Tag Archive | death

The homeless, art and Basquiat’s anger

“Art is the only thing that’s left in the world,” said a homeless mixed media artist in Above Ground, a study of aging artists in New York City. He was 72.

I read somewhere the other day that the life expectancy of the average homeless man is 47; that of the average woman 43.

I was just in New York City, walking down the Broadway on the Upper Westside and fingering change in my jacket pocket, when a man approached me and asked for seventy-five cents and as it turned out that was precisely what I was fiddling with and I gave it to him. Not fiddling, I shook my head “no” to the next two probably homeless fellows who were still approaching the age of mortality. I felt appropriately guilty afterwards. No spontaneous generosity there.

I saw an overwhelming exhibit of the paintings of Basquiat, the graffiti artist who died of an overdose at the age of 27 in New York in 1988. Lots of large anger on public walls…. The art of street people, the art of the homeless. “It’s about 80% anger,” said Jean-Michel Basquiat of his work.

Untitled acrylic and mixed media on canvas by Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1984

Untitled acrylic and mixed media on canvas by Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1984

Here we are, old. Which direction will we take?

“Here I am in my mid-70s, and I am wondering: Is now the time to take a final stab at unfinished business—to accomplish at long last the remaining goals on my lifetime to-do list? Or is now the time to step back, let go of my ambitions, reflect and just live?”

So wrote Daniel Klein in the Wall Street Journal a few months ago. I suspect that it’s not usually  as clear cut as that. I do have one friend whose life is filled with activity. A poet and social activist, he’s also become a fine photographer and editor, a curator, an essayist, and more things than I can name–trying to get it all in before it’s too late.

Klein decides in favor of “friendship and reflection.” He’s happy to go to an island (many of us haven’t got the wherewithal to get there!) and contemplate life and death.

The new old age is the result of medical advances. We have time now to address our bucket lists; we can stay at our jobs and accomplish ambitions that would otherwise be lost to illness or death. Or we can let go and listen, think, wait.

I think most of us will probably do something of both.


Morbid Curiosity

Have you ever heard of plastination? Somehow, I’d missed it. In the 1970s Gunther von Hagen of Heidelberg invented a process that preserves a corpse by flaying it, freezing it, soaking it in acetone, impregnating it with silicone. There have been religious objections to the procedure, but apparently, it’s become popular, and von Hagen’s Institute of Plasticity is thriving. It reminds me of Madame Tussaud’s wax museum. Both are creations that inspire a morbid curiosity. In a recent essay in The Chronicle Review entitled “A Healthy Mania for the Macabre,” Stephen T. Asma suggests that we live in an age where morbid curiosity is becoming more important. Some cultural pundits think it’s because our culture is so concerned to ignore death and its inevitability. I may have suggested the same thing in one or more earlier posts. But I think morbid curiosity may be more interesting than that.

Several years ago when I started this blog I put up a blogroll featuring some of the most impressive websites I’d looked at. One of those was Morbid Anatomy run by Joanna Ebenstein, an artist and curator in New York who “sees morbid display as part of a nostalgic and almost reverential aesthetic….  My working theory on this idea [the morbid display] is that artifacts that flicker on the edges of death and beauty–or any other categories that seem to be in binary opposition–create a certain frisson, an ontological confusion. I think for some people this confusion and flicker creates pleasure, for others anxiety, and for some, an enjoyable mixture of the two. I definitely find that frisson very exciting.” It’s very much worth looking at her work on Morbid Anatomy.

I could do the same–take some pictures I mean. The Currier’s General Store in Glover, Vermont is haunted by a host of wild animals, all of them stuffed, many of them in the act of  eating or trying to eat others. Birds of prey hover around the frozen foods.




Most graveyards have at least one monument that’s disconcerting, edgy, funny. The other day I overheard a funeral director describing the funeral of a man who’d died in a motorcycle accident. His friends and family asked permission to bury the motorcycle; they placed the dead rider’s ashes in a box on the seat, and rocked the bike gently to and fro to send him on his last ride.

My morbid curiosity feels like something critical. As I get closer to the end of life, I’m more and more curious–perhaps desperately curious–about death. I want to look at it in a variety of different contexts. I want to throw ideas, images, anything and everything at it and see what happens. Will it look different? Will I be surprised? Will it make more sense? Or less?

Of life, death and music

My friend Pam died last Friday. I’ve already celebrated her life on this blog (March 20), and I haven’t too much to add. I’ll miss her presence, books and magazines cascading around her chair, Daniels Pond lighting up her face as she kept track of her neighbors’ water life or told stories of the ceramics that surrounded her (like an even wider circle, outside the piles of reading matter), and planned her purchases on her next trip to the antique shop. Since her heart was failing, I knew I should talk and fill the space so that she could be entertained and not exert herself. But she sat there, full of stories and thoughts— recounting a wonderful essay about Robert Frost in New York magazine, exclaiming once again over the wickedness of  Bronson Alcott, the erstwhile father of Louisa May (she’d only recently, for reasons of poor health, postponed reading a paper on the Transcendentalists at a yearly lecture series), and rejoicing about the concerts she planned to attend this summer, When it became clear that most of her summer months would be spent instead in hospitals and nursing homes, if she survived  it at all, she regretted not hearing the music long before she worried about the possibility of dying.  I’m sure she must have concerned herself about her mortality, but she almost never said anything  about it to her friends. She just kept on living, throttle out full, learning, admiring the beautiful and thriving in the face of the provocative.

I intend to listen to a lot of music for her this summer. I owe her that.

About music. The Warebrook Contemporary Music Festival just celebrated its 21st year. Not bad for an event playing what most people find  incomprehensible, or nearly so—not bad for a bunch of music wonks who come together to play some of the most adventurous combinations of sounds in our time. I’ll never forget listening to Steve Reich’s “Vermont Counterpoint” (1982), in a Version for Eleven Flutes. Eleven flutes, playing the same patterns over and over again, but at different times and speeds, turning the audible world into a place of glass prisms, reflecting off one another all the colors that glass can embrace, that raindrops can hold. Nor will I forget the “Rilke Songs” of composer Paul Brust, singing, moaning, sometimes even screaming, of love and loneliness. Nor the lovely “Carl Sandberg Songs” of Sara Doncaster, lamenting and rejoicing by turns. There can be no more heartbreaking combination of instruments than the clarinet and viola.

I’m listening, Pam.

Following Madame Tussaud into the uncanny valley

The wax statue of the creator of Madame Tussaud's waxworks, Madame Tussaud herself in the museum. Photo by Rudolph Afurtdo. Creative Commons.

A decade ago, a New York Assemblyman tried to have Arafat removed from Madame Tussaud’s in New York City. He threatened to cancel a Republican fundraiser at the wax museum if the Palestinian leader wasn’t removed.
It’s not just amazing that wax museums are at least as popular as ever, but that they’re taken as seriously. Long lines formed in Washington, D.C. when Michelle Obama’s figure was unveiled. At Madame Tussaud’s in Berlin, a visitor beheaded Hitler. The costliest figure to maintain at New York City’s Tussaud’s was Brad Pitt because of the lipstick marks on his lovely waxen features.

Brad Pitt at Tussaud's

In its beginnings and still today, Madame Tussaud’s keeps up with the latest celebrities, inducting them at a rapid pace (and, I presume, although I haven’t seen evidence of it,disposing of a large number at the same rapid clip). The gestation period for each celebrity is six months and the process is lengthy and complex. As many as 250 measurements are made. Molds are taken from clay busts produced by sculptors who depend on the measurements and photographs of the subject, not real heads as in the distant past. Hot wax is poured into the molds and left to cool. When the heads are ready, hair, eyelashes, whiskers and eyebrows are plugged in, one strand at a time, a process that can take as long as five weeks. In Madame Tussaud’s earliest pieces, real teeth from the streets of Paris, were used, but today they’re made of porcelain or dental acrylic. Tussaud’s asks celebrities to donate the clothes they want their figure to be wearing. The cost to produce a figure can be as high as $300,000.
Presumably, Madame Tussaud’s is still the last word on who is and who is not a celebrity. In  2002, the wax works in London refused to include the Conservative Party leader because he was too dull. “We want figure who will inspire strong emotions and provoke strong reactions. In our view, Mr. Duncan Smith, whom most people have never heard of, is unlikely to achieve either of these feats. Ever.” There was no report of Mr. Smith’s reaction. I wonder if  he was mortified.
In Los Angeles, Tussaud’s competition with the rival Hollywood Wax Museum recently took on new life when Tussaud’s set up an exhibit in its lobby, juxtaposing its celebrity effigies with photos of the Hollywood Museum’s, beginning with Angela Jolie. It’s figures were much more lifelike, argued Tussaud’s. Fascinating that a photo of the Hollywood Museum’s Jolie stood in for the effigy. Photographs are like effigies in that they presume to be copies of what is real. In the last century, photographers would sometimes use Tussaud’s tableaus, pretending they were copies of the real event. (In fact, a photograph of the pope’s effigy was acclaimed as more true to life than the actual pope in the real setting.) The waxworks then had a policy that forbade visitors from taking photographs inside the Museum in order to keep nefarious reporters from representing them as snapshots of the real people.

Today, the Museum depends on the camera. That’s what people come to do. Not just to mingle with the famous (or rather, their facsimiles), but to record themselves in their company.

But something else is happening and that’s what makes this subject interesting. There is something oddly uncomfortable about a wax museum that can be summed up in the following remarks by a young employee at the London museum. He reported that he was often asked by visitors,

“What is it like at night?” Or my favourite. “How do you DARE to be there all alone?”I sometimes wonder if people enjoy them (the wax figures) because of the possibility of rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous, or because of the tiny little thrill of coming into a room and not knowing who is alive and who is not.

As William Poundstone writes in“The Battle of the Wax Museums,”

….the truly interesting thing about wax museums is how creepy they are. This is better described by a third-millenium coinage: the “uncanny valley.” That’s the notion that not-quite-perfect simulacra of the human form create a sense of weirdness or revulsion. .. Somewhere between the humanoid and the human, things get weird. These imperfect likenesses fall into a dip in the curve, and are much less accepted than less-perfect ones. ….

The uncanny valley explains why there are so many horror movies about evil dolls, clowns, ventriloquist’s dummies, wax museums, zombies, and cyborgs. …”
The phenomenon of the uncanny valley was observed in connection with the creation of robots. At a certain point, when the robot is very much like a human but not like one really, witnesses were seized with revulsion.

What is even more curious is how much of the thinking that’s evolved to explain the uncanny valley has to do with death.

I can’t get quite beyond this point yet, and perhaps I won’t. Any one with experience of the uncanny valley out there? I intend to give it at least one more try in these posts. Maybe more.

Because it is curious, isn’t it, that Madame Tussaud’s wax museum began in death and continues, in this later age, to be “mired” in it. I think, because automatons,wax effigies and celebrities are all related to human identity in a way that is profoundly disturbing. Our world begins to wobble when we think too hard about them.

Exhibiting death at Madame Tussaud’s

Madame Tussaud’s biographers differ about many of the details of her life. Her “uncle” may have been her father; her connections to Versailles may have been exagerrated; and, of course, she may have labored under less onerous conditions to make the wax heads of the guilllotined than her later reports suggest. It is clear, however, that she hated the perpetrators of the Revolution—those she blamed for the beheadings.

Jean Paul Marat, stabbed to death in his bathtub by Charlotte Corday, July 13, 1793. A wax model made immediately after his death.

According to her grandson, John Theodore Tussaud, in The Romance of Madame Tussaud’s, when the Revolutionary leader, Marat, was killed in his bathtub, Marie Tussaud was taken immediately to the scene of the crime and made to model his head (take a cast of his face).


He was still warm, and his bleedy body and the cadaverous aspect of his almost diabolical features presented a picture replete with horror, and Madame Tussaud performed her task under the influence of the most painful emotions.

The tableau that was presented in Paris of Marat in his bathtub is similar to the one that’s the subject of the famous painting by Jacque Louis David. The artist had been a close friend of the dead man. Where Tussaud saw “diabolical features,” David saw the features of a man he loved and admired. The representation of the murder of each is in large part the result of their relationship to the man and the French Revolution. David’s painting was lauded as the great historical painting it is. Tussaud’s depiction, on the other hand, was all about the death of a body—its abruptness, its gruesomeness.

Death of Marat by Jacques Louis David

Of course, David was an artist and Madame Tussaud was a waxworker. Apparently, Curtius’s museum wasn’t the only wax museum that featured the murder of Marat by Charlotte Corday. Some thinkers of the time worried that the attraction to violent and tragic scenes was unhealthy, that it would not lead to a society of people who could empathize with one another, but one that was brutalized and disconnected.

Although Tussaud claims to have provided the model for David’s painting, (very likely the reverse was true), the two images represent entirely different viewing experiences. In David’s painting the powerful immediacy of the scene was used to transcend the limits of death, to bring Marat back ‘tout entier….’  The waxworks tableau to be found at Curtius’s Salon, by contrast, sought to make Marat’s assassination palpable for the viewer, not to transcend but rather to capture death.

Palpable wounds were, by contrast, what Tussaud specialized in. The attraction of her waxworks depended on a kind of forensic gaze. David deploys a familiar aesthetics of martyrdom where the violated body is intended to move the viewer to the contemplation of immaterial values. Madame Tussaud’s Adjoining Room [later the Chamber of Horrors] instead concentrated on bringing death itself close, in all its abject details. Marie-Helene Huet notes, “the perversion inherent in Madame Tussaud’s peculiar art is that this art imitates death and that the product of this imitation of death is an imitation of life…In the Chamber of the Dead, the illusion of life never brings the dead back to life. On the contrary, one could say of Madame Tussaud that she brings the dead back to death.

A Proximate Violence: Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors by Lela Graybill

The wax worker tried to copy his or her subject as nearly as possible, (whether that subject was alive or dead). The artist does more than that—art never intends to just imitate. Madame Tussaud’s has always been dedicated to getting as close to what is immediately and physically real as possible. In the beginning many of  Tussaud’s and Curtius’s figures were actually constructed from wax molds made by taking a cast the subject’s face. “From life” is very close to the real person!

Curtius and his protegé had two impulses in the creation of their wax museums: to entertain and to witness to history.

A few years after her arrival in Great Britain, Marie Tussaud searched for, found and bought parts of the guillotine. Later, she heard about and bought the carriage Napoleon rode in when he went to conquer Russia, and when he turned around and was defeated at Waterloo. John Theodore Tussaud, describes the vehicle in great detail, taking two chapters to marvel at the carriage and its contents and the great man’s past closeness to them. For many years, the carriage was displayed (along with its waxen driver) and visitors were allowed to sit inside and touch the things that had once been Napoleon’s. When some of them began taking bits of the vehicle away for mementos, a red ribbon was strung around it and visitors were no longer allowed to touch it.

Napoleon's carriage at Tussaud's

It’s amusing to read that in Curtius’s museum in Paris, rich visitors were allowed to wander around an exhibit of the royal family at supper, touching the models, while the less well-off stood in a roped-off area in the rear where they could pass the time trying to guess which of the figures below was real.
Today, if I read the situation right, visitors of every income level are allowed to fraternize with waxen celebrities. (I doubt that many of them are interested in Napoleon’s carriage, which I’m certain is  still roped off!) They come to stand next to them, to pretend that the silent figures who look so very alive but who never move, are not only the real thing, but friends, intimates even. They have their pictures taken with celebrity actors and dictators. It’s not exactly fifteen minutes of fame, but it feels close.

More next time.

Death at The Turquoise Door

I walked into The Turquoise Door in Austin, Texas and found Death singing, playing cards, feasting on tamales and papayas, and riding bicycles. It was moving in procession down the length of counters and across tables. I could almost hear the percussion of its bones. Its many moods could not be seen in its bony faces: skulls are less malleable even than botoxed flesh. They can neither smile or frown. But oh, the color–the liveliness of it all.

The Turquoise Door was given over to the Day of the Dead, but it wasn’t just for a day, it was a time and place where saints, demons, and human beings–living, dead–were joined in perpetual celebration of each other. Some of the figures could have filled a coffee table; others were as small as the charms for a bracelet. Clay, paper maiche, ceramic, wood–they were playing instruments–violins, concertinas, pianos, trumpets and saxophones. They were dipping and turning in dance. They were piling up marigolds. On the walls were ceremonial masks,  their empty eyes staring at the sights below.

There were trees of life with the Virgin Mary and apple trees at their centers, but in one the skeleton in his snappy black uniform replaced them.. Death at the heart of life.

I don’t know much about the Day of the Dead. I know even less about Death itself. I do know that The Turquoise Door made me laugh, and it’s not very often that Death does that.