Art project using a human cadaver could still happen
Despite failing to legally secure a human body for exhibition, Baldessari would be happy to see his 1970 concept realised one day
By Elizabeth Fortescue. Web only
Published online: 16 April 2013
A concept by the artist John Baldessari to display a human cadaver as a work of art could one day be realised, a leading curator believes, despite a recent failed effort to find and display a dead body within the strict legal framework surrounding death and physical remains.
Originally conceived by Baldessari in 1970, the work would have visitors look through a peep-hole and see a dead body laid out with its feet towards them, in the manner of Mantegna’s painting, The Lamentation over the Dead Christ, 1480. Hans Ulrich Obrist, the co-director of London’s Serpentine Gallery and Klaus Biesenbach, the director of MoMA PS1, first attempted to bring Baldessari’s idea to fruition in 2011 and the resulting paperwork was displayed in the exhibition "11 Rooms" at the Manchester International Festival.
The show has travelled and been expanded and is now on view in Sydney as “13 Rooms”, presented by the Australian arts patron John Kaldor. This time, instead of displaying Unrealised Proposal for Cadavre Piece, Baldessari has created a new work, Thirteen Colorful Inside Jobs, 2013, (a riff on his 1977 video Six Colourful Inside Jobs) in which a room is repainted by a performer in a different colour every day.
Speaking in Sydney, Obrist says Baldessari “would be happy for us to realise [the cadaver project] if it were possible”. He adds: “It’s not excluded that one day it will happen. You need the consent of the person obviously before they die. At the same time you need the consent of the family as well as legal authorisation.” For the Manchester exhibition, Obrist, Biesenbach and their team came tantalizingly close to legally securing a body for Baldessari’s work.
The exhibition’s producer Pollyanna Clayton-Stamm spent 18 months sending countless letters and emails back and forth to lawyers, surgeons, mortuary specialists, pathologists, ethics specialists and UK government departments including the Human Tissue Authority.
“Some of the conversations I had over 18 months were quite extraordinary,” Clayton-Stamm says. “We got very close to actually procuring a full cadaver. In the end I had to go to America because the rules in the UK were so stringent.”
Obrist says lawyers were centrally involved in the attempt to negotiate the legal maze. “To exhibit a dead body in a museum in the wrong circumstances is highly illegal. You could go to prison, as we found out in Manchester,” he says.
With the systems in place for shipping a cadaver to the UK, Clayton-Stamm finally ran out of time to secure a body for “11 Rooms” before the exhibition opened. Instead, at Baldessari’s suggestion, Obrist and Biesenbach displayed the mountain of correspondence that documented Clayton-Stamm’s persistent attempts to get a body.
“It was fascinating. People could not leave the room” where the correspondence was laid out, Obrist says. The letters became a meditation on life and death as well as an official paper trail. “John [Baldessari] would eventually like it to be a book.”
“As imagined by Baldessari, it’s a mournful, elegiac and profound piece, which also asks tough questions. It’s certainly an important piece,” says Alex Poots, who directed the Manchester International Festival in 2011. “If it isn’t realised some time soon, I hope it’s found a certain presence in the world by virtue of its absence.”
Maria Balshaw, the director of Manchester City Galleries where “11 Rooms” was mounted, says she could see the cadaver project being presented, “if a person clearly indicated that they and their relatives wished to be part of such a serious and profound work of art”. Whether a dying person would consent to this remains to be seen. “As people's views on death are, quite rightly, deeply personal and the project touches on profound ethical, religious and emotional issues, it will always be a difficult and contentious work to realise.”
Balshaw, however, considers the work “important because it asks us to contemplate that which art only usually represents at one remove—our own mortality—and it forces us to embrace the connection between death and our notion of what art is”.
Meanwhile, on Sydney Harbour, "13 Rooms" is being presented by Kaldor Public Art Projects in a rabbit-warren of purpose-built rooms on Pier 2/3 at Walsh Bay. Each room is dedicated to the work of an artist or collective, including Marina Abramovic, Joan Jonas, Damien Hirst, Tino Sehgal, Allora and Calzadilla, Simon Fujiwara and Santiago Sierra, whose instructions are acted out by performers.
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