“He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster”

Jac Saorsa: Artist-in-Residence // For this contribution to Synapsis, I would like to share an extract from the doctoral work in creative writing that I am currently undertaking with Cardiff University, UK. The thesis is entitled Awakening Monsters: An Exploration of the Experience of Mortality through Creative Practice.

The fundamental aim is to embrace an experimental amalgamation of written text and visual art in order to challenge the distinction between subjectivity and objectivity within the broad parameters of patient experience and the corresponding relation between art and medicine. The philosophical context is provided by the work of French philosopher Gilles Deleuze.

The Arm, oil on canvas 4’x4’

The ‘monsters’ to which the title refers consist—in my interpretation of Nietzsche’s quotation—primarily of our constructed ‘truths’ about our reality, our hopes, our sense of purpose, our dreams and our fears. A continuation of the quote reads: ‘And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you’ (Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, Aphorism 146). Nietzsche’s ‘abyss’ is also pertinent in terms of how I understand my own creative practice, philosophically at least. It actually serves to further develop a critique of a particular aspect of Deleuzean theory that I began in a previous work, and which left me circling the abyss in order to prevent a fall, because, ‘such a fall ensures the ultimate achievement, but the paradox of creative practice lies therein, in the fact that to achieve what you strive for as an artist is to cease to be an artist, precisely because the Being of the artist is dependent on a constant striving’ (Saorsa 2011) .

In Awakening Monsters, creative and critical components are interwoven into a hybrid form that flows from my conviction that writing, as an explorative process, reflects the complexity of experience. I have two primary sources: the Living: notes, drawings and transcripts of conversations with patients and medical professionals involved in recent projects focusing on the existential ‘lived’ experience of cancer, and the Dead: human cadavers I am working with while systematically carrying out dissections of the upper limb, lower limb and head and neck. Both directly with the Living, and indirectly with the Dead, the emphasis here is the advocacy of patient autonomy and the ‘humanisation’ of medicine, as both relate to our shared conceptualisation of mortality. The work draws on many other sources including history (both art and medical) and literature. The following extract from Bavarian Gentians, by D.H. Lawrence is pertinent here.

Reach me a gentian, give me a torch! let me guide myself with the blue, forked torch of a flower down the darker and darker stairs, where blue is darkened on blueness even where Persephone goes…

So,

I am an artist who draws on death. I dissect a human form and I draw out a simulacra of life from what remains. From death, I steal a sinew, an organ, a plexus. To life, I give interpretation. A life must always end in death and although, in this way at least, death can give life meaning, it cannot be meaningful in itself because where life is full of plurality, full of the tragic and the beautiful in individual measure, in death these are united in a singularity, an irreducible fact. The cadaver before me on the dissection table represents death’s unique telos—a life extinguished, leaving only form and substance behind. But there is more…

Exposing the scapula, oil on canvas 4’x4’

I am an artist in a scientist’s clothing. My surgical scrubs belie the subjectivity that I bring to my work. In the dissection room, my subjects have become objects. As bodies donated, embalmed and steeped in Thiel fluid they are cadavers brought together in the name of science, depersonalised, deconstructed and decomposed. I compose myself in the presence of death.

Subcutaneous, oil on canvas 2’x14”

I am privileged to work with Thiel cadavers. They are fleshy, malleable, almost as if still paddling in the shallows of the Styx while the grey, rigid corpses that formalin reveals float, with undoubted supine splendour, midstream. Three months must pass before Thiel cadavers are lifted from immersion tank to table. Each is reverently removed from its group of four that, after embalming, were stacked in the shape of the cross and submerged. Each is assigned a number, a red tag tied onto thumbs, laced through pierced ears. Like livestock, only dead. Deadstock. Human beings, dehumanised for the sake of science and ethical convention. Cured. As meat. Wrapped in plastic shroud.

Superficial hand, oil on canvas 21”x18”

On the table before me now, my cadaver reflects the shades of sanguine through shiny skin, yet it is bloodless – bloodless and bloated. Silvery tendons, exposed in a forearm and gently tugged, light the way to fingers that curl, in mute response, around my own. A mouth, carefully closed, falls open again in a breathless gasp. A tongue flaps. An eye shimmers with a dull light, extinguished and forever held in hollow orbit around what was once seen. In here, in this cold room, silent tragedies and unspoken joys fill the void between personhood and the body; humanity and the physical form. The air around me thickens and resonates with the soft murmur, the whisper, of glorious experience and shattered aspiration.

I wield both pencil and scalpel and the art-science relation becomes rhythmic, mutually (in)dependent in the exchange, I handle the tangible remnants of intangible dreams, with care. I move limbs into position. I pare. I probe. I separate the bony cage, and ribs cleave to my will as I lift out a heart. My prize. The body before me rushes in on itself to shore up the loss but my heart, in my hand, misses a beat. The remnant of an eyebrow, raised, expresses a pathos hard to ignore; poignant and artless in its profound affect. Artless art; a conduit between dispassionate observation and pure, raw sensation. Art thrives on the capacity to compromise the intellect and drawing out, dissecting out, the emotion makes it hard to define where my cadaver ends and I begin. Nature abides no lines.

The Face, ink on paper

My first dissection was of a face. ‘I skinned a face today!’ It was a strong face made weak; an embalmed sequela of the  ‘hippocratic face’ of impending death. It was the face of a man who had, some six months ago, paid Charon for his passage over the Styx. A man who had, years before, gifted his body to science. His reasons discussed, counselled, agreed and form-filled; a signature, a nod of consent, a document filed; the deed was done. Smiles, handshakes, a guarantee that, given appropriate circumstances, his eventual death would be followed by suffusion with Thiel fluid and immersion in a steel flotation tank, until it was time for a flaying. Marsyas. Mythology. History.

I laid my hand on the cold pate and felt the crown over a face that no longer knew a soul. And yet, the empty, lonely gaze still touched mine.

History is never blind.

I ran my finger along the pointed nose that was broken in between the three separate, tender cartilages, almost dissolved but still in situ, rent and crushed by the lid of a steel sarcophagus. The shrunken ears were twisted, cruelly tweaked and pierced with the numbered tag. Like an animal. Indentured.

History is never equal.

The loosely gaping mouth was slack, devoid of muscular control, yet still offering up an agonised howl that echoed around the parameters of my empathy. A cacophony.

History is never silent.

The relentlessness of the crab had taken from the man all signs and sighs of life, and the face before me could only mutely attest to the death of one who, used up by time, before his time, had finally relinquished his hold on all he had ever called his Self.  His-story had been written into conclusion, and the crab, sated, had long since moved along its lateral course. It left behind only traces of its passage through cold pale flesh on a cold steel table in a cold dissection room. 

I began by drawing gentian blue incision lines on the skin with a marker pen.  I encircled the sockets, each a bony abyss that cradled an eye; a sunken, deflated globe, resting in disquiet. From the chin – the mentalis – I followed the jawline up past the zygomatic arches of the cheekbones, past the ears and on past the tufts of hair that adhered resolutely to the puckered skin of the crown. I drew an outline around the hollow temple, a shallow crater in the surface of a cranial moon. I divided the whole face into two by drawing down the midline, and then into four with a horizontal line from the base of the nose to each ear.  Finally, I drew a blue line across the blue, withered lips; dry petals in a gentian winter. Inexperienced as I was, I was ready to explore, to go down, in an analogy of the route my cadaver once took, into the blue. Blue. Solnit’s ‘colour of solitude and desire, the colour of ‘there seen from here, the colour of (distance) where you are not.’ Blue. Jarman’s ‘open door to the soul’.

The scalpel blade flashed, sharply, in the harsh light of the room as I carefully fixed it into the handle. I hovered over the face, holding my breath in existential ecstasy of anticipation, just for a few seconds, before gently lowering the scalpel so that the length of the blade rested on the surface of the skin, over the blue midline. My hand shook very slightly as I applied a little pressure. ‘Steady now.’ I snatched a breath and held it, high in my throat. I felt a rush of blood and I could hear my own heart beating a quickening rhythm. ‘Steady your hand.’ I eased the blade down, following the blue from the hairline through the brow, along the nose from root to tip, and on to the chin, dividing both the lips into two. It was the shallowest of cuts. The skin is thin on the face.

Slowly, carefully I continued, cutting down now, very gently, with the curved blade at the base of the skin layer while applying a little traction to pull it back and away from the superficial fascia below. I wonder at the scale of things; the impossibly thin facial muscles, so very beautiful and so very difficult to dissect, the tiny thread like nerves and the delicate hues of the vessels, all held within the embrace of the fascia and the yellow fat, moist, bubbly and sparkling in the light. Then the parotid gland, the parotid duct, buccal fat like fluffy cotton wool and then, deeper towards the  buccinator, the orbicularis oris, and finally the node, where expression meets its origin.

Saorsa, J. (2011) Narrating the Catastrophe: an artist’s dialogue with Deleuze and Ricouer. Intellect

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