The art of darkness

Autopsies as entertainment? A stillborn child as performance art? It’s not radical, it’s repugnant, writes Karen Kissane.

HE’S a lovely teenage boy; bright, witty and courteous. He told his mother, a friend of mine, that he was going to the skate park. She wanted to know why he wasn’t taking his gear. He wasn’t going to skate, he explained; another boy had had a bad accident there the day before and he wanted to see the blood.
Voyeurism? Schadenfreude? Relief that it hadn’t happened to him? He was expressing the same fascination that causes adult motorists to slow down as they pass a car crash, hoping for a glimpse of gore. It’s the force that makes commercial hits of splatter movies and that has made a gothic icon of celluloid cannibal Hannibal Lecter.
The yuck factor can be high even when gruesome entertainment is feigned. What about when it is real?
In London, more than 500 people paid for tickets (another 1500 missed out) to an autopsy in which a doctor gutted a human corpse. The show was later broadcast on national television by Britain’s Channel Four, the same station that this past week aired a documentary in which performance artist Zhu Yu discusses cannibalism while showing photographs of himself apparently putting in his mouth parts of a dismembered stillborn child.
Australians will get their chance to spend a Sunday afternoon browsing other work by the doctor who performed the public autopsy, Professor Gunther von Hagens. He is known as “the Walt Disney of death” for his creation of exhibitions of flayed, preserved human corpses. A show is planned for Australia some time after current tours of Europe, the US and Asia have finished.
Psychologists would have a field day analysing these cultural equations. There is the narcissism of the performers, who win public attention by zooming like heat-seeking missiles onto hot taboos. They preen themselves as contributors to “education” (on the doctor’s part) and “art” (on Zhu’s).
There is the exhibitionism – or, perhaps, the longing for immortality? – of the people who signed their bodies over to von Hagens. He now claims to have 5200 people who have promised he can strip their corpses of skin and preserve them for public display. If you and your naked body didn’t make it onto Big Brother – hey, here’s your last shot at celebrity.
And there are the audiences. Is this about being so bored and jaded that real death, now, is the only spectacle that can titillate? Or about being so anxious about death that there is a longing to face it vicariously? Or about something more sinister, some dark pleasure that doesn’t bear too much looking into?
There have always been artists who express the primitive part of the imagination that was Freud’s terrain. Goya’s painting Saturn Devouring his Son contains the same image of a man eating a baby that Zhu created. There have also been people who wanted to bequeath their persons to posterity: the 18th-century British philosopher Jeremy Bentham had his corpse preserved and it is stored sitting up on a chair (fully dressed, and still attached to its skin) in a cupboard at his old university.
In earlier times, it was Christianity, looking for means of spiritual crowd control, that channelled people’s curiosity about the macabre, with dreadful paintings depicting torture and death and public display of the mummified corpses of saints. Rome still has an ossuary open to tourists that is decorated with the skulls and bones of hundreds of monks.
In the 16th century, the church even supported public autopsies in Europe on the grounds that they fostered an understanding of God’s creation. (Beijing-based Zhu has said his Christianity influenced his performance – “Jesus is always related to death, blood, wounds” – although his professed belief sits oddly with his other claim that he was illustrating that “we are all just meat”.)
Today, the popular Western outlets for gruesome interest are movies and books about serial killers. Classic detective stories, such as those by British writers P. D. James, Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie, dispose of bodies in a few brief lines. Corpses are merely a plot device on which the rest of the narrative turns and killers are relatively normal people driven by one of the four Ls of detective fiction: love, lust, loathing or lucre.
Today, some of the bestsellers are those by American authors such as Patricia Cornwell and Kathy Reichs, who almost lasciviously detail mutilation and the forensic examination of slaughtered bodies. Their murderers kill for lingering, sadistic pleasure. Sometimes their heroines return again and again to memories of the corpse and its bloody state – meaning that so, of course, do the readers.
Such interest is only human, says British actor Anthony Hopkins, who plays Hannibal Lecter. He told one interviewer: “I don’t think anyone is sick or disturbed because they like Hannibal, any more than they are if they go to see Jaws or Psycho. It’s a need to titillate ourselves through destruction because that is what finally happens to all of us, the destruction of the body.”
But Hopkins is talking about fiction, about cultural channels that provide imaginary ways to release these fears. All the participants, performers and viewers, authors and readers, are aware of the artifice. It might be off but it is also arguable that it does no real harm.
Zhu and von Hagens are dealing with the bodies of real people. In the case of Zhu, questions must be asked about how he obtained a baby’s body (if that is what he really did). Did some impoverished mother accept payment for it? That would be as nauseating as his “performance”.
You don’t have to be religious to feel it is important to treat the dead with reverence. Almost every culture has surrounded death with ritual, recognising it as the last great rite of passage, even if the expression of those rites has varied enormously.
A body is treated with respect because it was once the vessel for a human being who experienced the world through it; the brain played with ideas, the mouth loved and laughed, the heart beat with joy and fear and anticipation.
The same cannot be said for a stillborn baby such as the one Zhu claims he abused. There, you find yourself struggling for Victorian words to justify your repugnance: it is indecent, unseemly, barbaric.
Reducing a corpse to cheap entertainment, even with the dead person’s permission, is degrading. It is something soldiers do to their dead opponents in war as a way of dehumanising the other side. Indulging post-mortem prurience in peacetime is even more offensive, in a way, because it is more cold-blooded. It is not about the glint of steel but the glint of commerce.
There is a difference between the healthy breaking of taboos and the failure to respect civilised boundaries. It is shameful that elephants treat their dead more tenderly than some people do.
It might be that the forces fuelling these extreme phenomena are expressions of normal human nature. In that case, I’m with Katharine Hepburn, who told Humphrey Bogart in that wonderfully human film The African Queen: “Nature, Mr Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above.”

First published in The Age.