A body is the only thing a human being ever truly owns. It’s a private vehicle for the motor of our intellect, but what is it worth after we’re finished driving it? I’ve always been fascinated by the catacombs of Paris, and set about researching this site as an art installation. From the first moments of descending into the space, I realized that it is an art installation in the most literal sense. The skeletal remains displayed there were belonged to the lower class citizens of Paris from the 13th to the 17th centuries. Wealthier Parisians were buried outside of the city, or in the more exclusive graveyards, but the common and poor were simply discarded in mass burial pits. An 18th century citywide effort towards sanitation led to a massive relocation of these burial pits to the empty space below the city. With this abundance of human remains on their hands, the movers built geometric stacks of skeletal patterns dotted with plaques engraved with literary, biblical, and philosophical quotes about mortality. The space is obviously a statement about momento mori, the secondary statement concerning the equality of death, the erasure of identity after death, and the total loss of autonomy once our bodies are vacant. We can’t know how these individuals would feel about being displayed in this manner, but we know that the result has captivated visitors for two centuries, and has elevated these skeletal remains to art.
Julia Kristeva is a major writer on the topic of abjection, or the attraction to and repulsion by the human body, and she writes, “… it’s not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection, but what disturbs identity, system, and order.” One of the greatest fears I have of death is the loss of self and disruption of the ego fueled life I’ve created for myself. I think that’s the common feeling among most people, and we as a society go to great lengths to express our wishes for our bodies after their death; where we want to be buried, what we want to wear in our coffins, and what we want our families to do with our ashes. It’s all very personalized and taken very seriously, but if our identity is erased and our ego is left out of the equation, what remains of a body can readily become art.
Andres Serrano is a photographer who specializes in post mortem photography, and ensures that each of his subjects are given complete anonymity. He zooms in on the subject, giving a hint as to who they might have been and titling his photographs only with the cause of death. By removing the identity, he elevates what might have been mere coronary evidence to high art. This is similar to what the curators of the catacombs did in Paris when they embraced their desire to create something thought provoking out of human remains.
The famous and ongoing Bodies project is a traveling pseudo-scientific show in which donated bodies are dissected, contorted, and displayed for maximum visual impact. It’s a fascinating look at the human body under the skin, a view normally reserved for a surgeon or an autopsy table. It is art in the purest sense, using ingenuity and vision to elevate what would be a corpse to something beautiful. It’s abject and completely macabre, but somehow irresistible to the crowds that flock to get a look at the human body in the raw. To be included in the exhibit as a specimen, the body must have been donated by the entity formerly living in it and the names of the contributors are available. But all identifying factors are removed for the show, and some specimens are children that couldn’t have volunteered their bodies for display in any legal sense. And in the same vein, what about the personal wishes of the mummified corpses on display in museums? Are these bodies “found art”?
Marcel Duchamp coined the found art movement when he found a common urinal, titled it “Fountain” and submitted it under the pseudonym R. Mutt to the Society of Independent Artists in 1917. It was famously rejected until they realized who had actually submitted it, and then suddenly it sparked the discussion that perhaps art is art if an artist says so. Technically one could put a slant on any found object and it is art, if the artist has the debate skills to back that claim up. It’s similar to come across the chance to use the human body in this way, to display one because of the artistic merit, or the cultural value. The human body itself is something valuable, displayable, and can be manipulated in any way.
A pile of skeletal remains is not art, nor are coronary photos, autopsy subjects, or urinals. They’re not art because nobody says that they’re art. But when found, manipulated in the correct manner, and displayed as art, they are indisputably beautiful, fascinating, and somehow more “safe” to get close enough to look at. The artist’s hand has the ability to purify something abject or macabre, elevate it to art, and create something that far outlasts death. That’s the goal of any artist, to provoke thought and emotion or express a feeling; and using the human body, the only thing that’s really ours, is the ultimate medium.