(Photo credit: Lin Chau)
For the medical students in the 16th-18th century, bodily decomposition was a regular encounter. As observers from the tiers of traditional anatomy theatres, they would witness and sensually experience unpreserved bodies in various states of decomposition, and thus, where closer to death than those in modern anatomy labs.
“My lab partners and I use our own hands, our own strength to reach into the body, to feel its cold wetness, to pull apart its layers and cut away its packing. We touch and cut the body and change its shape in a way that previous generations of students did not. But we deal with far fewer of the realities of the corpse. Our cadavers’ host no signs of decay. It harbours no timeline of rot, no trace of earth clinging to the skin, harking back to an abandoned grave.”
(Body of Work: Meditations of Mortality From The Human Anatomy Lab by Christine Montross)
The workshop invites you to examine the vital process without which life would not be possible. The organic material that surrounds you in the space decays by intervention of fungi and bacteria. Besides the occasional abandoned rotten apple in the bottom of the fruit bowl, we aren’t accustomed to handling or consuming decaying material, by means of conserving health.
The activity will urge you to examine the morphology of the natural matter through dissection, and inspect the changing state of its decay. This sensualised study will lead to the creation of a ‘death plaque’ from the cross section or longitudinal cuts of your chosen fruit or vegetable. Casting in plaster will form a positive replica of the matter, evoking the concept of a human death mask.
The death plaque precedes the vibrant, sumptuous still life paintings of plump, ripe fruit and vegetables that typically adorn modern kitchen interiors. Colourless and odourless, the plaques have a clean, sterile appearance, which offer an aesthetic of beauty and purity. Although often, the products of decay adhere to the plaster during the casting process, leaving a trace of the rotting matter behind. These plaques embody a contaminated, diseased appearance, and echo the death of decaying material more profoundly.