Requiem


Photo © Peta Murray 2014

Photo © Peta Murray 2014

Thank goodness for the corpse on screen, the corpse in art. Deaths, ennobling. Deaths comical. Deaths natural, grotesque, banal. Small paintings, big subjects. The fragile comedy of life. The body, concealed, revealed. The story, the date and place of death, the drama. The wonder and the awfulness.  The ambiguity. Lives wrenched from moorings. The spent and the stilled.

A corpse is a corpse, of course of course.

Apologies to Gertrude Stein. And to that television show pony, Mister Ed, for this terrible play on words. I don't know how else to begin. In composing this piece for Dying To Know Day 2014 my first thought was simply to reply to a recently circulated list of Corpses in Great Art with a list of ten such works from Australian artists. Over time, that purpose cooled, to be replaced by something other, a slant gesture of personal reflection, curated images, quotations from others' plays and someone else's poetry.

And I lay down on the bench with my grey coat so as not to catch cold and I said to myself let us try

Let us try to be dead

Let us try as I lay down on the bench and I said to myself it is so I am dead
— Opening lines of the play, Kids' Stuff by Raymond Cousse
William Strutt The burial of Burke, 1911 Painting: oil on canvas; 122.0 x 204.0cm Source: The State Library of Victoria

William Strutt

The burial of Burke, 1911

Painting: oil on canvas; 122.0 x 204.0cm

Source: The State Library of Victoria

Playing Dead

As a thirteen year old girl I made my first appearance on stage as a professional actor, cast as much, I suspect, for my unfashionable 'pageboy' haircut as for any natural acting ability. I shared the role with another teenaged girl, taking it in turns on alternate nights to portray Macduff's son, an innocent child who has all of one line to say - 'Thou liest, thou shag-hair'd villain!' -  before he is stabbed by the villainous First Murderer. Macduff's son then dies on stage, a second line - 'He has kill'd me, mother! Run away, I pray you! -  his final utterance. I had never seen dying or death; nor did I do any research into what it should look like. No method acting for me. Instead,  I grimaced, crumpled, folded, fell - carefully, but affectingly, I hoped - arranging myself at rest into something I imagined resembled a small boy's corpse.  I held my breath and waited until I could sneak off stage. I repeated this for several nights a week for the duration of our run of Shakespeare's Scottish play.  I did not see a real corpse until I was in my fifties.

Noel McKenna Fall from Change Table 1993 Painting; oil on plywood; 36 x 41.5cm The Watermill Collection © Noel McKenna

Noel McKenna

Fall from Change Table 1993

Painting; oil on plywood; 36 x 41.5cm

The Watermill Collection

© Noel McKenna

In theatrical parlance corpsing is a slang term used to describe when an actor breaks character during a scene - usually by laughing or forgetting his or her lines, or by causing another cast member to do so. 

It is believed that that the term "corpsing" may have originated when there was a corpse on stage, acted by a living actor: especially where there was any attempt by other actors to try to make that actor laugh.

Ricky Swallow Killing Time 2003 - 2004 laminated jelutong, maple 108 x 184 x 118 cm (irregular) Purchased with funds provided by the Rudy Komon Memorial Fund and the Contemporary Collection Benefactors’ Program 2004. Art Gallery of New South Wales Collection. ©Ricky Swallow Photography: Karl Schwerdtfeger

Ricky Swallow

Killing Time 2003 - 2004

laminated jelutong, maple

108 x 184 x 118 cm (irregular)

Purchased with funds provided by the Rudy Komon Memorial Fund and the Contemporary Collection Benefactors’ Program 2004. Art Gallery of New South Wales Collection.

©Ricky Swallow

Photography: Karl Schwerdtfeger

"Body," "carcass," "corpse," and "cadaver" are terms used to refer to a physical organism, usually human or animal, when it is lifeless.

"Body" refers to the material organism of an individual, human or animal, both living or dead.  

"Carcass" refers only to the dead body of an animal. It's also a term used in furniture-making.

"Corpse" refers only to the dead body of a human being (e.g., preparing a corpse for burial). 

"Cadaver" refers to a dead body, usually a corpse, when used for scientific study (e.g., dissection of a specimen in an anatomy class).

Pia Interlandi From Body Mould Series, 2009 © Pia Interlandi Used with the artist's permission

Pia Interlandi

From Body Mould Series, 2009

© Pia Interlandi

Used with the artist's permission

Recently while eating soup for lunch, a chunk of potato lodged in my throat, and for a long moment, it seemed it would not budge. The spud was caught, wedged in my windpipe, and I could not breathe. I was alone in the house, my partner was at work, even our dogs were away, unable to come to my aid. "Run, Lassie!  Fetch help." I leapt to my feet. I wondered how I could give myself the Heimlich manoeuvre. I wondered if I would have enough breath left to get myself outside, into the street, and if I had time to whip up a cardboard sign to take with me. “Help me! I’m choking.” I wondered if drivers would read my sign and stop for me, or if I would collapse on the pavement, with no visible injury, before anyone came to my aid. The ignominy of it. I would be a suspicious death. They would draw around me, on the footpath, in white chalk. I would be subject to an autopsy, but perhaps the killer potato would have dissolved away, leaving no evidence.  

I jumped twice, heavily on the wooden floorboards. I dislodged the murderous potato. I swallowed it. I breathed again, to live another day.

How will I die? Having been born with the umbilical cord around my neck I have a primal fear of choking.

I resolve, henceforth to cut my vegetables into smaller chunks. And to chew more thoroughly. 

Tara Stubley Death of The Artist, 2012 Painting: oil on linen; 100cm x 150cm © Tara Stubley Used with permission of the artist. Now in private collection

Tara Stubley

Death of The Artist, 2012

Painting: oil on linen; 100cm x 150cm

© Tara Stubley

Used with permission of the artist. Now in private collection

A few years ago I saw my first “live” corpse.  Of course I’d seen my share of dead pets by then. I'd also been to many funerals. But there was something about seeing a dead body that felt like a belated rite of passage and having been with the deceased as she took her last breath made the experience all the more…I want to say... ‘exhilarating’. I sat with the body a long time after the dying was done.

 

And Death Shall Have No Dominion – by Dylan Thomas

And death shall have no dominion.

Dead man naked they shall be one

With the man in the wind and the west moon;

When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,

They shall have stars at elbow and foot;

Though they go mad they shall be sane,

Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;

Though lovers be lost love shall not;

And death shall have no dominion.

 

And death shall have no dominion.

Under the windings of the sea

They lying long shall not die windily;

Twisting on racks when sinews give way,

Strapped to a wheel, yet they shall not break;

Faith in their hands shall snap in two,

And the unicorn evils run them through;

Split all ends up they shan't crack;

And death shall have no dominion.

 

And death shall have no dominion.

No more may gulls cry at their ears

Or waves break loud on the seashores;

Where blew a flower may a flower no more

Lift its head to the blows of the rain;

Though they be mad and dead as nails,

Heads of the characters hammer through daisies;

Break in the sun till the sun breaks down,

And death shall have no dominion. 

Julia deVille Victorian Cat Mummy, 2013  15 x 77 x 60 (wide inc cape) cm  Cat, glass, linen, Victorian lace, Victorian cape, Victorian baby boots, sterling silver Exhibited at Sophie Gannon Gallery, 2012, in show entitled Sarcophagus © JuliadeVille Image courtesy of the artist and used with her permission

Julia deVille

Victorian Cat Mummy, 2013

 15 x 77 x 60 (wide inc cape) cm

 Cat, glass, linen, Victorian lace, Victorian cape, Victorian baby boots, sterling silver

Exhibited at Sophie Gannon Gallery, 2012, in show entitled Sarcophagus

© JuliadeVille

Image courtesy of the artist and used with her permission

The vulnerability of precious things is beautiful because vulnerability is the mark of existence.
— Simone Weil

******

Peta Murray is co-founder and Creative Director of The GroundSwell Project. Amongst her D2K Day activities this year is singing tenor in a massed choir as they tackle Mozart's monumental Requiem.

ABOUT THE ARTISTS 

William Shakespeare, English dramatist, was born in 1564 and died in 1616. He wrote poetry and numerous plays, many of which are crowded with corpses who meet their ends by suicide, murder, assassination, execution, and in battle. His bloodiest play is Titus Andronicus, where fourteen characters meet violent deaths over the course of five acts. 

William Strutt (1825 - 1915) was an Australian artist. He worked on this painting for several years, having closely followed the Victorian Exploring Exhibition that cost Robert O'Hara Burke his life. Strutt was in fact one of the last to see Burke and his companions on the morning they set off on their expedition. Strutt based this painting on his own drawings and studies.

Noel McKenna, born 1956, is an Australian artist working across a range of practices including painting, print-making, drawing and ceramics.  His work is infused with mystery and melancholy, and often presents ambiguous narratives imbued with states of anxiety. In 2014 he was a finalist for both the Sulman and Wynne prizes.

Ricky Swallow, born 1974, is an Australian sculptor now based in Los Angeles. Many of his works offer a new take on the ideas of memento mori and “the still life”. You can read his extended biography at https://www.mca.com.au/collection/artist/swallow-ricky/

Pia Interlandi is a Melbourne-based fashion designer who makes burial garments that allow the body to be returned to, and embraced by the earth.  The Body Moulds series was undertaken as part of doctoral research, and began with a proposal to create “bodies” merged with the landscape within a fashion context.  Pia writes: “Moving out of traditional notions of fashion design and into more sculptural work, the series explored processes of growth and formation in the earth. For over two months each piece grew in a mould with soil and seeds, and then was flipped over to reveal the root patterning which had been growing under the surface. In essence, to see the hidden landscape, the plant life had to be cut off from the sun, and die a death.”

Tara Stubley is an emerging artist, based in Melbourne, where she is undertaking a Bachelor of Fine Art at the VCA. Her painting, Death of The Artist, was produced in 2012, whilst she was studying at the CAE. The model for the painting was Tara's friend, and teacher, Peta Cross, who lay on the studio floor while Tara got the original image onto canvas. The finished work, a homage to Manet's The Dead Toreador, is highly symbolic and speaks of the slow death of a relationship and a transformation of the self. Tara writes: "For a few years I had felt like I was slowly dying on the inside and by reconnecting with my artistic passion I gained the courage to leave that life." See more of Tara's work at www.tarastubley.com

Dylan Thomas was born in 1914, so we are currently marking the centenary of his birth. Unfortunately, the poet died young, having been marked early as "roistering, drunken and doomed." Dylan Thomas wrote several celebrated works, and death was often a theme, as for instance in his famous poem Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night. Thomas wrote And Death Shall Have No Dominion in 1933 when he took up a challenge from a fellow poet to write about immortality. Its title comes from St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, but Thomas's take on the subject is not a conventional Christian view.

Julia deVille is a Melbourne-based artist, working with jewellery and taxidermy who has exhibited widely. Her work features the cadavers of creatures that have died of natural causes and is featured in major collections. Julia has a new show, Phantasmagoria, previewing at the Melbourne Art Fair (13 - 17th August) before an exhibition at the Sophie Gannon Gallery in September 2014. You can see her biog here: http://egetal.com.au/artists/bio/julia-deville

You can also hear Julia speak about her recent work in this video from the Adelaide Biennial

Raymond Cousse was a French writer born in 1942. He committed suicide in 1991. Kids' Stuff is his most widely known and performed work, examining life and death through a child's eyes. 

For further corpses in Australian Art see also

Dead Dad by Ron Mueck

The Dead Landlord by William Dobell

Drought Photographs by Sidney Nolan

War Images by Joy Hester

See also, the exhibition Mortem In Imagine, by Natalie Ryan, 14 July - 5 September 2014 at LUMA (La Trobe University Museum of Art). La Trobe University, Kingsbury Drive, Bundoora, 3086.