Donne 1633 (2 years posthumously), Holy Sonnet 10: Death, be not proud
I wanted to begin this talk with Donne’s Holy Sonnet number 10 as I feel it speaks to everything that I have been doing here over the past two weeks. This is my second visit to CAHID and once again the openness and the warmth with which you all have welcomed me into your world has made my time here very special. Besides the chance to be back in Scotland – a country that nutures my soul! – the opportunity to work within all the facilities of CAHID has been a gift of immeasurable value, so thank you; and thank you too for coming today.
So last week some of you heard more of an introduction to my work in general so today I want to briefly focus on the specific work I have been doing here which has primarily been about making a series of drawings and written notes that reflect on the nature of my emotional response to the cadavers I’ve been working with in the dissection room and in the mortuary, especially in consideration of their ‘personhood’ in relation to my own. I’ve put some of the drawings I have made up onto this powerpoint and the originals are all here should you wish to look at them.
My time here therefore has been full of reflection, a creative and productive time during which I have been able to step away, both metaphorically and literally, from life and indulge my profound fascination with the contexts in which we understand death. Donne is complex in his allusions and as in all art forms a lot must depend on how each of us as individuals interpret his words, but for me, the gist of what he is saying is that although physical death may constitute an end, the nature of death itself is not so consummate. As Dylan Thomas, after Paul in the Romans said, ‘And death shall have no dominion’.
I am not religious, and though I like to use words I cannot consider myself much of a poet. I do however have unlimited respect for both. I talk sometimes about the soul but I refer I think more to a sense of ‘being’, an idea of personhood that is indeed drawn from all of my training and philosophical inclination, but most importantly I think from my simply being a human being. It is ‘being’ so that drives me.
As an artist I do not seek perfection with all the vanity that brings with it but I am drawn rather to the integrity of the imperfect, the anomaly, the marginalised, the disassociated and the disregarded. But I have travelled many and often interestingly diverse roads to get here. For my formative Fine Art training I purposefully chose a classical approach to anatomical drawing, and with my fellow students in the ateliers of the New York Academy I struggled with everything I thought I knew in order to render the skeleton and musculature of the objectified human form to perfection. We defined the look in the eye, the ‘humanity’ of the living, breathing model in almost as cold and detached a manner as we drew from the plaster casts that stared, equally cold and unblinking, from perfectly carved corneas, and I learned how to deliberately set aside all sentiment and all my philosophy in the belief that in order to eventually render true subjectivity, the true ‘content’ of the subject with all its imperfections and uncertainties, I needed to understand the object, the ‘form’, in its perfect state.
Nature gave way then, albeit temporarily to artifice, but it was through this betrayal of everything I have come to hold dear that I came then to understand the simple honesty that underlies a true relation between objectivity and subjectivity. I was struggling to achieve the perfection of form and content only so that I would be able to manipulate it and seek the essence of human subjectivity in terms of its discontent; that is, suffering in all its paradigms. Perfection has no real value then, even if it were a possibility rather than just an ideal. Perfection leaves no room for manoeuver, no room for the inevitable errors that must be an innate aspect of individuality and, as such, you could say that perfection leaves no room beyond itself for anything else but levels of suffering. Thus in the work I do now, almost exclusively within the world of medicine where life and death are dealt with on a daily basis, and I look for meaning in the ways that levels of suffering are both borne and are responded to.
While working here this past two weeks I have been able to continue my education in human anatomy first hand, and indeed find some answers, but, perhaps more importantly, I have also had the opportunity to indulge in my favourite combination of creative exploration and philosophical enquiry. Always for me, however many answers I stumble upon, there are always more questions. Questioning is at the very heart of what I do.
I questioned how I would respond to watching an embalming, or yet a brain removal. I was fascinated to discover that I was fascinated! During the embalming process my painters brain went into overdrive…the sheer beauty of the colours I saw changing over the form as it swelled with the intake of fluid was almost overwhelming. I made a couple of quick sketches but in some cases it is better just to experience the moment and commit the imagery to burning memory. The seeming violence of the act of introducing the tubes into the sagittal vein and into the femoral artery was lessened somehow by the respect and the professionalism with which Sam and Clare, the technicians, performed it. Even during such invasion, the stripped, shaven and lifeless body retained the dignity of the person who had lived it and left it only a few hours before. Watching the slow, sometimes gentle, sometimes more effusive purging of original bodily fluid from the lips, from the eyes and from the cut deftly made in the cranium made me consider and question my understanding of the nature of being even more profoundly.
In conclusion I would like to share some brief thoughts that I felt worth recording during my time drawing here. They are thoughts and reflections that give voice to my emotional responses to what I was seeing and hearing and experiencing.
How shall I call you?
Shall I call you sir?
Are you afraid of what I will do?
I wield only a pencil
No blades, no sharps
Yet I can damage you
I can erase you as you have late been erased
You are the special one
You are bagged and saved only for research
Only practiced hands probe
The depths of you
But what now
Subject to an artist’s gaze
Did you suffer ?
The silence is heavy on me
Not the silence of death
No, that silence has already passed into what was
This is the silence of no life
I see in him my father’s death
In the sparseness of his limb
In the stillness of his spirit
In the slackness of his jaw
And in the deep quietude that befell him
I didn’t see my father die
I was not there as the cancer raged through him
But here, now, I see in him my father’s death
And all is well