Anna Furse performs …
A SHOW & TELL
Anna Furse performs …
A SHOW & TELL
Throughout the performance each section is headed by a slide title and supported by animated projections, indicated in the stage directions.
Audience entry sound and preset. Very dark black space. Haze. A side light picks out the performer and Musical Saw Player (MSP). A red back light glows on her bright red halo of curly hair.
Ad lib with audience about the anatomy of the bladder.
House lights fade and lights come up on performers’ hands as both ritually don blue rubber surgical gloves, with exaggerated hand gestures and the recorded sound of rubber stretching augmenting this effect
Good evening. Welcome to this Show. And Tell.
with my mother’s death.
I must warn you that I’m going to be speaking about death in no uncertain terms here. Mortality. Muscles, organs, nerves, blood, viscera. Fat. Things of the flesh. Of what we are made of. Of where we’re all heading. Of the dignity we might all wish for our cadavers. Morbid? Maybe. I want to speak of the dead body. How human remains have meant certain things in certain times for certain reasons. I want us to think together. Imagine some of the ways in which the dead have taught the living across centuries. This theatre, tonight, will be the theatre of our bodies.
Hand to heart
How surprising and unexpected they can be.
Sleight-of-hand fast opens her heart side to reveal a snap of flesh. Like a magician she pulls out a blood red silk handkerchief.
A bit showbiz? A teensy hint of the burlesque? An element of surprise. I find a bit of flesh always goes down a treat.
She wipes her glasses with the red hanky. Folds the fabric back over breast
Lub-dub, lub-dub, lub-dub…
In the 9 months following the Reign of Terror after the French Revolution in 1789, 15,000 people were guillotined. That’s an average of 55 a day.
Sudden, urgent low whisper
My deepest terror is decapitation. Scares the shit out of me. See how I just said ‘scared’ and ‘shit’ in the same breath? The human mind is the body. Any idea that they are distinct is not only dangerous but absurdly illogical.
Joseph Guillotin invented the Guillotine as a humane method of mass execution. Cleaner and faster than the axe. Zoop! They called this machine Madame Guillotine. Not the first time men have called their instruments of destruction by a woman’s name, a woman who’s close family. The Enola Gay, Superfortress bomber, named after Enola Gay Tibbets, the mother of the pilot Paul Tibbets.
The last person guillotined in France was in 1977.
When those aristocrats heads rolled – or rather flew through the air into the basket below – they’d still babble at the crowd, staring them in the eye, their nerves still sending messages to the brain.
Decapitation seems to be back in fashion.
Fingers her ruff, anxious
I think of the ruff as a plate for the head. It separates brain from body. How did they eat?! It didn’t come cheap. It was made of linen, and starched. So in 16th century Elizabethan England, starch production flourished. Even Lord Cecil remarked that the grain that went into this vanity could feed the starving masses.
It a kind of chin-up for posh totty, so you always look superior.
One wonders what happened to the crumbs. And spills.
Caravaggio’s Medusa zooms into CU on eyes
Medusa was one of the 3 gorgons decapitated by Perseus. Her severed head, with snakes for hair, could petrify the onlooker. So she had to be looked at only through a reflecting surface. A shield or a mirror.
Medusa represents the transgressive gaze of looking inside, and our terror at the dismembered body. The fear she conjures tells of male anxiety about the female body – our blood, our genitalia, our interiority. Sigmund Freud had things to say about her of course. When the mirror of Medusa appears in pictures of Anatomy Theatres it represents introspection.
Takes mirror and looks into it, turns it to face audience
Time to confront my own anxiety then. Time to look Medusa in the eye.
Researching this show, I talked to Anatomists. This June, a London teaching hospital invites me to attend the Hands-on Anatomy Summer Academy. I receive the course outline. It states:
“You will be allocated a cadaveric specimen most likely head and neck.”
Day 1. The Tutor welcomes me. We put on our green clinical coats. We’re about to go into the session and she suddenly stops me. “Anna, it’s your first time, so I think I should warn you” She tells me what I will find. Curiosity fires my confidence. I’m determined not to be lily-livered (see what I just did? note the anatomical reference again). We go in.
The smell hangs in the air like an unspoken feeling: slightly fetid: flesh and formaldehyde. A huge studio with many many metal dissecting tables in lines. They’re like long tureens with lids open, hanging down at the sides. There are greyish lumps wrapped in thick plastic and taped. We will discover this statuary to be heads, some limbs, a pelvis and a torso. Students gather. The Tutor introduces dissecting instruments.
“we use scalpels, blades, toothed/ fine/blunt forceps, scissors (fine and blunt), retractors, spencer wells. Other tools like brain knives, bones cutters, electric saws, T-key, manual saw, are serious anatomy tools but only used for specific dissections.”
She finally produces a chisel and mallet. “I’m old fashioned here”. I’ll find out some days later what she means.
She tells the students they can listen to music when they work.
Gustav Mahler’s Das Leid Von Der Erde. Song of the Earth. He wrote it feverishly during a time of immense personal crisis in 1907. His daughter Maria had just died of scarlet fever and diphtheria. She was four years old. He himself was suffering from a heart condition.
It’s really a kind of Kaddish. A Jewish prayer for the dead. It is about the transience and beauty of life and the pain of departing. It’s
Kathleen Ferrier made this recording in 1952 (the year I was born). She was having treatment for terminal cancer. She knew she was
dying. She’s singing her own farewell to life.
Let’s listen a moment.
Ferrier’s singing ‘Der Abscheid/Farewell’ accompanied by the MSP.
Image of Ferrier
image of Mahler
Mahler was Jewish. He converted to Catholicism when married to the brilliant, beautiful, Catholic Alma, Maria’s mother, probably because of working within an anti-semitic Vienna. Alma was also a composer. She complained that he was never interested in her work, only his. When the marriage was falling apart he consulted his fellow citizen, Freud.
Mahler said a symphony should contain the world.
His music was banned by the Third Reich as degenerate.
My mother …..
was the first dead body I ever saw. By the time I got to her she was already stiffening and cooling. Death is a cold body. I climbed onto the hospital bed wanting to wrap her arms around me. They wouldn’t bend. She’d gone. To that somewhere place when life leaves the body behind. The spirit departs. To where, we know not.
A dead body doesn’t look like a living body. Once the heart stops beating, the body immediately changes. Blood drains into the larger vessels. The muscles stiffen. Skin colour changes. No longer supported and controlled by muscle, it succumbs to gravity, sags, droops and folds like heavy cloth, draping itself in new shapes around the bones.
This idea of the body as a garment is expressed in one of the subjects of the film A Parting Gift. It has also been expressed in anatomical art across the ages where supposedly dead bodies refer to their own flesh as if it were a fabric or garment.
The body’s a garment.
food and exercise
vitamins and creams
medications and sunshine
soap and touch
water and make-up
orgasm and walking sticks
tattoos and hairdressing
running and shampoo
plasters and shoes
saunas and floss
touch and shaving
beds and bras
nail polish and compliments
hearing aids and piercing
jewelry and wrinkle cream
weighing and brushes
tables and tweezers
sunglasses and clippers
lenses and loo roll
panties and perfume
toothbrushes and chairs
touch and cotton wool
wine and kisses and…..
is just a garment!
So do we really need it after our death? Mightn’t others benefit from it?
The Anatomy professor said to me: yes, it is a garment, but, like the suit hanging in a Charity Shop, you always wonder who it once belonged to don’t you?
The students unwrap their specimens. Flesh drained of blood is leathery. A young woman
With bright red hair is holding an old man’s head in her hands. Gazing at him, transfixed. I ask her what she’s thinking.
“ It’s amazing, to think he was once a person, he probably has kids, people who love him. And I’m going to dissect him.”
Two weeks later she’s dug out all his facial nerves, and is calling him Eric.
A detail from the frontispiece of De Humani Corporis Fabrica by Vesalius. This illustration generates an idea of boisterous crowding and partying around the dissection process itself, complete with a hungry dog in the lower right-hand corner, presumably waiting to be tossed a piece of meat.
For centuries people had known that the way to understand the body was to cut it open. But in the Renaissance, The Anatomy Theatre became a space not only for scientists but for popular infotainment. In Bologna public dissection was part of carnival festivities because February is a cold month and they had no refrigeration for their decomposing cadavers: Sing! Dance! Feast! Turn the world upside down! Gawp at cut up human flesh!
Rembrandt’s ‘The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp’
Takes a laser pen and points at features on this slide
This dissection has started on the left arm. This would never have happened. Due to hygiene, stench and putrefaction, anatomists would have always started in the abdomen.
This highly complex work is about the 17th century European Theatre of Cruelty. Death was in-yer-face. Punishment was spectacle. If you were criminal, your body was doubly castigated: first executed (in public), and then chopped about on the anatomist slab (in public). Execution was corporeal revenge: torture, death and dismemberment, sometimes not even in that order. There are stories of still breathing bodies being dissected. The hangman’s job unfinished.
This, has an …elegiac quality; a gracefulness, like a pieta. Are those around him dressing his wound or speculating on it? Look how the expert is talking about him, over him, over his dead body. See how rhetorical this is.
We who gaze outside the frame are made complicit in this spectacle; we’re invited to be fascinated. And that theme runs through centuries of anatomical art in all media, from wood to wax to paint to clay to charcoal to etching to photo, to plastination.
Sequence of anatomical art across the ages
Art throughout history and across cultures, has served anatomy. And like all figurative art, its forms are steeped in message.
Background image: 19th century. Artist unknown. Royal College of Surgeons Edinburgh Library.
Back to Tulp
This corpse is a petty thief Aris Kint, from Leiden. He was convicted for stealing a coat! He’s less than 36 hours dead.
At the time Rembrandt painted this there was no public anatomy theatre in Amsterdam, and so we have to understand this as an idealised choreography rather than a depiction of a real event. It refers to cultural forms, those theatres elsewhere. It’s a private world Rembrandt has described. It nonetheless tells us of morality, and performance. It’s been said that this dissection echoes protocols of public execution, where the hand of the criminal received special attention. The-hand-that-did the-crime. The arm is in fact anatomically incorrect. If you look closely, and know anything about anatomy, the tendons don’t match the position of the hand and thumb. So Rembrandt might be drawing attention to the corpse’s crime and his visceral punishment as a moral message not just about crime but about the dissection culture of its day. Let’s compare this painting with this
Painting of dissection from Royal College of Surgeons Edinburgh
I mean, that’s graphic. There’s not much dignity here. See the hand that did the crime next to the noose.
Back to Tulp
This cadaver lies, Christ-like. Might Rembrandt be critiquing in fact the moral code of the day, suggesting perhaps that the criminal corpse, doubly humiliated in public, is somehow a martyr, an abused individual, an outsider, punished by society and sacrificing their body for the good of humankind?
Such paintings were commissioned by the elected Prae-elector as here, scientifically powerful men, to assert their prestige within the staunch bourgeois class. If such images allowed the vicarious ogling of the cadaver, they warned their spectators what can happen to your integrity if you’re anti-social.
This is a painting about power, and powerlessness.
A dramaturgy of domination over flesh.
It is composed as theatre.
A Theatre of Death
London’s Anatomy Theatre of the Barber Surgeons in the City was built by Inigo Jones in 1638. It was minutes walk from The Globe Theatre. Shakespeare and Johnson would have been aware of this. Could this have influenced the soliloquy? Autopsy. Introspection: Speech out loud about what’s going on, emotionally, viscerally, inside
“Oh that this too too solid flesh would melt”
The poets of the time are full of allusion to the opened body, the divided body, the body in parts, the body as a land, and as a poem itself, full of allusion, full of throbbing meaning, clues, signs, and evidence of the world order as it was perceived to be.
On the noticeboard, there’s a newspaper clipping of Madonna on her Sticky and Sweet tour. Her raised right arm is stringy and muscular. A post-it asks “Can you identify Madonna’s:
This is a studio. It has the atmosphere of an arts and crafts workshop. The students pore over their tasks, skinning the side of the head to work on finding the nerves of the face. I’m invited to use the scalpel. It’s surprisingly familiar, like being in the kitchen. Muscle looks like cooked chicken. When you’ve peeled off the skin, you gently ease it away and remove the fat with tweezers. You put this waste in a metal bowl. It’s extremely delicate work.
There’s so much fat!!!! Even in a scrawny face. Weeks of it to pick at.
One day I’m leaning my elbow on a dissecting table having a chat, and my eye falls on some crumbs. I’m about to idly fiddle with them as you do, when I realize: They’re minute bits of fat that have missed the bowl.
Fat looks like Cheese. Cheese strings. That kind of very processed cheese my kid used to love that you peel in strips till it goes all stringy. Waxy cheese.
A perfect dissection will have painstakingly removed all fat to reveal muscle, organ, nerves, veins, artery and bone beneath. There are pots of such perfect specimens all around the Lab. Sunlight shines through from behind. A gorgeous lung. A blazingly beautiful arterial system. Buckets of bones. Skeletons hanging, heads nodding down.
Turns pages of an illuminated book
In the Renaissance human knowledge stretched in all directions, all fields. And this new knowledge was a risky business, because any theory that subverted the authority of religious doctrine was liable to enrage the Church. In this New World, the body, like the solar system, was observed, measured and interpreted.
The Renaissance body was conceived and articulated as a book to be opened and read. It speaks to us. It has meaning. Dissection itself becomes a text, written by the anatomist. As he parsed it, bit by bit, discovering its innate order, those observing had to agree that the only possible explanation for such an intricately complex machine as a human body is God, who created all things: In this scheme, to know the human body is to know the mind of God.
“What a piece of work is a Man”
In other words, the more scientific you get, the more irrational you must become.
A perfect paradox!
If the body is a book, it’s certainly the most extraordinarily beautiful, perfect, breathtakingly volume. 11 systems: Circulatory; Respiratory; Endocrine; Muscular; Skeletal; Integumentary ( no I didn’t know what that word meant either: its the thermostat of your body); Immune; Nervous; Digestive; Urinary and Reproductive – and so many interconnected parts, layering, weaving, crisscrossing, folding, fluidity, space and matter. It’s … bafflingly … amazing.
The body’s been compared to a neatly packed cabin trunk, a place for everything and everything in its place. Unpacked, its interior is humanity’s common denominator.
Shylock asks: (man’s voice register on mic) “Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die?“
But of course, as we know, not all human bodies possess the same value.
Now, I’m not saying anatomical composition is the same as individuality. Anatomists and surgeons say how no two bodies are alike on the inside. That there’s character in each. But we’re structurally the same. As Ken Dodd said “2 of each down the sides and one of each down the middle”.
Each body opened will tell a different story, of a life lived, of a death – perhaps how. A blackened lung. A swollen brain. A piece of metal holding two joints together. I’ve seen this. It’s all there, inside, the skin the container of it all.
Would we rather avoid knowing? Can we? Do we obsess about the external so as to avoid this knotty question? Does a selfie help us believe we’re just our faces?
X-Ray Roentgen hand
Since the X-Ray we pierce through flesh to gaze inside without cutting. With imaging technologies we can see within in ever more infinitessimal detail.
If nothing else, we’re the most stubbornly auto-curious species. It’s taken all this time and we still don’t get it all. As if the end must always be just out of reach so that we keep reaching to know. The last chapter of human self-knowledge never written.
And the gadgets they can put inside us! They recently gave a Nobel Prize to a scientist Stoddardt (who incidentally delivered a powerful anti-Brexit acceptance speech which I would love to talk with you about – but I digress) for inventing tiny tiny tiny robots, much smaller than the human hair, that doctors in the future will be able inject into your veins and go on a search for a cancer cell or deposit a drug. Little tiny vehicles will be able to drive around the landscape of our insides on rekkies and deliveries. Something like a cross between a TV Licence detector and a Tesco van.
That the Renaissance body was also a landscape echoes, of course, the very principle of colonisation. He who discovers possesses. And so, the body, like a continent, is owned, then named, then traded. It can be divided, and subdivided. It becomes discussed in terms of attack and defense. You fight disease, keep it away from you, like the invading enemy against whom tyrants say they will build whole border walls!
It’s an intimate geography, the body. Anatomy is a mapping process.
It’s also a bit like geology: you dig around a chosen spot. Like boring down into the earth’s strata. Or, then again, it’s like archeology: finding and carefully cleaning an ancient pot.
The point is to break the body down from its original integrity, when it was sealed from sight by skin. Then separate it. Divide it. Rule it.
The third hand appears as sleight of hand in blue rubber glove. Plays with this
The title of my project here I’m Not a Piece of Meat is a quote from Lady Gaga when she wore first her meat dress and then her meat bikini. She was protesting the U.S. military’s restriction of gay rights, and stating that without human rights we are nothing but the meat on our bones. Perhaps she took inspiration from the artist Jana Sterback.
The body in the Renaissance Anatomy Theatre had to be procured. Executed criminals were cheap material. But when the penal system couldn’t produce enough dead flesh, the illegal trade was born. Body snatchers stealing corpses from graveyards, their wooden shovels (less noisy than metal) hacking into newly turned soil in the dead of night to cram stiffs hurriedly into sacks. A stinking racket of the lowest kind of flesh trading. It went on for years and years.
The body, not only object, but commodity.
The third hand’s glove is peeled back and removed
It was the poor of course to suffer most from medicine’s appetite for fresh specimens. The poor who committed crimes, were no sooner hung than delivered to the anatomist’s block. Imagine the fear, the terror of such humiliation. And the prejudice. Specimens were scarce. And the scarcer the specimen, the lower the misdemeanor for a death sentence was set, and the higher the price on the black market. You had to keep ‘em coming.
Then in England something happened to shift this punishment from the criminal to the destitute: The controversial Anatomy Act was passed in 1832, transferring the provision of human material from scaffold to workhouse. Paupers who couldn’t afford a burial were sent straight to the Anatomy slab at death. Poverty and crime, coupled, as always. You didn’t even need to steal or kill. Just be wretched, without a bean for burial, and your body would be used as an object in the name of science.
In the 1990s in the USA, The National Library of Medicine created the Visible Human Project. This was the first complete digital database of the human cadaver. This virtual wonder was constructed from a male criminal on death row. He volunteered his body to be immortalized in this way. After being MRI’d and CT’d, his corpse was soaked in chemicals and deep frozen to minus 70 degrees Celsius. It was then shaved down into hundreds of millimetre thick slices and digitally scanned. So, his body can be studied from endless 3D permutations.
Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and Computed Tomography (CT)
Was his posthumous donation to science both a double punishment and a debt to society? A chilling reminder of the Penal Theatre of the Renaissance we’ve been talking about no?
Please now, you can at last open your free gift! First, feel the texture of the fabric. How soft it is. Now find the opening. Put your fingers inside. You’ll feel things. Now. Please take out the pack of cards and the pencil we’ve given you. They’re wrapped in plastic. It’s the same plastic that body parts might be wrapped in in the dissection room. Please take Card 1 and put a cross by the answer you feel most accurately describes how you imagine your body:
– a Book?
– a Landscape?
– a Container?
– None of the above
Normal CT scan of the head; this slice shows the cerebellum, a small portion of each temporal lobe, the orbits, and thesinuses.
Anna Furse Performs an Anatomy Act, A Show and Tell, Live Collision Festival, Dublin 2016. Photo: Abigail Denniston. Puppet of Descartes made by Agnes Treplin for the production of Lavinia Murray’s Wax – The Secret Life of Marie Tussaud, waxwork artiste extraordinaire and witness to the French Revolution, that I directed in 1994 and that toured the UK and to France. See https://www.painesplough.com/.
Descartes puppet hand sneaks out
Actually they’re all right! We’re talking metaphors not scientific fact.
Descartes’ head and upper body rests on the podium top. He gazes to the lit candle
(mic in man’s register) “I put the wax by the fire and look: the shape is lost, the size increases; it becomes liquid and hot; you can hardly touch it, and if you strike it, it no longer makes a sound. But does the same wax remain? It must be admitted that it does; no one denies it, no one thinks otherwise. So, what was it in the wax that I understood with such distinctness? Evidently none of the features which I arrive at by means of the senses; for whatever came under taste, smell, sight, touch or hearing has now altered – yet the wax remains…I must therefore conclude that the nature of this piece of wax is in no way revealed by my imagination, but is perceived by the mind alone”
In a nutshell, what Descartes was saying is because wax is mutable, yet we still recognize it as wax, it is the mind that we must trust, not our senses, in seeking truth.
Before him, the human body was a sacred land. After him, a machine.
Now here’s a thought:
Descartes was living in Amsterdam in the 1630s at the very same time that Rembrandt was painting this painting (back to Tulp). Descartes was into dissection. He performed them himself on animal carcasses for his research. Might Rembrandt and Descartes have met, in butchers stalls, at the scaffold, or in the city’s anatomy studios? Did Descartes visit Rembrandt’s studio? Did they drink warm beer on his polished black and white tiled floor, as the sun shed a beam of light through a high window, discussing their respective quests for Truth?
We’ll never know.
Hands into your bags now. Can you find Wax? Feel it. Maybe you can soften it with the warmth of your hands.
For centuries, even since the Egyptians, wax was a favoured material for sculpting human surrogates. It’s a perfect substitute for human flesh. When mixed with pigments and hardeners it looks uncannily life-like.
A vibrant industry of waxworks of the human body thrived in 18th century Europe. The young Marie Tussaud was commissioned to make her incredibly lifelike wax models of beheaded aristocrats to last permanently on the spikes of Paris as Revolutionary propaganda.
This grim portraiture saved her life.
Her contemporary, a Florentine wax artist, Clemente Susini, took figurative art to a new hyper-realistic level: he created a masterwork, the Anatomical Venus, a totally life-like female figure
Susini’s ‘Anatomical Venus’
She’s like a pie, or a pot, with a lid that you can open, and literally take apart her insides like a puzzle. Before we explore this figure, I’d like to invite you back into your bags.
Please feel inside again. Something hard? Do remove it. Yes, it’s bone.
Now, why do we feel less anxious about bone than we do flesh, muscle and organ? Is it that flesh decomposes, rots, putrefies, stinks, reminding us of a recent time when death occurred? But bones imply a distance of time, so that the skeleton is an abstraction of sorts? Is there something abject about flesh, but noble about bone? We associate bone with china and fine objects. With beauty. Is it that we’ve long used the skeleton as an image of death so that it’s become familiar, whereas we’ve merely hazy and frightened ideas of our viscera?
Mexican day of the dead skulls
Anatomical Venus, probably modeled by Clemente Susini circa 1790 at La Specola (Museo di Storia Naturale) Florence, Italy; Courtesy of Joanna Ebenstein.
Heads lie like vanquished soldiers after battle. They seem … yielding. As the students chat I notice blue-gloved fingers stroking their specimens absent-mindedly, like cats on laps. There’s affection for these human offerings, and gratitude.
I go to a church service of thanksgiving for those who donate their body to medical science. A young graduate makes a speech. She thanks her “Silent Teacher”.
The day we harvest the brain the anatomist gets each student to use the rotary saw across the top of the skull. A fine bone dust sprays. She hands it to me. I swallow hard, and work. The skull is thick as oak. She struggles with removing the lid we’ve all created. I now understand why she said she’s old fashioned. As she struggles to prise it open with hammer and chisel, she says “the brain is” ….and drifts off with the concentration of her effort. The young man next to me, who’s told me he’s on diazepam because surgery is so competitive, whispers “beautiful”. We smile.
Anatomical Venus again
Rembrandt (1656) The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Jan Deyman.
The Anatomical Venus is a perfect silent pedagogic object. She’s the entire human form represented in immaculate detail. She can be deconstructed without a saw or scalpel. She doesn’t decompose. She endures. She doesn’t smell or bleed or putrefy. She freezes time. She attracts tactile desire: to pull her bits apart.
She and her voluptuous wax sisters in Florence lie naked, passive, supine, waiting to be undone. They were also known as Dissected Graces or Slashed Beauties. (Are we in a snuff movie?!!)
See the way her body yields, her torso pushing upwards, her eyes half closed, her lips slightly parted, as if in sexual ecstasy? Why does she remind us of the swooning St Theresa? Because she’s made on purpose to remind us of God’s work. She titillates as she educates. And so, she took her place along the several must-sees for the Grand Tour that upper class men (and the occasional woman) would take through Europe. The nude Venuses – goddess of love – of the grand Masters, Titian, Botticelli, were de rigeur. Together with this still, silent, curvaceous figure of a woman.
She beckons your gaze. Invites you in. A chance to gawp at a naked sleeping beauty in 3-dimensions, she’s 18th century pornography! She’s a life-sized, life-like, non-living doll.
Some men like playing with dolls.
Now Alma Mahler, Mahler’s ex-wife I already mentioned, was a celebrated beauty, who inspired many passions. One of these was the Austrian painter Oskar Kokoschka. In a fit of jealous rage when she left him for someone else, he commissioned a life-sized replica from the artist Hermione Moos. Sending her a life-sized drawing of Alma he wrote:
(male voice in mic) “ I ask you to copy this most carefully and transform it into reality with the application of all your intelligence and feeling. Pay special attention to the dimensions of the head and neck, to the ribcage, the rump and the limbs”
(“the rump!” Is she a meat carcass?)
“ And take to heart the contours of the body, e.g. the line of the neck to the back, the curve of the belly…the figure must not stand! The point of all this for me is an experience which I must be able to embrace!”
He asked Moos: “ Can the mouth be opened? And are there teeth and tongue inside? I hope so!”
Weirdly, Moos chose fake fur for her skin, turning her into a giant soft toy.
Moos Mahler doll
The actual doll was a disappointment, but Kokoschka nonetheless took her out to restaurants and to the theatre in a kind of performance art action. The woman, who in real life couldn’t be possessed and controlled, had become an artwork, a fetish object.
One day, Kokoschka took his Alma doll to a party. In front of the guests he ceremonially doused her in red wine
and beheaded her.
Please now fill in the next card 2. Please let us know if you think of your heart as
– an organ
– a muscle
– a pump
– none or all of the above
I want to ask why we’ve fetishised certain parts of the anatomy. OK, we can understand why, as in Kokoschka’s case, certain external features would be erotically important: the mouth, hair, eyes, breasts, vagina and so on, all obviously exciting part of the body that we can actually have a tactile and pleasurable relationship with in daily life. But I’m asking about our insides. Why have we decided, for instance, that the heart is where we love from and is lovely to behold? Why is this part of the body such an adored form? From the bleeding heart to the Valentine we make this the symbol we pass back and forth to each other, etch into desks and trees, write poems and songs about, reproduce in so many idealised forms. I mean we don’t (well, in general, I mean) send pix of our anuses to each other do we?
A helium kitchy valentine heart balloon floats up
A Plethora of heart kitsch. Pop music heart theme medley. Stands still holding the heart balloon to her heart
Throughout time there were many theories of how the heart worked, with its chambers and its veins and arteries. Because the heart stops pumping at death, understanding how it actually functioned took time.
Even though the genius Da Vinci had earlier produced magnificent drawings of the heart and asserted that it had four chambers, the discovery of the circulatory system was Harvey’s. In 1628, he published his ground-breaking explanation of how the heart propelled the blood in a circular course through the body.
Our hearts don’t disgust us. They’re cute. The heart is a logo. A sign for a feeling. “I heart Dublin”. Our hearts fill with pride. Our hearts are worn on our sleeve. We learn by our hearts. We ache with them. They beat in our chests. We feel with all our heart. We know in our heart of hearts, wherever that might be. My heart goes boom when you cross that room! I love you with all my heart. My heart’s desire. I give you a little piece of my heart. And my heart breaks. The broken heart: the failed heart, the attacked heart. The heart that stops from shock, or grief or too much fat or, just pressure.
The heart as kitsch. Anna Furse Performs an Anatomy Act, A Show and Tell, dress rehearsal, Dublin 2016. Photo: Abigail Denniston
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The cultural significance of the heart – written and visual – has been extensively explored in Louisa Young’s The Book of the Heart (2002. London: Flamingo).
De Motus Cordis’ (1628) by William Harvey. Science Museum, London.
Western medicine has decided that the body is made up of the sum of its parts. You fix the part, or replace it like a car spare, and all will be well. We have hierarchical ideas about our body parts. The nice bits, the nasty bits, the pretty bits, the ugly bits. The bits we want to touch and the bits that make us shudder.
The digestive system… takes us from the adored and kissable mouth to that smelly, naughty arsehole. Orifices should be small to be beautiful. The large orifice, the wide-open mouth, apertures engulfed in fleshy folds, signal low class, bestiality, chaos, earthliness, being closer to dirt and filth and stink. But the tight orifice, the closed body under taut, fatless skin, that’s the aristocrat. The body cleansed of its reminder that there even is an inside. So the more sealed the body, the more its mess and gore and guts can be ignored and denied, the closer you are to God. Denial. Deny what’s really going on inside and focus on beautifying the surfaces.
Tonight we’re working with European ideas of anatomy. Other cultures have different perspectives, seeing the body as an entire holistic system of balance and equilibrium. Seeing the body in death as a natural return to the earth.
Now I’m about to show a pretty graphic image so please look away if you’d rather not see this.
In Tibet, with Sky Burial, dead bodies are left out as carrion for vultures to feed on. For Buddhists, existence is transient, the body is part of everything else. The community must watch this process as a way to confront death as part of life. Something we’re not so good at here today in the Western world.
We’re living in denial of death.
And most of us haven’t a clue how big our liver is.
Please take card 3 and tick the answer to the question: ‘How large is my liver?’
In the 16th century a poetic trope came into vogue. It was called The Blason. The Blason would enumerate in detail the female form, echoing the new science of mapping body parts in the anatomy theatres. Men would write eulogies to women’s stomachs, knees, feet, foreheads, teeth, eyebrows – anything.
Elizabeth 1st, the Virgin Queen, did a really extraordinary thing. She appropriated the blazon. In an explicit act of self-blasonry, she would expose her upper body, breasts and belly to her courtiers and visitors. She was quoting the poetic trend, she was quoting the anatomy theatres, she was revealing to those around what was denied to them in reality: her body. She was metaphorically performing an autopsy, taking control of the body-politic through her own revealed, virgin, untouchable flesh. “I know have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a King and a King of England too”
Leans over and opens a small drawer at the front of her podium, genital-height. It glows bright magenta pink inside. Takes a pair of opera glasses out. Simultaneously, MRI scan of her pelvis. Looks out through the glasses to audience and then to MRI projection
This is the real me. My womb.
MRI July 7th 2016.
It’s both the most intimate thing I could show you and the most abstract. It’s just a picture. Not a portrait. A translation of my body. A map that experts can decipher and interpret.
In Gray’s Anatomy, the vulva is called the vestibule. The vestibule. Entrance hall, hall, hallway, entrance, porch, portico, foyer, reception area, lobby, anteroom, antechamber, outer room, waiting room. But in medical terms it’s a channel, opening into another.
The womb, that Vesalius places right at the centre of the great title page of his magnificent book of anatomical illustration ‘De Humani Corporis Fabrica’, 1543
Vesalius frontispiece in colour. Points with the lazer at the womb.
Removes ruff and places on counter top
Raw beef with the words “I am not a piece of meat”
Rips at her shoulder to reveal flesh
Lady Gaga’s meat dress in 2010 was something no? Like turning the body inside out. She said it was a protest against the military’s restrictions on gay rights. She also wore a meat bikini. She said “I am not a piece of meat”.
She was with the Dalai Lama. She said: (dubbing original) ”the United States is a human body, and the brain is the government. And all the organs south of the neck: this is the people. These different organs in our body, these are the different factions, the things that separate us as people. What we’re experiencing right now is that the mind of the United States and the body are not talking. There’s no connection. In science, what it tells us is that this connection between the brain and the rest of the body, when it erodes, you have system failure. Brain damage. This is what we’re witnessing.”
Metaphors again. Gaga’s not the first to compare the sick political system to a sick body. It’s an idea that goes back centuries.
Now, please now take the card 4. Lets self-blason like Gloriana OK? Please write clearly in capital letters the body part you’d most like someone to write a poem about. It can be on the outside or the inside. And remember, this is anonymous so you can let rip and tell the truth!
Above: Still from an animation of an MRI of my own reproductive system taken during research for the production.
If the blason exposed the body to the imagination, images of the flayed body left little to it. Rather, it peeled away the protective coat of the skin to show explicitly what lay underneath. There are so many bizarre images of the human form flayed. It’s quite something.
Takes the red silk hankie and holds it up and out
To see figures holding their own skin as if removing a jacket or lifting a skirt to show what lies beneath. The skin like theatrical curtains parting to reveal the hidden drama on the interior stage.
A series of flayed and self-revealing images
These figures collude in their own exposure. They’re bold, or coy, or reflective. They participate in the anatomical gaze with apparent insouciance. It’s a kind of striptease. Designed to invite the frisson between subject and onlooker of a taboo broken.
The skin is an organ.
It forms a protective barrier.
It works as a thermostat.
It has many many tones.
People can be very prejudiced about this.
Have you ever seen really white skin?
Does white skin exist?
More questions. Please take your cards marked 5 and 6
How large is the average surface of human skin?
– Half a sq metre
– 1 – 2 sq metre
– 4 sq metre
What does the average skin of a human weigh?
– 2 kilos
– 1 kilo
– 3 – 4 kilos
Would you like to know the answer? It’s obviously not a fixed number in each case but on average we are talking 1 – 2 square metres and 3 – 4 kilos.
CU ancient skin
Skin: the most visible sign of ageing. The organ that makes billions of pounds a year for the cream makers pretending we can hold back the years. My friend says “I want people to stop saying ‘you look so young!’ I say to them, this is 84. Get over it. You can say I look well, but not that I look young! “
My mother prided herself that she never looked in the mirror.
The undertakers did their thing with her face soooo badly! They made her up all pink. This was kind of traumatizing. My mother’s skin was pale olive. She was not a pink person. Definitely not an English rose. How dare they paint her a generic colour? A colour that in fact hardly exists in real flesh? Because these men took it upon themselves to decide what would be bearable to look upon at death.
Because death is not like life, it’s like death. And we’re terrified of the real aspect of the body, of the corpse.
Puts head down on the podium top as if to be guillotined. Slides head out of wig. Places it inside the ruff
Siobhan Ward and Philomena McAteer in the old Anatomy Theatre, Trinity College Dublin. Photo: Anna Furse, 2016.
See A Parting Gift: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F7H_RmlPTnc
Today, body donor schemes are entered willingly, for no financial gain. So, the donor and family know that this is a gift of the Self in the service of education.
There are 2 women I know. Angels. Who guide the living through this passage; support the bereaved; invite them to conduct remembrance rituals; provide tea, biscuits, tissues, hugs; teach medical students to respect the dead. Their ethic promotes the right attitude to human material: they introduce each cadaver by their first name, and insist on their being called by this throughout the dissection process. It may seem obvious, but they’re in fact breaking with so much medical tradition. Because it’s easier to cope with the fact of dissecting a body by turning this into object, giving it nicknames, distancing yourself. These 2 angels teach dignity; they know that language is very important. It belies attitude.
It’s how it should be. Vital to reunite the idea of a life, and a person, with a cadaver. To put all the pieces together again somehow in the mind. To re-member the dead. Respect.
Because human material is vital for learning. The medical student needs to get their hands inside the body. You can’t replace touch. It can’t be replaced virtually. I mean, you’d want to know that your surgeon had trained by working on real bodies wouldn’t you? Where do you think they come from?
At the end of the course, yards of skin have been cut, bowls of fat picked away. Nerves, sinews, lungs and the brain have been explored and poked and held in many pairs of hands. The anatomist has a name for everything. She works like a plumber, an electrician and a sculptress all in one go. Her knowledge is encyclopedic.
On the last day, I take her a bunch of pink peonies.
Then, as I’m about to leave … she suddenly tells me …
that she believes in fairies.
Removes book, ruff and wig from podium top. Ferrier singing Mahler creeps in and becomes very loud. The MSP plays along, soaringly. Lights are fading. Lays Descartes face up on the podium like a small corpse.
During the last year of my mother’s life, we were finally reconciling after a lifetime of intense conflict. She asked if I’d design her funeral. We were talking about what kind of music she’d like. She said “Das Leid Von Der Erde”. I was astonished. I said “But that’s my funeral music!?” She and I looked at each other amazed that we never knew we both loved this work so much. I did play it at her funeral. As well as a Kaddish. At mine I’d love nothing at all except for people to listen to the whole symphony from start to finish. Because it contains the world.
Snuffs candle out. Light fades to total darkness
Oh, but … we never talked about the soul did we?