Tag Archives: death

The separation of body and soul

I’ve been thinking about picturing the dead and how the object making that bodies – especially women’s bodies – are subject to through the photograph are a kind of death-making. I guess I’ve been provoked by the images of Reeva Steenkamp, whose bikinied body posed next to headlines that screamed of her murder. It was painful to see those front pages. If nothing else, it tells us that images and narratives matter. Images hurt, maim, murder. Images save and recover. Linda Stupart has written a great piece, “Woman, object, corpse: Killing women through media”, which pretty much summed up and furthered my thoughts regarding those Steenkamp images. Have a read.

I wanted to find an example of an image that was painful to see, but set out to do the opposite to what those front pages did the day after Valentine’s. It had to be beautiful, it had to reckon with the objectification of women’s bodies and the very real damage they suffer because of it. No violation, no leering glance. How does one save a woman’s body from the bounds of dead object and yet still tell of the danger and struggles she faces because of that body?

My former classmate, Helen Rimell, drew my attention to her work documenting the lives of Mumbai’s sex workers which appeared on Vice last week. And I think it answered and provoked some questions:

http://www.vice.com/en_uk/read/south-mumbai-sex-workers-violence-funeral-set-on-fire

The photo I wish to focus upon is a portrait of the dead body of a woman called Mumtaz. As explained in the piece, her family believe she was murdered by her partner. It features about half way down the page linked to above. I didn’t want to paste it here because I feel this is something you have to elect to see, not something you stumble across on a blog. As I say, I’m focusing upon that one image, but as an important aside, Vice’s SEO orientated labelling of the whole story is predictably lame and offensive – the text preview that appears if you share the link on facebook calling this “a scary story”, doesn’t really even begin to cover the depth of feeling in these images. Similarly, the shock tactics of the headline substitutes these women’s stories with horror house dummies. Helen’s photo project and her narrated experience of it are a world away from such tactics.

My opening questions when approaching this image were: what does it mean to show someone’s life and death? What does it mean for me – a white, middle class, western woman – to see this life and death; one so unknown to me?

I find it interesting that we often talk about the showing of a dead body as in some way degrading – and indeed it is the case that the Western media is happy to oggle many more dead and maimed black and brown bodies yet treats white bodies with a respectful averted gaze, but in this case the way the body shown stands outside that damaging dynamic. Yes, it is shocking, but Mumtaz’ body acts as a testimony to her life and the struggles she faced. As Helen says, the family wanted the world to know what had happened to Mumtaz and so wanted photographs of everything at the funeral.

There is also the fact that the visibility of the body is a natural part of the funeral process in this context, which surely transforms the extent to which we would call the viewing of the body an exposure. Instead, it is evidence which demands witness and the beautiful elements keep us looking at what is hard in the image. Golden petals, pink stains, a slash of sunlight – naturalistic elements of the funeral which become metaphors for this female body and female life. All are painful, all demand regard. I think it is important to recentre identity in the body in this way, especially when you live and die by the fact of it.

The Sunset Room and other spaces

Notes on 25th March 2011

Thinking about the body in the photograph and the ways in which the photograph IS a body. Then about the absence of the body in the photograph – a subject which marks against the medium, indeed a subject which distresses the very idea of ‘subject’.
Always many things to improve. –
Why this word, why this shape? etc. Just know that it is a work in progress, even if I do not readdress the particular piece, it is a work in progress in me and in the other works that follow. Strange to have an inkling of a vision that is realised in visions and never quite seen, always hidden by some technical fault. Like static on the radio waves that is the radio waves.
I think in violent shapes that I do believe are out there to be seen and then to be shown, but it takes practice to see and show them. Like learning to see into the future and talk in tongues.

The river like milk in the morning, past my window. The river like oil at night. The visual becomes tied up in these everyday things – coffee and phone calls. It becomes necessary to execute it through the computer screen, when I wanted to bring it alive. But it’s a process to push through. And at the end, the result is never as light and fluttering as that first thought, but then maybe that first thought was a delusion anyway. Something untested and unseen has the chance to be as beautiful as you might wish, and then must be pinned down, piece by piece, into something more usual. So I think it’s only a self-trick that it was ever so great, that it was ever other than the form you see now. I think practice will at least slowly close the gap between conception and the body eventually produced.

The words and pictures are one another. There is no support act. I hope at least that is clear – That there is a space between the words and pictures that is as significant as those words and pictures. That you, the viewer, are invited into that space, like hearing an echo reverberate around a cave. (The pictures are below, but go on, you should read the other stuff first. I tried to make it good, honestly.)

Recently I started reading things about embalming and bodily decay. I don’t know why I take these dark turns. Keep wondering if I’m trying to confront myself with something or if it’s more of a childish fascination with things often not seen or said.

Notes on 31st March 2011

Following this, I found myself sitting in the Waterloo Sunset room in the Hayward Gallery. I say ‘following this’, that doesn’t really make sense because obviously it was not simply just afterwards. What I mean is, it was in the same well of thought that I found myself sitting there. Or, I was in the same well of thought when I sat there. In fact, I was waiting for a suitable time to go to the train station. A friend from university who now lives in Edinburgh had come to visit and I had to meet her at 3 something for about 20 minutes. It was my fault that it was only 20 minutes. Anyway, then I had to wait to catch the train. I needed to go to my mother’s house (or ‘home’ as it has more often been called) to see my sister before she left for some months in Germany. I didn’t want to spend any money and there was nothing else to do so I went to the Southbank because I knew it would be sunny there. Then I went into the Hayward gallery because the yellow Bankside signposts directed me there. Turns out it costs money to see the exhibit and I’d already decided not to spend any money so I ended up in that ‘Waterloo Sunset’ room. Have you ever heard that song ‘Waterloo Sunset’? My Dad posted it to me on a mix CD he had called ‘Piss Off Winter’. Or it could have been from his ‘Some Love Songs For Spring’, but I’m not sure that would make sense, to have it with all the more lovey love songs, you know, the ones about people not places. His handwriting makes ‘Some Love Songs for Spring’ look like ‘Some Love Songs for Spinny’. For a while, I wondered if he was calling me ‘Spinny’, thinking, that’s a new one.
Anyway, that song, it’s sepia coloured. It seemed nice to find the room, even though it was nothing like my feeling about the song. Although, the yellow light of March sun was slanting in in a way that was a bit sepia, I guess. Whenever I hear those sepia coloured songs – I don’t know what it is, maybe it’s that they already sound nostalgic for the 60s, as if they were made with that nostalgia in mind – I think of my Grandmother’s house and my Mother growing up there. It’s only after my Grandmother died that many of The Beatles songs started sounding nostalgic to me. And they are nostalgic for a time that is not my own, before I was born. I think it might be one of the strongest kinds of nostalgia – the kind that pre-dates your own childhood (the usual domain for nostalgia), and can therefore remain even more free of any mundane or depressing reality; a total fantasy space that feels like a past you might have had. A kind of phantom genetic memory through pop songs. My Mother was born in 1956 so she was a child when The Beatles started to be heard. I imagine her watching them on the TV, although, they didn’t have a TV until she was older, I think. The facts about the personal lives before you existed are never straight, it doesn’t matter how much I’m told, I still can’t help but imagine it as I want. I don’t know when this Waterloo Sunset came out and I don’t want to look because it will distort the image I have of her existing at the same time as it, because it could well be later than I am imagining.

I am imagining her in a bottle green cardigan and sepia coloured pleated skirt. I am imagining this song playing for the first time. It’s not on the record player. It’s just playing over the top of everything. The family are in the living room. They can all hear it but they all think it’s in their heads, some song they’ve caught off the radio they think. It’s like a track in a film. This is like a film, I’m the as yet not born viewer. My Grandmother is young again and in a knee-length blue skirt. She is wearing her ‘pinny’. It’s white with pink edging. She’s also wearing her slippers, which are narrow and open-backed. She is bringing boiled potatoes to the dining table and they are billowing steam and it is purling in the sunlight. My Mother, my Aunt and my Uncle are waiting for the dinner, making their way to the table from their games rolling on the sofa. My Mother is sitting on the floor with a doll. My Mother is the kind of girl who loves dolls. She cares for them with a very serious responsibility and always keeps them clean and well fed and pretty. Waterloo Sunset is going, ‘Everyday I look at the world from my window / But chilly chilly is the evening time’. She is sitting with folded legs on the emerald carpet that they had for decades. Right up until Nana died, that carpet remained. It’s in all the photos. It’s emerald with black patterns that looked like giant stamps to me, when I was the little girl sitting curled-legged in the same place as my mother is now. My Grandfather is already at the table. I don’t think my Grandmother and Grandfather like that song a lot. I think my Grandmother thinks some of that stuff is nice. The upbeat Beatles’ ones. But you know, it’s not their generation any more. Also, they are not romantic about London, I doubt they much care for London, and this song seems to be all about London. My Mother is romantic about London though and this song fits that perfectly. London is where her aunt lives who always smells of expensive perfume and always wears beautifully cut dresses. My Mother likes the song because it says ‘But I don’t feel afraid / As long as I gaze on Waterloo sunsets / I am in paradise’. It’s such a faded watery paradise. It’s so much what London might be, distant and yellowing, punctuated by these bustling figures in black; ‘Millions of people swarming like flies around Waterloo underground’. London is so busy like that, my Mother thinks, full of people and smelling of perfume. The sound of smart shoes clicking on the tiling to the underground entrance. She remembers that from a visit to her aunt.
As the family gathers around the dinner table, there is a strange emotion stirring in each of them. No one knows that the others are feeling it but they are all feeling it the same. Perhaps it’s the slightly melancholic notes of the song in their heads? Nobody has the words to mention it. They don’t even know what that song is called. But this feeling, it’s one that only strikes you with true emphasis a few times in your life, it’s the feeling that you are at a point in time that is irrevocably slipping away. It is this powerful presence of those who are not yet born, who are waiting upon you to be born, and who will assume your place when you vanish. It’s this feeling that you are together now but that you will reach some moment when you will never be all together again. My Grandmother thinks of heaven at this point and tries to assign her feelings to that place. She is serving potatoes and greens and the meat. My Aunt is watching to check the older children do not get more than her. My Grandfather is looking out of the window into the garden because of the strength of the feeling. He thinks it’s like some kind of nostalgia for yourself, like you are remembering the moment you are in and longing for it. He’s touching the fact that things pass. He doesn’t want to talk about that, so he’s looking at the crumbs that have been scattered on the lawn for the birds, with his hands placed together, almost in prayer. The plates are full, the song moves towards its close. Nobody talks, waiting for the song to end. It’s me, and all who follow me, waiting on them, to eat the next meal, to continue their bodily life and to move time forward, until I get to exist and the rest get to exist. The desire to exist in the future is surely as powerful a haunting as the desire to exist in the past again. Me and all the unfigured ghosts are watching my Mother lift a forkful of steaming potato to her lips. My Mother feels watched. My Aunt is wearing a blue pinafore dress and her fringe stands up in a cows’ lick. Her children gaze upon that infant forehead, exposed by the unruly hair, and model their own after it, ready to be born.
‘As long as I gaze on Waterloo Sunset / I am in Paradise’. Paradise? Are we in paradise, everybody wonders. They look at the food before them, the sunlight casting shapes on the mint walls behind them. They have a strong feeling that this is paradise. That paradise is quite readily understood on Earth but that it is passing, and that’s the trick. That it passes. They want to grab it right now. They want to stifle the unformed embryos that turn deep within their child-wombs, that wait half-formed in the ovaries of the daughters – who have every egg they will release in their lifetime already there from birth. They know that more life will only mean growing up, ageing, death. Nobody can think of their Mother’s death well. You could almost cry just trying to think about it. My Mother imagines the hazy moment in the future where her Mother will die. She holds back from the full thought, in case she might cry. She looks at my Grandmother’s thin wrists as she cuts her meat apart, and the gold cladder ring on her finger. The hazy future moment appears in the same light as ‘Waterloo Sunset’, a sepia like memory, it seems. Like a faded and crumpled photograph. My Mother stares hard at her mother. Trying to fix her there. Even then the song dies, the feeling slips out of the beginning of the meal. My Mother is just looking into the face of her mother and her mother smiles, moves beyond an image and into a human body. Images can be kept and bodies are dying.

When the song is gone, I can’t stay there any more, I don’t know what that means any more and I can’t see it without the song. Me and all my unborns slip away, never even knowing we were there. My Grandfather turns back to the table and has the distinct feeling that he will be the first to die of this group. And he thinks it’s all you can pray for after all, to die before the children. The food is warm and welcome, the food brings everyone back to the moment. They will watch the news at 10 later. My Grandmother will write in her diary. Probably something like, ‘Received an interesting parcel in the post day. A bright day, lovely.’ Further down the page, my Aunt’s childish handwriting, written into another day, will say ‘RicHard’s BirthdaY Today!’. Then she might go through the diary, writing in all the birthdays she knows and therefore making sure she has charted time for her mother. She can’t quite bear to leave silent that moment that her mother spends everyday writing notes into the diary. She doesn’t want to be shut out from that careful documenting of small dealings and the daily weather. She wants to be with her mother in that silent time, to be passing through the days with her, not allowing her to tuck them away in some drawer on her own where no one can see them any more.