i saw two skinless bodies today for an art class.
i had heard stories of people fainting or vomiting upon seeing a cadaver, so upon entering the prosectorium and feeling my heart race i decided to sit in a chair along the wall. there were two bags, a woman who died in her 60’s and a man who died in his 70’s. we learned of their various ailments and our instructor began unzipping the old man’s bag. inside the bag was another bag, and in that bag yet another, so the tension in the room was collectively released in waves of muted chuckles and breath holding until we calmly looked upon a pile of lifeless pale meat and was hit in the face with the odor of musty flesh and chemical preservatives. as it turns out, i did not faint or vomit but was very intrigued and became very self aware, very present.
when i was about twelve, my yard was often full of dead birds and mice, things the cat had nibbled on. i distinctly remember forcing myself to look upon a bird filled with maggots even as my stomach tried to pull me away. i have always been fascinated with the idea of death and decay, maybe even perversely or overly interested… but it is the nature and duty of the artist to not only draw and understand human anatomy, but to go deeply into the question of what it means to be alive. you cannot know much about what something is until you know a lot about what it is not. today i learned definitely that piles of muscle and organs are not people.
all the skin had been removed and discarded, except on the hands, feet, and face. the blood had been sucked out and the fat removed, leaving some of the muscles hanging loosely off the bones, the way old people’s muscles sometimes do. it was as if the whole package had been unzipped; organs that had been imprisoned their whole life. the woman was missing a heart. the man had a bypass surgery which was very obvious, down to the stitches on the straw-like vein. the man’s lung was spotted; the woman’s lungs were gray-black.
i was especially struck by how much the meat resembled chicken, turkey or steak. i thought a little about how we are animals. animal literally means anim (breath) alis (having the character of), so having breath. we have the notion that consciousness, not breathing, makes us something more than animal. but side by side, a dead human and a dead animal are more similar than apples and oranges, more similar than i would have thought. it’s only the shape of the form, some changes in the design. and with this in mind it was hard to feel much sentimentality or compassion for two people who were not in the room and never had been.
i’m unsure about what the experience will do for my drawing, painting, or sculpture, but it has strengthened my convictions about mortality…and perhaps vegetarianism.