I thought about corpses this Easter

Another long weekend stretched ahead of us, we felt we should do something more than just lull about reading in our garden. So, we ended up in a small room looking at a naked corpse and working out what that meant.

It was an adult male body of small stature. I was surprised at just how tiny it was. The skin was bronzed with preservative chemicals, the flaccid genitals splayed and the entire frame lay funeral-straight in a glass box entitled: “Diogenes”.

The walls of the room were covered with paintings of the man as he had been in life, with masses of unkempt curly hair and an almost mythic beard. His hair had been cut and his face, except for a tidy moustache, shaved, I presume, for the funeral. What lay in that box did not look like the lively man in filthy, ragged clothes in the paintings.

Laurence and I had wandered into the gallery by chance. Our plan had been to go to Bristol museum but as this was on our way, we went in on a whim. I often struggle to access paintings. I’m far more successful at experiencing and making sense of photography, so I went in not expecting to be so affected by Robert Lenkiewicz’s exhibition, especially since I hadn’t a clue who he was.

I was intrigued by the plaque at the entrance that explained that his work was challenging and might disturb but wasn’t too bothered. The paintings were incredible. The style was quite classical but the subjects contemporary. In every piece, there was something unexpectedly unnerving, whether it was an empty chair with an orange on it, a ghostly figure lurking in the background or someone holding a posture that did not fit with the rest of the painting.

The paintings in the second room were either overtly gory (a baby pulled out of a womb) or sexual (Lenkiewicz painted himself touching a series of beautiful nude women, sometimes with a paintbrush in the other hand). These were the pieces that I felt cried out for an interpretive plaque, some handle bar to hold on to, but unlike the first sets, these had none. It was difficult to move beyond shock to anything else.

The final room held the corpse – “the artefact” as Lenkiewicz called it. We were forewarned of what was in the room and I decided not to give myself too much time to think about it before going in. But I couldn’t take more than a couple of quick glances.

I come from a culture where it’s common to walk past an open casket at the end of the funeral service and so I’m familiar with viewing corpses and have been since I was a child. Perhaps it was the nakedness that bothered me. I think it was the context. It felt irreverent.

A video interview with the artist and the man who had given him his body as an artefact played in the room. The next day, I was still thinking about what Lenkiewicz had said, that the more he looked at “the artefact” the more struck he was by the total presence of the body and the total absence of the person.

This is the crux of our human frailty: our bodies are fragile and only temporarily contain us.

In an odd sort of way, this was an interesting weekend to think about that. The story of Easter portrays the God of the universe choosing to take on a body that is vulnerable, so much so that he is tortured and killed.

And although it makes sense that his “God-ness” would enable his body to do what none of ours can – be reunited with the person – there is unmistakable strangeness in the narrative that shakes me up again and again.

While I write this, the creature is kicking me, and there is even more strangeness in this, that the body he took on was at one point a fetus.

I’ve been reminded recently of how vulnerable we are in the womb. The blood test results from our little hospital rendez-vous the other day came back showing that I’m anaemic. My blood is going to my little parasite.

It’s striking how my body takes care of her needs first but it’s also unnerving just how dependent she is on me. Right now, that littler body needs my body for everything. I could think about this mystery of human frailty to the point of giving myself a headache. So I’ll stop there.

But that’s what I got up to this weekend. What did you do?


2 Comments

  1. Esther Alexander
    April 25, 2011 / 12:52 pm

    Interesting reading about this…. this week’s ‘Time’ magazine (an addiction we developed in Trinidad and still subscribe to here in Australia, despite its strongly American bent) has an article on Amortality – what are the pleasures and perils of living longer and longer?? I’m loving the fact that at 53 I still feel young(ish), fit, healthy and enjoying life – BUT I am extremely aware that everything I hold and enjoy is but fleeting – a breath, and it is gone…. Death is not something we wish for for anyone, but we are finite beings, and the knowledge that we are NOT immortal gives shape to our lives. The fact that God knows and cares about my fragile few days and how they are spent is quite mind-boggling, when I think about it.

    Reading your comments on the total presence of the body and total absence of the person encapsulates what I felt looking at the bodies of my parents, just after they passed on (on 2 different occasions, of course). They were there, but in another more permanent way, they were cetainly not there, their physical ‘presence’ just underscoring their absence.

    I was telling Gerry that I was struggling on Good Friday to really ‘grasp’ the concept of what Jesus’ death meant. I want to understand more freshly what it means, but I feel like I’m seeing through a glass darkly, not able to quite see things in focus. But as I read the gospels about Jesus’ physical death and absence, I understood just a little of the disciples’ complete shock and incredulity at his resurrection, even though He had told them He would do this! Just when we think we’ve got this life and death thing figured out, He turns it all on its head! Amazing to think about, really – and now I’m giving myself a headache too, so i shall stop here!

    • April 26, 2011 / 8:23 am

      Interestingly, a lot of what this artist was concerned about is our fear of death, that we’re more removed from it now than ever. We’ve been chatting about the significance of the resurrection to the narrative – it’s much more than just a happy end to an otherwise grim story! Great comments, by the way!

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