Inanimus, Monsters & Chimeras of the Present

I look above me, towards the movable hooks once used to hang the meat, and I visualize the blood and pain that these walls had to contain – sustain – for many long years. Death and pain are the instruments life has to proceed, I tell myself.

I’m standing inside Padua’s former slaughterhouse: a space specifically devised for massacre, where now animals are living a second, bizarre life thanks to Alberto Michelon’s artworks.
When I meet him, he immediately infects me with the feverish enthusiasm of someone who is lucky (and brave) enough to be following his own vocation. What comes out of his mouth must clearly be a fifth of what goes through his mind. As John Waters put it, “without obsession, life is nothing“.
Animals and taxidermy are Alberto’s obsession.

Taxidermy is traditionally employed in two main fields: hunting trophies, and didactical museum installations.
In both context, the demand for taxidermic preparations is declining. On one hand we are witnessing a drop in hunting activities, which find less and less space in European culture as opposed to ecological preoccupations and the evolution of the ethical sensitiviy towards animals. On the other hand, even great Natural History Museums already have their well-established collections and seldom acquire new specimens: often a taxidermist is only called when restoration is required on already prepared animals.

This is why – Alberto explains – I mainly work for private customers who want to preserve their domestic pets. It is more difficult, because you have to faithfully recreate the cat or dog’s expressiveness based on their photographs; preparing a much-loved and familiar pet requires the greatest care. But I get a huge satisfaction when the job turns out well. Customers often burst into tears, they talk to the animal – when I present them with the finished work, I always step aside and leave them a bit of intimacy. It’s something that helps them coming to terms with their loss.”

What he says doesn’t surprise me: in a post on wunderkammern I associated taxidermy’s second youth (after a time in which it looked like this art had become obsolete) to the social need of reconfiguring our relationship with death.
But the reason I came here is Alberto is not just an ordinary taxidermist: he is Italy’s only real exponent of artistic taxiermy.

Until November 5, here at the ex-slaughterhouse, you can visit his exhibition Inanimus – A Contemporary Bestiary, a collection of his main works.
To a casual observer, artistic non-naturalist taxidermy could seem not fully respectful towards the animal. In realuty, most artists who use animal organic material as a medium do so just to reflect on our own relationship with other species, creating their works from ethical sources (animals who died of natural causes, collected in the wild, etc.).

Alberto too follows such professional ethics, as he began his experiment using leftovers from his workshop. “I was sorry to have to throw away pieces of skin, or specimens that wouldn’t find an arrangement“, he tells me. “It began almost like a diversion, in a very impulsive way, following a deep urge“.
He candidly confesses that he doesn’t know much about the American Rogue Taxidermy scene, nor about modern art galleries. And it’s clear that Alberto is somewhat alien to the contemporary art universe, so often haughty and pretentious: he keeps talking about instinct, about playing, but must of all – oh, the horror! – he takes the liberty of doing what no “serious” artist would ever dream of doing: he explains the message of his own works, one by one.

His installations really have much to say: rather than carrying messages, though, they are food for thought, a continuous and many-sided elaboration of the modernity, an attempt to use these animal remains as a mirror to investigate our own face.
Some of his works immediately strike me for the openness with which they take on current events: from the tragedy of migrants to GMOs, from euthanasia to the present-day fear of terrorist attacks.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen any other artist using taxidermy to confront the present in such a direct way.
A roe deer head covered in snake skin, wearing an orange uniform reminiscent of Islamic extremists’ prisoners, is chained to the wall. The reference is obvious: the heads of decapitated infidels are assimilated to hunting trophies.
To be honest, I find this explicit allusion to current events imagery (which, like it or not, has gained a “pop” quality) pretty unsettling, and I’m not even sure that I like it – but if something pulls the rug out from under my feet, I bless it anyways. This is what the best art is supposed to do.

Other installations are meant to illustrate Western contradictions, halfway through satire and open criticism to a capitalistic system ever harder to sustain.
A tortoise, represented as an old bejeweled lady with saggy breasts, is the emblem of a conservative society based on economic privilege: a “prehistoric” concept that, just like the reptile, has refused to evolve in any way.

A conqueror horse, fierce and rampant, exhibits a luxurious checked fur composed from several equines.
A social climber horse: to be where he stands, he must have done away with many other horses“, Alberto tells me with a smile.

An installation shows the internal organs of a tiger, preserved in jars that are arranged following the animal’s anatomy: the eyes, tomgue and brain are placed at the extremity where the head should be, and so on. Some chimeras seem to be in the middle of a bondage session: an allusion to poaching for aphrodisiac elixirs such as the rhino horn, and to the fil rouge linking us to those massacres.

A boar, sitting on a toilet, is busy reading a magazine and searching for a pair of glass eyes to fill his empty eye sockets.
The importance of freedom of choice regarding the end of life is incarnated by two minks who hanged themselves – rather than ending up in a fur coat.
The skulls of three livestock animals are hanged like trophies, and plastic flowers come out of the hole bored by the slaughterhouse firearm (“I picked up the flowers from the graves at the cemetery, replacing them with new flowers“, Michelon tells me).

As you might have understood by now, the most interesting aspect of the Inanimus works is the neverending formal experimentation.
Every installation is extremely different from the other, and Alberto Michelon always finds new and surprising ways of using the animal matter: there are abstract paintings whose canvas is made of snake or fish skin; entomological compositions; anthropomorphic taxidermies; a crucifix entirely built by patiently gluing together bone fragments; tribal masks, phallic snakes mocking branded underwear, skeletal chandeliers, Braille texts etracted from lizard skin.

Ma gli altri tassidermisti, diciamo i “puristi”, non storcono il naso?
Certamente alcuni non la ritengono vera tassidermia, forse pensano che io mi sia montato la testa. Non mi importa. Cosa vuoi farci? Questo progetto sta prendendo sempre più importanza, mi diverte e mi entusiasma.

On closer inspection, there’s not a huge difference between classic and artistic taxidermy. The stuffed animals we find in natural science museums, as well as Alberto’s, are but representations, interpretations, simulachra.
Every taxidermist uses the skin, and shape, of the animal to convey a specific vision of the world; and the museum narrative (although so conventional as to be “invisible” to our eyes) is maybe no more legit than a personal perspective.

Although Alberto keeps repeating that he feels he’s a novice, still unripe artist, the Inanimus works show a very precise artistic direction. As I approach the exit, I feel I have witnessed something unique, at least in the Italian panorama. I cannot therefore back away from the ritual prosaic last question: future projects?
I want to keep on getting better, learning, experimenting new things“, Alberto replies as his gaze wanders all around, lost in the crowd of his transfigured animals.

Inanimus – un bestiario contemporaneo
Padova, Cattedrale Ex-macello, Via Cornaro 1
Until October 17, 2017 [Extended to November 5, 2017]

BB Contest Awards

The first Bizzarro Bazar Contest ended on Sunday at midnight.
In the last few weeks I found myself facing a problem I, quite naively, had not forseen: I didn’t expect the entries to be so many and of such high quality.
Nearly fifty works, all so diverse and imaginative — I assure you I’m not exaggerating, in a few lines you’ll see for yourself. Choosing just three among them to be awarded was very tough: I hesitated for days, and kept changing my mind, going through all of them over and over. But again, this is also part of the game.

And to me it was not just a game.
This blog is alive by virtue of passion, and even passions sometimes need to be revived: so I owe all of you, who spent time and energy to participate, way more than a simple thank you. The love and enthusiasm you showed during these days gave me more strength than you can imagine.

But enough talking.
Before unveiling the three awarded works, here’s a selection of the others. I cannot post all the entries, so don’t be offended if you do not see yours: in the next weeks I will publicize on social media all the works that couldn’t be included here, with links to the authors.
Alright, let the weird parade begin!

When you really need some sleep, but your parasitic twin wants to keep on reading Bizzarro Bazar.
(Greta Fantini: Facebook, Instagram)

Ladies and gentlemen, step right up!
This drawing conceals a heap of allusions to old posts, from the vegetal lamb to the Sutherland sisters, from the Rat King to surrealist parties, to the flying tailor.
(Nike: Instagram)

Francesco Barbera contributed with a suggestive short story, entitled The Original Sin, which for its atmosphere reminded me of Ray Bradbury’s narrative style: you can read it here [Italian only].

Breaking news: good old Ed Gein was crazy.
Crazy about Bizzarro Bazar’s merchandise.
(Big Man Illustrator: Instagram)

Giorgia built a real homepage for this blog, complete with HTML code to click through the various categories (the code is not implemented here, this is just the picture). The result is a gorgeous wunderkammer-like collage that would certainly appeal to Terry Gilliam.
(Nutjshell: Instagram)

The blog as a wunderkammer is also the concept behind Eleonora’s personal artistic vision.
(Eleonora Helbones: Instagram, Facebook)

Embarassing moments: you’re about to waltz with your siamese skeleton, but you forget having hidden your collection of flying eyeballs inside the grammophone. I hate it when that happens.
(Domenico Venezia: Instagram)

Sara designed the essential gadget for the stylish, who care about details and who wish to stand out even in the most trivial situations.
Never end up in the morgue again without a customized Bizzarro Bazar toe tag!
(Sara Crimilde: Facebook)

OrcheStrafottente wrote a jingle called Bizzarro Bazar, and performed it on the most unusual and weird instruments: dan moi, practice chanter, hulusi, toy piano, plastic hose, nose whistle, bird call, voices, elephant bell.
(OrcheStrafottente: Facebook)

This is me, in magician mode.
(Entracta: Instagram)

This is me, in memento mori mode.
(Vicky Void: Instagram)

This is me, in Fiji mermaid mode, the most classic of sideshow gaffs. (A mermaid with a goatee, I say, what is this world coming to.)
(Esoterismo Simon Mago: Facebook)

This is me, in anatomical specimen mode, and subjected to a fitting retaliation.
(Gli inetti: Instagram)

This is me, in voodoo doll mode. Death pulls my strings, but I pull the strings of a second puppet with his features. In your face, Mr. Grim Reaper!
Like saying: we’re all puppets in the hands of death, there’s no way around that, but maybe we can learn to control fear by domesticating it and “playing” with it….
(Kiria Eternalove: Instagram, Facebook)

This is me when I’m invited to a birthday party and I didn’t have time to buy a proper present.
(Il Decimo Mese: Instagram, Facebook)

A wunderkammer necklace, to turn yourself into a walking museum of wonders.
(Cher_macabre00: Instagram)

Alice submitted an autobiographical short tale, Story of A. [Italian only], that really moved me: it’s about a moment in her life many of us can relate to — when we discover that our curiosity, often considered too “morbid”, in time can turn out to be our greatest asset.

Cecilia sends her “double” wishes for the blog’s birthday.
(Cecilia Murgia: Instagram)

Guenda, passionate about recycled and found objects craft, remade the Bizzarro Bazar logo by weaving it with human hair, in the fashion of Victorian mourning embroidery.
(Guenda Flower: Facebook, Blog)

This still life by Gianluca Tommasi (a.k.a. TheDancingLeper) might fool you: in reality it’s not a painting, but a photograph.
Don’t believe it? Here’s the bejind-the-scenes:

Another beautiful memento mori photo, with mourning accessories, hourglass (tempus fugit), phrenologic head and palmistry hand.
(Seby Mauro: Facebook)

This “Punished Suicide” is holding in her hands a skull that looks familiar.
(Chiara Noemi Monaco: Instagram)

Long-time reader Pina Fantozzi dedicated a spectacular acrostic to the blog (even if she had some trouble, she says, due to the “abundance of voiced alveolar sibilant affricates“).

The most colorful and psychedelic of the contest entries.
(Elena Macrelli: Instagram)

Lon Chaney, sporting a Bizzarro Bazar top hat, and an authentic little child’s skeleton are featured in this picture taken by one of the greatest human skull collectors and photographers.
(Gnat Tang: Instagram, Facebook)

A chemical-alchemical vanitas drawn by da Marco, who is a wunderkammer antique dealer by trade.
(Marco Genzanella: Instagram, Facebook)

Simona’s surreal wunderkammer.
(Simona Trozzi: Facebook)

A mysterious crate from Papua New Guinea? What’s inside?

Of course, an exclusive Bizzarro Bazar penis gourd (koteka)! Wear it at the next cocktail party to redefine the concept of ethnic style!
(Mala Tempora: Instagram, Facebook)


3rd Prize

Third prize goes to Nicole Beffa who created this skeleton intnto on drawing the Bizzarro Bazar logo.
I was struck by the originality of the technique (pyrography) together with the unusual base material (deer scapula), but most of all by the “meta-narrative” vertigo this work entails: a bone containing a skeleton drawing a skull. Could you ask for more?
(Nicole Beffa: Facebook)

2nd Prize

This gouache by Emanuela Cucchiarini, known professionally as Eeriette, is a feast for the eyes and conquered me for its use of color, for the choice of represented “wonders” (those seashells are just beautiful) and for the strong personality displayed throughout the whole work.
(Emanuela “Eeriette” Cucchiarini: Instagram, Facebook, Twitter)

1st Prize

Paola Cera’s oil painting earned the first prize for its essential elegance: the hydrocephalic skull (which has been this blog’s icon right from the start, and always looked to me like a metaphore for a mind ready to “swell” with curiosity) is placed within the picture in a perfectly contextualized way, between the two other emblems of the strange and the marvellous. Such a refined synthesis of circus references and naturalistic and macabre allusions was no easy task; Paola succeeded in creating a work that, in my opinion, is stylistically excellent.
(Paola Cera: Instagram, Facebook)

I wish to express once again my gratitude to all the entrants, and remind you that in the next few weeks I will be posting on social media the many wonderful works that did not appear here.
If you would like to congratulate some artist that in your opinion was unjustly excluded from my Top 3, feel free to do so in the comment setion below.

In closing, I hope you had as much fun as I did.

Teresa Margolles: Translating The Horror

Imagine you live in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.
The “City of Evil”, one of the most violent places on the entire planet. Here, in the past few years, murders have reached inconceivable numbers. More than 3000 victims only in 2010 – an average of eight to nine people killed every day.
So every day, you leave your home praying you won’t be caught in some score-settling fight between the over 900 pandillas (armed gangs) tied to the drug cartels. Every day, like it or not, you are a witness to the neverending slaughter that goes on in your town. It’s not a metaphor. It is a real, daily, dreadful massacre.

Now imagine you live in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, and you’re a woman aged between 15 and 25.
Your chances of not being subjected to violence, and of staying alive, drastically drop. In Juárez women like you are oppressed, battered, raped; they often disappear, and their bodies – if they’re ever found – show signs of torture and mutilations.
If you were to be kidnapped, you already know that in all probability your disappearance wouldn’t even be reported. No one would look for you anyway: the police seem to be doing anything but investigating. “She must have had something to do with the cartel – people would say – or else she somehow asked for it“.

Photo credit: Scott Dalton.

Finally, imagine you live in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, you’re a woman and you’re an artist.
How would you explain this hell to those who live outside Juárez? How can you address the burden of desperation and suffering this carnage places upon the hearts of the relatives? How will you be heard, in a world which is already saturated with images of violence? How are you going to convey in a palpable way all this anguish, the sense of constant loss, the waste of human life?

Teresa Margolles, born in 1963 in Culiacán, Sinaloa, was a trained pathologist before she became an artist. She now lives in Mexico City, but in the past she worked in several morgues across South America, including the one in Ciudad Juárez, that terrible mortuary where an endless river of bodies keeps flowing through four huge refrigerators (each containing up to 120 corpses).
A morgue for me is a thermometer of a society. What happens inside a morgue is what happens outside. The way people die show me what is happening in the city.

Starting from this direct experience, Margolles oriented her whole research towards two difficult objectives: one one hand she aims at sabotaging the narrative, ubiquitous in Mexican media and society, which blames the victims (the afore-mentioned “they were asking for it“); on the other, she wants to make the consequences of violence concrete and tangible to her audience, translating the horror into a physical, universal language.

But a peculiar lucidity is needed to avoid certain traps. The easiest way would be to rely on a raw kind of shock art: subjecting the public to scenes of massacre, mutilated bodies, mangled flesh. But the effect would be counter-productive, as our society is already bombarded with such representations, and we are so used to hyperreal images that we can hardly tell them apart from fiction.

It is then necessary to bring the public in touch with death and pain, but through some kind of transfer, or translation, so that the observer is brought on the edge of the abyss by his own sensitivity.

This is the complex path Teresa Margolles chose to take. The following is a small personal selection of her works displayed around the world, in major museums and art galleries, and in several Biennials.

En el aire (2003). The public enters a room, and is immediately seized by a slight euforia upon seeing dozens of soap bubbles joyfully floating in the air: the first childish reaction is to reach out and make them burst. The bubble pops, and some drops of water fall on the skin.
What the audience soon discovers, though, is those bubbles are created with the water and soap that have been used to wash the bodies of homicide victims in the morgue. And suddenly everything changes: the water which fell on our skin created an invisible, magical connection between us and these anonymous cadavers; and each bubble becomes the symbol of a life, a fragile soul that got lost in the void.

Vaporización (2001). Here the water from the mortuary, once again collected and disinfected, is vaporized in the room by some humidifiers. Death saturates the atmosphere, and we cannot help but breathe this thick mist, where every particle bears the memory of brutally killed human beings.

Tarjetas para picar cocaina (1997-99). Margolles collected some pictures of homicide victims connected with drug wars. She then gave them to drug addicts so they could use them to cut their dose of cocaine. The nonjudgemental metaphor is clear – the dead fuel narco-trafficking, every sniff implies the violence – but at the same time these photographs become spiritual objects, invested as they are with a symbolic/magic meaning directly connected to a specific dead person.

Lote Bravo (2005). Layed out on the floor are what look like simple bricks. In fact, they have been created using the sand collected in five different spots in Juárez, where the bodies of raped and murdered women were found. Each handmade brick is the symbol of a woman who was killed in the “city of dead girls”.

Trepanaciones (Sonidos de la morgue) (2003). Just some headphones, hanging from the ceiling. The visitor who decides to wear one, will hear the worldess sounds of the autopsies carried out by Margolles herself. Sounds of open bodies, bones being cut – but without any images that might give some context to these obscene noises, without the possibility of knowing exactly what they refer to. Or to whom they correspond: to what name, broken life, interrupted hopes.

Linea fronteriza (2005). The photograph of a suture, a body sewed up after the autopsy: but the detail that makes this image really powerful is the tattoo of the Virgin of Guadalupe, with its two halves that do not match anymore. Tattoos are a way to express one’s own individuality: a senseless death is the border line that disrupts and shatters it.

Frontera (2011). Margolles removed two walls from Juárez and Culiacán, and exhibited them inside the gallery. Some bullet holes are clearly visible on these walls, the remnants of the execution of two policemen and four young men at the hands of the drug cartel. Facing these walls, one is left to wonder. What does it feel like to stand before a firing squad?
Furthermore, by “saving” these walls (which were quickly replaced by new ones, in the original locations) Margolles is also preserving the visual trace of an act of violence that society is eager to remove from collective memory.

Frazada/La Sombra (2016). A simple structure, installed outdoors, supports a blanket, like the tent of a peddler stand. You can sit in the shade to cool off from the sun. And yet this blanket comes from the morgue in La Paz, where it was used to wrap up the corpse of a femicide victim. The shadow stands for the code of silence surrounding these crimes – it is, once again, a conceptual stratagem to bring us closer to the woman’s death. This shroud, this murder is casting its shadow on us too.

Pajharu/Sobre la sangre (2017). Ten murdered  women, ten blood-stained pieces of cloth that held their corpses. Margolles enrolled seven Aymara weavers to embroider this canvas with traditional motifs. The clotted blood stains intertwine with the floreal decorations, and end up being absorbed and disguised within the patterns. This extraordinary work denounces, on one hand, how violence has become an essential part of a culture: when we think of Mexico, we often think of its most colorful traditions, without taking notice of the blood that soaks them, without realizing the painful truth hidden behind those stereotypes we tourists love so much. On the other hand, though, Sobre la sangre is an act of love and respect for those murdered women. Far from being mere ghosts, they are an actual presence; by preserving and embellishing these blood traces, Margolles is trying to subtract them from oblivion, and give them back their lost beauty.

Lengua (2000). Margolles arranged funeral services for this boy, who was killed in a drug-related feud, and in return asked his family permission to preserve and use his tonge for this installation. So that it could speak on. Like the tattoo in Linea frontizera, here the piercing is the sign of a truncated singularity.
The theoretical shift here is worthy of note: a human organ, deprived of the body that contained it and decontextualized, becomes an object in its own right, a rebel tongue, a “full” body in itself — carrying a whole new meaning. Scholar Bethany Tabor interpreted this work as mirroring the Deleuzian concept of body without organs, a body which de-organizes itself, revolting against those functions that are imparted upon it by society, by capitalism, by the established powers (all that Artaud referred to by using the term “God”, and from which he whished “to have done with“).

37 cuerpos (2007). The remnants of the thread used to sew up the corpses of 37 victims are tied together to form a rope which stretches across the space and divides it like a border.

¿De qué otra cosa podríamos hablar? (2009). This work, awarded at the 53rd Venice Biennial, is the one that brought Margolles in the spotlight. The floor of the room is wet with the water used to wash bodies at the Juárez morgue. On the walls, huge canvases look like abstract paintings but in reality these are sheets soaked in the victims blood.
Outside the Mexican Pavillion, on a balcony overlooking the calle, an equally blood-stained Mexico flag is hoisted. Necropolitics takes over the art spaces.

It is not easy to live in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to be a woman, and to be an artist who directly tackles the endless, often voiceless violence. It is even more difficult to try and find that miraculous balance between rawness and sensitivity, minimalism and incisivity, while maintaining a radical and poetic approach that can upset the public but also touch their heart.

For this post I am indebted to Bethany Tabor, who at Death & The Maiden Conference presented her brilliant paper Performative Remains: The Forensic Art of Teresa Margolles, focusing on the Deleuzian implications of Margolle’s works.
A couple of available essays on Margolles are
What Else Could We Talk About? and Teresa Margolles and the Aesthetics of Death.

Henry Tonks and the Faceless Boys

I have wrote in the past about how plastic surgery was originally born during the Great War as reconstructive surgery. If a soldier missing an arm or a leg was indeed a familiar figure, the introduction of new weapons during the world conflict led to the appearance of a kind of wounds precedently almost unheard of: the gueules cassées, “disfigured faces”.
Helmets were able to protect the head from granade splinters, but not the face; therefore field hospitals began to receive an unimaginable number of soldier whose faces had been blown away in large portions by the explosions.
It was an injury rarely discussed in the press, where the more iconic and patriotic image of the veteran amputee was considered more suitable, but the numbers speak for themselves: within English troops alone, 41.000 amputations were carried out, as opposed to the 60.500 men who suffered head or eye injury.
One had a higher probability of finding himself without a face rather than without legs.

Practically on every front, experimental procedures were adopted to reconstruct faces destroyed by shrapnel or burned by mustard gas.
In January 1916, at the military hospital in Aldershot, England, pioneer surgeon Harold Gillies encountered doctor Henry Tonks, who was serving as a temporary lieutenant in the Royal Army Medical Corps.

Henry Tonks was a doctor and an artist: besides being part of the Royal College of Surgeons, he also taught drawing and anatomy at the Slade Academy.

Soldiers were sent back from the front in desperate conditions, and  Tonks had the feeling that he could not handle, from a professional and humane point of view, such a catastrophe. As he himself confessed in a letter: “I have decided that I am not any use as a doctor“. And in another letter he recounted: “the wounds are horrible, and I for one will be against wars in the future, you have no right to ask men to endure such suffering. It would not matter if the wounds did well but they are practically all septic“.
And as the war progressed, things did not improve. After the Somme offensive, on July the 1st 1916, more than 2.000 patients flooded the hospital: “men without half their faces; men burned and maimed to the condition of animal“.

Thus, when Gillies asked Tonks to document his reconstructive operations by portraying the patients’ faces before and after surgery, Tonks happily accepted, as he was certainly more at ease in the artistic dimension.
To draw portraits could seem redundant, as photographs of the disfigured soldiers were already being taken, but both doctors were convinced that the cold-hearted objectiveness of film could be misleading in respect to the tactile and expressive qualities of a painting.

Thanks to his collaboration with Gillies, Henry Tonks produced a seried of facial wound portraits which still today stands unsurpassed for its emotional impact, scientific interest and subtlety of representation.
Sure, these pastel portraits had first of all a didactic intent, and the author himself did not wish them to be seen by the general public. And yet these works show a complexity that transcends their function of medical illustrations.

To understand how Tonks worked on his subjects, we have an extraordinary fortune: in some cases, the archives still have both his pastel portraits and the medical photographs. We can therefore watch, side by side, two images of the same patient, one recorded on film and the other one composed by the charcoal and colors of the artist.

Comparing Tonks’ drawings with the photographic shots, what emerges is the abstraction operated by the artist, which is meant to remove any hint at the patient’s suffering or interiority. These are accurate works, detached and at the same time compassionate, focusing mainly on the open wound, depicted with an almost “tactile” precision through the stratification of color (a consequence of the artist’s surgical training).
And yet the uncanny quality of these drawings lies in their absolutely modern ambiguity.
What could by all means be a portrait of a normal male face — ordinary traits, well-groomed hair, a knotted tie — becomes somehow “sabotaged” by the presence of the wound. It is as if our gaze, wondering over the painting’s surface, could register all these common details, just to be short-circuited the moment it meets the scandal of the injury. An inconceivable monstrosity, which appears impossible to integrate with the rest of the image.
It is then inevitable for us to fall back to the eyes of the portrayed subject, to his gaze fixed upon us, and to wonder about its impenetrable meaning.

Another peculiarity is the use of pastel, a medium considered “feminine” in respect to more virile, lively oil color or tempera; a choice that in this case allows for the lacerations of the flesh to be rendered in a softer and more tolerable way. What’s more, thanks to the lighter tone of these colors, Tonks provides his subjects with a delicate beauty and tenderness that no photograph could have ever captured.
These portraits seem as vulnerable as the mutilated youth they represent.

Suzannah Biernoff, in her wonderful essay Flesh Poems: Henry Tonks and the Art of Surgery (from which I stole most of the information for this post — you can read it in Visual Culture in Britain, n. 11, 2010) defines Henry Tonks’ works as “anti-portraits, in the sense that they stage the fragility and mutability of subjectivity rather than consolidating the self portrayed“.

Henry Tonks’ studies are set apart from classic medical illustration by virtue of this research of a particular beauty. They do not recoil from the horror they intend to portray, but cover it with a veil of elusive sensuality, in which a face becomes the sign of the uncertainty of existence, and a symbol of the cruelty Man inflicts upon himself.

Tiny Tim, Outcast Troubadour

Remember, it’s better to be a has-been than a never-was.
(Tiny Tim)

That an outsider like Tiny Tim could reach success, albeit briefly, can be ascribed to the typical appetite for oddities of the Sixties, the decade of the freak-out ethic/aesthetic, when everybody was constantly looking for out-of-line pop music of liberating and subversive madness.
And yet, in regard to many other weird acts of the time, this bizarre character embodied an innocence and purity the Love Generation was eager to embrace.

Born Herbert Khaury in New York, 1932, Tiny Tim was a big and tall man, sporting long shabby hair. Even if in reality he was obsessed with cleansing and never skipped his daily shower during his entire life, he always gave the impression of a certain gresiness. He would come up onstage looking almost embarassed, his face sometimes covered with white makeup, and pull his trusty ukulele out of a paper bag; his eyes kept rolling in ambiguous winks, conveying a melodramatic and out-of-place emphasis. And when he started singing, there came the ultimate shock. From that vaguely creepy face came an incredible, trembling falsetto voice like that of a little girl. It was as if Shirley Temple was held prisoner inside the body of a giant.

If anything, the choice of songs played by Tiny Tim on his ukulele tended to increase the whole surreal effect by adding some ancient flavor: the setlist mainly consisted of obscure melodies from the 20s or the 30s, re-interpreted in his typical ironic, overblown style.

It was hard not to suspect that such a striking persona might have been carefully planned and engineered, with the purpose of unsettling the audience while making them laugh at the same time. And laughter certainly didn’t seem to bother Tiny Tim. But the real secret of this eccentric artist is that he wasn’t wearing any mask.
Tiny Tim had always remained a child.

Justin Martell, author of the artist’s most complete biography (Eternal Troubadour: The Improbable Life of Tiny Tim, with A. Wray Mcdonald), had the chance to decypher some of Tiny’s diaries, sometimes compiled boustrophedonically: and it turned out he actually came within an inch of being committed to a psychiatric hospital.
Whether his personality’s peculiar traits had to do with some autistic spectrum disorder or not, his childish behaviour was surely not a pose. Capable of remembering the name of every person he met, he showed an old-fashioned respect for any interlocutor – to the extent of always referring to his three wives as “Misses”: Miss Vicki, Miss Jan, Miss Sue. His first two marriages failed also because of his declared disgust for sex, a temptation he strenuously fought being a fervent Christian. In fact another sensational element for the time was the candor and openness with which he publicly spoke of his sexual life, or lack thereof. “I thank God for giving me the ability of looking at naked ladies and think pure thoughts“, he would say.
If we are to believe his words, it was Jesus himself who revealed upon him the possibilities of a high-pitched falsetto, as opposed to his natural baritone timbre (which he often used as an “alternate voice” to his higher range). “I was trying to find an original style that didn’t sound like Tony Bennett or anyone else. So I prayed about it, woke up with this high voice, and by 1954, I was going to amateur nights and winning.

Being on a stage meant everything for him, and it did not really matter whether the public just found him funny or actually appreciated his singing qualities: Tiny Tim was only interested in bringing joy to the audience. This was his naive idea of show business – it all came down to being loved, and giving some cheerfulness in return.

Tiny avidly scoured library archives for American music from the beginning of the century, of which he had an encyclopedic knwoledge. He idolized classic crooners like Rudy Vallee, Bing Crosby and Russ Columbo: and in a sense he was mocking his own heroes when he sang standards like Livin’ In The Sunlight, Lovin’ In The Moonlight or My Way. But his cartoonesque humor never ceased to be respectful and reverential.

Tiny Tim reached a big unexpected success in 1968 with his single Tiptoe Through The Tulips, which charted #17 that year; it was featured in his debut album, God Bless Tiny Tim, which enjoyed similar critic and public acclaim.
Projected all of a sudden towards an improbable stardom, he accepted the following year to marry his fiancée Victoria Budinger on live TV at Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, before 40 million viewers.

In 1970 he performed at the Isle of Wight rock festival, after Joan Baez and before Miles Davis; according to the press, with his version of There’ll Always Be An England he managed to steal the scene “without a single electric instrument”.

But this triumph was short-lived: after a couple of years, Tiny Tim returned to a relative obscurity which would last for the rest of his career. He lived through alternate fortunes during the 80s and 90s, between broken marriages and financial difficulties, sporadically appearing on TV and radio shows, and recording albums where his beloved songs from the past mixed with modern pop hits cover versions (from AC/DC to Bee Gees, from Joan Jett to The Doors).

According to one rumor, any time he made a phone call he would ask: “do you have the tape recorder going?
And indeed, in every interview Tiny always seemed focused on building a personal mythology, on developing his romantic ideal of an artist who was a “master of confusion“, baffling and elusive, escaping all categorization. Some believe he remained a “lonely outcast intoxicated by fame“; even when fame had long departed. The man who once befriended the Beatles and Bob Dylan, who was a guest at every star’s birthday party, little by little was forgotten and ended up singing in small venues, even performing with the circus. “As long as my voice is here, and there is a Holiday Inn waiting for me, then everything’s just swell.

But he never stopped performing, in relentelss and exhausting tours throughout the States, which eventually took their toll: in spite of a heart condition, and against his physician’s advice, Tiny Tim decided to go on singing before his ever decreasing number of fans. The second, fatal heart stroke came on November 30, 1996, while he was onstage at a charity evening singing his most famous hit, Tiptoe Through The Tulips.

And just like that, on tiptoes, this eternally romantic and idealistic human being of rare kindness quietly left this world, and the stage.
The audience had already left, and the hall was half-empty.

My week of English wonders – II

(Continued from the previous post)

The Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities, Fine Art & Natural History still resides in its original location, in Mare Street, Hackney, East London (some years ago I sent over a trusted correspondant and published his ironic reportage).
Many things have changed since then: in 2014, the owner launched a 1-month Kickstarter campaign which earned him £ 16,000, allowing him to turn his eclectic collection into a proper museum, complete with a small cocktail bar, an art gallery and an underground dinining room. Just a couple of tables, to be precise; but it’s hard to think of another place where guests can dine around an authentic 19th century skeleton.


The outrageous bad taste of placing human remains inside a dinner table is a good example of the sacrilegious vein that runs through the whole disposition of objects collected by Viktor: here the very idea of the museum as a high-culture institution is deconstructed and openly mocked. Refined works of art lay beside pornographic paperbacks, rare and precious ancient artifacts are on display next to McDonald’s Happy Meal toy surprises.

But this is not a meaningless jumble — it goes back to the original idea of a Museum being the domain of the Muses, a place of inspiration, of mysterious and unexpected connections, of a real attack to the senses. And this wunderkammer could infuriate wunderkammern purists.




When I met up with him, Viktor Wynd didn’t even need to talk about himself. Among dodo bones, giant crabs, anatomical models, skulls and unique books, unmatched from their very titles — for instance Group Sex: A How-To Guide, or If You Want Closure in Your Relationship, Start with Your Legs — the museum owner was immersed in the objectification of his boundless imagination. As he moved along the display cases in his immense collection (insured for 1 million pounds), he looked like he was wandering through the rooms of his own mind.
Artist, surrealist and intellectual dandy, his life story as fascinating as his projects, Viktor always talks about the Museum as an inevitable necessity: “I need beauty and the uncanny, the funny and the silly, the odd and the rare. Rare and beautiful things are the barrier between me and a bottomless pit of misery and despair“.

And this strange bistro of wonders, where he holds conferences, cocktail parties, masqued balls, exhibitions, dinners, is certainly a rare and beautiful thing.




I then moved to the London Bridge area. In front of Borough Market is St. Thomas Street, where old St. Thomas church stands embedded between modern buildings. It was not the church itself I was interested in, but rather its garret.
The attic under the church’s roof hosts a little known museum with a peculiar history.





The Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret is located in the space where all pharmaceuticals were prepared and stored, to be used in the annexed St. Thomas Hospital. A first section of the museum is dedicated to medicinal plants and antique therapeutic instruments. On display are several devices no longer in use, such as tools for cupping, bleeding and trepanation, and other quite menacing contraptions. But, together with its unique location, what gives this part of the museum its almost fantastic dimension is the sharp fragrance of dried flowers, herbs and spices (typical of other ancient pharmacies).









If the pharmacy is thought to have been active since the 18th Century, only in 1822 a part of the garret was transformed into operating theatre — one of the oldest in Europe.
Here the patients from the female ward were operated. They were mostly poor women, who agreed to go under the knife before a crowd of medicine students, but in return were treated by the best surgeons available at the time, a privilege they could not have afforded otherwise.
Operations were usually the last resort, when all other remedies had failed. Without anestetics, unaware of the importance of hygiene measures, surgeons had to rely solely on their own swiftness and precision (see for instance my post about Robert Liston). The results were predictable: despite all efforts, given the often already critical conditions of the patients, intraoperative and postoperative mortality was very high.







The last two places awaiting me in London turned out to be the only ones where photographs were not allowed. And this is a particularly interesting detail.

The first was of course the Hunterian Museum.
Over two floors are displayed thousands of veterinary and human anatomical specimens collected by famed Scottish surgeon John Hunter (in Leicester Square you can see his sculpted bust).
Among them, the preparations acquired by John Evelyn in Padua stand out as the oldest in Europe, and illustrate the vascular and nervous systems. The other “star” of the Museum is the skeleton of Charles Byrne, the “Irish giant” who died in 1783. Byrne was so terrified of ending up in an anatomical museum that he hired some fishermen to throw his corpse offshore. This unfortunately didn’t stop John Hunter who, determined to take possession of that extraordinary body, bribed the fishermen and paid a huge amount of money to get hold of his trophy.

The specimens, some of which pathological, are extremely interesting and yet everything seemed a bit cold if compared to the charm of old Italian anatomy museums, or even to the garret I had just visited in St. Thomas Church. What I felt was missing was the atmosphere, the narrative: the human body, especially the pathological body, in my view is a true theatrical play, a tragic spectacle, but here the dramatic dimension was carefully avoided. Upon reading the museum labels, I could actually perceive a certain urgency to stress the value and expressly scientific purpose of the collection. This is probably a response to the debate on ethical implications of displaying human remains in museums, a topic which gained much attention in the past few years. The Hunterian Museum is, after all, the place where the bones of the Irish giant, unscrupulously stolen to the ocean waves, are still displayed in a big glass case and might seem “helpless” under the visitors’ gaze.

My last place of wonder, and one of London’s best-kept secrets, is the Wildgoose Memorial Library.
The work of one single person, artist Jane Wildgoose, this library is part of her private home, can be visited by appointment and reached through a series of directions which make the trip look like a tresure hunt.
And a tresure it is indeed.

Jane is a kind and gentle spirit, the incarnation of serene hospitality.
Before disappearing to make some coffee, she whispered: “take your time to skim the titles, or to leaf through a couple of pages… and to read the objects“.
The objects she was referring to are really the heart of her library, which besides the books also houses plaster casts, sculptures, Victorian mourning hair wreaths, old fans and fashion items, daguerrotypes, engravings, seashells, urns, death masks, animal skulls. Yet, compared to so many other collections of wonders I have seen over the years, this one struck me for its compositional grace, for the evident, painstaking attention accorded to the objects’ disposition. But there was something else, which eluded me at that moment.

As Jane came back into the room holding the coffee tray, I noticed her smile looked slightly tense. In her eyes I could guess a mixture of expectation and faint embarassement. I was, after all, an outsider she had intentionally let into the cosiness of her home. If the miracle of a mutual harmony was to happen, this could turn out to be one of those rare moments of actual contact between strangers; but the stakes were high. This woman was presenting me with everything she held most sacred — “a poet is a naked person“, Bob Dylan once wrote — and now it all came down to my sensibility.

We began to talk, and she told me of her life spent safeguarding objects, trying to understand them, to recognize their hidden relationships: from the time when, as a child, she collected seashells on the southern shores of England, up to her latest art installations. Little by little, I started to realize what was that specific trait in her collection which at first I could not clearly pinpoint: the empathy, the humanity.
The Wildgoose Memorial Library is not meant to explore the concept of death, but rather the concept of grief. Jane is interested in the traces of our passage, in the signs that sorrow inevitably leaves behind, in the absence, in the longing and loss. This is what lies at the core of her works, commissioned by the most prestigious institutions, in which I feel she is attempting to process unresolved, unknown bereavements. That’s why she patiently fathoms the archives searching for traces of life and sorrow; that’s why her attention for the soul of things enabled her to see, for instance, how a cold catalogue accompanying the 1786 sale of Margaret Cavendish’s goods after her death could actually be the Duchess’s most intimate portrait, a key to unearthing her passions and her friendships.

This living room, I realized, is where Jane tries to mend heartaches — not just her own, but also those of her fellow human beings, and even those of the deceased.

And suddenly the Hunterian Museum came to my mind.
There, as in this living room, human remains were present.
There, as in this living room, the objects on display spoke about suffering and death.
There, as in this living room, pictures were not allowed, for the sake of respect and discretion.

Yet the two collections could not be more distant from each other, placed at opposite extremes of the spectrum.
On one hand, the aseptic showcases, the modern setting from which all emotion is removed, where the Obscene Body (in order to be explained, and accepted by the public) must be filtered through a detached, scientific gaze. The same Museum which, ironically, has to deal with the lack of ethics of its founders, who lived in a time when collecting anatomical specimens posed very little moral dilemmas.
On the other, this oasis of meditation, a personal vision of human beings and their impermanence enclosed in the warm, dark wood of Jane Wildgoose’s old library; a place where compassion is not only tangible, it gets under your skin; a place which can only exist because of its creator’s ethical concerns. And, ultimately, a research facility addressing death as an essential experience we should not be afraid of: it’s no accident the library is dedicated to Persephone because, as Jane pointed out, there’s “no winter without summer“.

Perhaps we need both opposites, as we would with two different medicines. To study the body without forgetting about the soul, and viceversa.
On the express train back to the airport, I stared at a clear sky between the passing trees. Not a single cloud in sight. No rain without sun, I told myself. And so much for the preconceptions I held at the beginning of my journey.

Special: Claudio Romo


On April the 4th, inside the Modo Infoshop bookshop in Bologna I have had the pleasure to meet Chilean artist Claudio Andrés Salvador Francisco Romo Torres, to help him present his latest illustrated book A Journey in the Phantasmagorical Garden of Apparitio Albinus in front of a crowd of his fans.

I don’t want to go into much detail about his work, because he himself will talk about it in the next paragraphs. I would only like to add one small personal note. In my life I’ve been lucky enough to know, to various degrees of intimacy, several writers, filmmakers, actors, illustrators: some of them were my personal heroes. And while it’s true that the creator is always a bit poorer than his creation (no one is flawless), I noticed the most visionary and original artists often show unexpected kindness, reserve, gentleness. Claudio is the kind of person who is almost embarassed when he’s the center of attention, and his immense imagination can only be guessed behind his electric, enthusiast, childlike glance. He is the kind of person who, after the presentation of his book, asks the audience permission to take a selfie with them, because “none of my friends or students back home will ever believe all this has really happened“.
I think men like him are more precious than yet another maudit.

What follows is the transcription of our chat.


We’re here today with Claudio Romo (I can never remember his impossibly long full name), to talk about his latest work A Journey in the Phantasmagorical Garden of Apparitio Albinus, a book I particularly love because it offers a kind of mixture of very different worlds: ingredients like time travel, giant jellyfish, flashes of alchemy, flying telepathic cities and countless creatures and monsters with all-too-human characteristics. And rather like Calvino’s Invisible Cities, this garden is a kind of place within the mind, within the soul… and just like the soul, the mind is a mysterious and complicated place, not infrequently with perverse overtones. A place where literary and artistic references intermix and intertwine.
From an artistic viewpoint, this work certainly brings to mind Roland Topor’s film Fantastic Planet, although filtered by a Latin American sensibility steeped in pre-Columbian iconography. On the other hand, certain illustrations vividly evoke Hieronymus Bosch, with their swarming jumble of tiny physically and anatomically deformed mutant creatures. Then there are the literary references: impossible not to think of Borges and his Book Of Imaginary Beings, but also the end of his Library of Babel; and certain encounters and copulations between mutant bodies evoke the Burroughs of Naked Lunch, whereas this work’s finale evokes ‘real’ alchemical procedures, with the Emerald Tablet of Hermes and its famous phrase “That which is below is like that which is above & that which is above is like that which is below to do the miracles of one only thing”. At the end of the book it is revealed that the garden is as infinite as the cosmos, but also that it is connected to an infinite number of other infinities, not only his personal garden but also mine and yours. In a sense, the universe which emerges is an interpenetration of marvels in which it is highly difficult to grasp where reality finishes and imagination begins, because fantasy too can be extremely concrete. It’s as though Claudio was acting as a kind of map-maker of his mental ecosystem, doing so with the zest of a biologist, an ethnologist and an entomologist, studying and describing all the details and behaviour of the fauna inhabiting it. From this point of view, the first question I’d like to ask concerns precisely reality and imagination. How do they interact, for you? For many artists this dichotomy is important, and the way they deal with it helps us to understand more about their art.

First of all, I’d like to thank Ivan, because he has presented a good reading of my book.
I have always thought that no author is autonomous, we all depend on someone, come from someone, we have an inheritance transmitted not through a bloodline but through a spiritual or conceptual bond, an inheritance received from birth through culture. Borges is my point of departure, the alchemical inscription, the science fiction, fantastical literature, popular literature… all these elements contribute to my work. When I construct these stories I am assembling a collage, a structure, in order to create parallel realities.
So, to answer Ivan’s question, I think that reality is something constructed by language, and so the dichotomy between reality and imagination doesn’t exist, because human beings inhabit language and language is a permanent and delirious construction.
I detest it when people talk about the reality of nature, or static nature. For me, reality is a permanent construction and language is the instrument which generates this construction.
This is why I take as models people like Borges, Bioy Casares, Athanasius Kircher (a Jesuit alchemist named as maestro of a hundred arts who created the first anatomical theatre and built a wunderkammer)… people who from very different backgrounds have constructed different realities.


In this sense, the interesting thing is that the drawings and stories of Apparitio Albinus remind us of – or have a layer, we might say, that makes them resemble – the travel journals of explorers of long ago. Albinus could almost be a Marco Polo visiting a faraway land, where the image he paints is similar to a mediaeval bestiary, in which animals were not described in a realistic way, but according to their symbolic function… for example the lion was represented as an honest animal who never slept, because he was supposed to echo the figure of Christ… actually, Claudio’s animals frequently assume poses exactly like those seen in mediaeval bestiaries. There is also a gaze, a way of observing, that has something childish about it, a gaze always eager to marvel, to look for magic in the interconnection between different things, and I’d like to ask you if this child exists inside you, and how much freedom you allow him in your creative process.

When I first began creating books, I concentrated solely on the engravings, and technically engraving was extremely powerful for me. I was orthodox in my practice, but the great thing about the graphic novel is that its public is adult but also infantile, and the thing that interests me above all is showing and helping children understand that reality is soft.
The first book I made on this subject is called The Album Of Imprudent Flora, a kind of bestiary conceived and created to attract children and lead them towards science, botany, the marvel of nature… not as something static, but as something mobile. For example I described trees which held Portuguese populations that had got lost searching for the Antarctic: then they had become tiny through having eaten Lilliputian strawberries, and when they died they returned to a special place called Portugal… and then there were also plants which fed on fear and which induced the spirits on Saturn to commit suicide and the spirits on Mars to kill… and then die. I created a series of characters and plants whose purpose was to fascinate children. There was a flower that had a piece of ectoplasm inside its pistil, and if you put a mouse in front of that flower the pistil turned into a piece of cheese, and when the mouse ate the cheese the plant ate the mouse… after which, if a cat came by, the pistil turned into a mouse, and so on. The idea was to create a kaleidoscope of plants and flowers.
There was another plant which I named after an aunt of mine, extremely ugly, and in honour of her I gave this plant the ability to transform itself constantly: by day it was transfigured, and in certain moments it had a colloidal materiality, while in others it had a geometric structure… an absolutely mutant flower. This is all rather monstrous, but also fascinating, which is why I called the book “the imprudent flora”, because it went beyond the bounds of nature. Basically I think that when I draw I do it for children, in order to build up a way of interpreting reality in a broad and rich kind of way.


This corporal fluidity is also visible in this latest book, but there’s another aspect that I also find interesting, and this is the inversions that Claudio likes to create. For example, Lazarus is not resurrected, he ends up transformed into ghost by the phantasmagorical machine; we get warrior automatons which reject violence and turn into pacifists and deserters, and then again, in one of my favourite chapters, there is a time machine, built to transport us into the future, which actually does the opposite, because it transports the future into our present – a future we’d never have wanted to see, because what appears in the present is the corpses we will become. It seems that irony is clearly important in your universe, and I’d like to you tell us about that.

That’s a good question. I’m glad you asked me, there are two wonderful themes involved.
One is the theme of the ghost, because for the phantasmagorical machine I based the idea on an Argentinian author called Bioy Casares and his The Invention of Morel. In that story, Morel is a scientist who falls in love with Faustina, and since she doesn’t love him, he invents a machine which will absorb her spirit, record it, and later, in a phantasmagorical island, reproduce it eternally… but the machine turns out to kill the people it has filmed, and so Morel commits suicide by filming himself together with Faustine, thus ending up on this island where every day the same scene is repeated, featuring these two ghosts. But the story really begins when another man arrives on the island, falls in love with the ghost of Faustine, learns to work the machine and then films himself while Faustine is gazing at the sea. So he too commits suicide in order to remain in the paradise of Faustine’s consciousness.
This is a hallucinatory theme, and I was fascinated by the desire of a man who kills himself in order to inhabit the consciousness of the woman he loves, even though the woman in question is actually a ghost!
And the other question… on irony. Most of the machines I construct in the book are fatuous failures and mistakes: those who want to change time end up meeting themselves as corpses, those who want to invent a machine for becoming immortal drop dead instantly and end up in an eternal limbo… I like talking about ghosts but also about failed adventures, as metaphors for life, because in real life every adventure is a failure… except for this journey to Italy, which has turned out to absolutely wonderful!


A few days ago, on Facebook, I saw a fragment of a conversation in which you, Claudio, argued that the drawing and the word are not really so different, that the apparent distance between logos and image is fictional, which is why you use both things to express your meaning. You use them like two parallel rail tracks, in the same way, and this is also evident through the way that in your books the texts too have a painterly visual shape, and if it weren’t for the pristine paper of this edition, we might think we were looking at a fantastical encyclopedia from two or three centuries ago.
So, I wanted to ask a last question on this subject, perhaps the most banal question, which resembles the one always asked of songwriter-singers (which comes first, the words or the music?)… but do your visions emerge firstly from the drawing paper and only later do you form a kind of explicative text? Or do they emerge as stories from the beginning?

If I had to define myself, I’d say I was a drawing animal. All the books I have created were planned and drawn firstly, and the conceptual idea was generated by the image. Because I’m not really a writer, I never have been. I didn’t want to write this book either, only to draw it, but Lina [the editor] forced me to write it! I said to her, Lina, I have a friend who is fantastic with words, and she replied in a dictatorial tone: I’m not interested. I want you to write it. And today I’m grateful to her for that.
I always start from the drawing, always, always…

cover_apparitio_uk alta

The English version of Claudio Romo’s new book can be purchased here.

Death Salon: Mütter Museum

The French came up with a wonderful expression, l’esprit de l’escalier. It’s that sense of frustration when the right witty answer to someone’s question or criticism pops up in your mind when you have already left, and you’re heading down the stairs (escalier).
This summer a friend asked me the question I should have always been waiting for, and that ironically nobody – not even those who know me well – ever asked me: “Why are you so interested in death?

I remember saying something vague about my fascination with funeral rites, about the relevance of death in art, about every culture being actually defined by its relationship with the afterlife… Yet in my mind I was surprised by the triviality and impersonality of my answers. Maybe the question was a bit naive, like asking an old sailor what he finds so beautiful about ocean waves. But then again her curiosity was totally legitimate: why taking interest in death in a time when it is normally denied and removed? And how could I, after all these years of studying and writing, addressing far more complex issues, have not anticipated and prepared for such a direct question?

Maybe it was in an effort to make up for the esprit de l’escalier which had caught me that day, that I decided to meet up with like-minded people, who happen to cultivate my same interests, to try and understand their motivations.
Now, there is only one place in the world where I could find, all together, the main academics, intellectuals and artists who have made death their main focus. So, I flew up to Philadelphia.

CNhnEftUYAAscDN.jpg large

The Death Salon, for those who haven’t heard of it, is an event organized by the death-positive movement revolving around Caitlin Doughty, whom I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing not long ago. It consists of two days of meetings, conferences, music and games, all of which explore death – in its multiple artistic, cultural, social and philosophical facets.
This year Death Salon took place in an exceptional location, inside Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum, one of the best-known pathological anatomy museums in the world.


Besides the pleasure of finally meeting in person several “penfriends” and scholars I admire, I was interested in experiencing first-hand this new reality, to feel its vibes: I wanted to understand what kind of people could, in such a joyful and subversive way, define themselves as death aficionados, while trying to take this topic away from taboo through a more relaxed and open dialogue on everything death-related.

The variety of different Death Salon attendees impressed me from the start, and just like I expected every one of them had their own, very personal reasons to be there: there were writers researching ideas for their next novel, nurses who wanted to understand how they could better relate to the terminally ill, nice old ladies who worked as tour guides in nearby city museums, medical students, morticians, photographers and artists whose work for some reason included death, persons who were struggling to cope with a recent loss and who were hoping to find a more intimate comprehension for their suffering in that multicolored crowd.
The shared feeling was one of strange, subtle excitement: on a superficial level, it could almost seem like a gathering for “death nerds”, all enthusiastically chatting about grave robbers and adipocere in front of their coffee, just like others zealously discuss sports or politics. But that little sparkle in every participant’s eyes actually betrayed a more profound relief, one of being at last free to talk openly about their own fears, protected within a family which does not judge certain obsessions, feeling certain that even their most secret insecurity could be brought to light here.
We are all wounded, in the face of death, and it’s an ancient, ever open wound. The most memorable aspect of Death Salon is that the shame attached to such wound seemed to fade away, at least for the space of two days, and every pain or worry was channeled in a cathartic debate.

And in this context the various conferences, in their heterogeneity, little by little made it clear for me that there was not just one plain answer to the question that brought me there in the first place (“why are you so interested in death?”). Here is a summary of the works presented at Death Salon, and of the many concepts they suggested.

Death is damn interesting
Marianne Hamel is a forensic pathologist, and her report illuminated the differences between her real every-day job and its fictionalized version in movies and TV shows. To clarify the matter, she started off by declaring that she never performed an autopsy in the middle of the night under a single light bulb, nor she ever showed up at a crime scene wearing high heels; among the other debunked myths, “I can only guess the exact time of a victim’s death if they’ve been shot through their watch“. Some implications of her job, if they lack a Hollywood appeal, are actually incredibily important: to quote just one example, forensic pathologists have a clear idea of the state of public health before any other professional. They’re the first to know if a new drug is becoming trendy, or if certain dangerous behaviours are spreading through the population.
At Death Salon other peculiar topics were addressed, such as the difficulties in museum restoration of ancient Egyptian mummies (M. Gleeson), the correct way of “exploding” skulls to prepare them in the tradition of French anatomist Edmé François Chauvot de Beauchêne (R. M. Cohn), and the peptide mass fingerprinting method to assess whether a book is really bound in human skin (A. Dhody, D. Kirby, R. Hark, M. Rosenbloom). There were talks on illustrious dead and their ghosts (C. Dickey) and on Hart Island, a huge, tax-payed mass grave in the heart of New York City (B. Lovejoy).

Death can be fun
A hilarious talk by Elizabeth Harper, author of the delightful blog All The Saints You Should Know, focused on those Saints whose bodies miraculously escaped decomposition, and on the intricate (and far from intuitive) beaurocratic procedures the Roman Catholic Church has established to recognize an “incorrupt” relic from a slightly less prodigious one. It is interesting how certain things we Italians take for granted, as we’ve seen them in every church since we were children, come out as pretty crazy in the eyes of many Americans…
Can we turn a cemetery into a place for the living? At Laurel Hill cemetery, in Philadelphia, recreational activities, film screenings, charity marathons and night shows take place, as reported by Alexis Jeffcoat and Emma Stern.
If all this wasn’t enough to understand that death and entertainment are not enemies, on the last evening the Death Salon organized at the bar National Mechanics, in a jovial pub atmosphere, a Death Quizzo – namely a game show where teams battled over their knowledge of the most curious details regarding death and corpses.

Death is a painful poem
Sarah Troop, executive director of The Order of The Good Death and museum curator, bravely shared with the public what is probably the most traumatic experience of all: the loss of a young child. The difficulty Sarah experienced in elaborating her grief pushed her to seek a more adequate mindset in her Mexican roots. Here, small dead children become angelitos, little angels which the relatives dress up in embroidered clothes and who, being pure souls, can act as a medium between Earth and Heaven. The consolation for a mother who lost her child is in finding, inside a tradition, a specific role, wich modern secularized society fails to supply. And if pain can never go away, it is somehow shared across a culture which admits its existence, and instills it with a deeper meaning.



Death tells us some incredible stories
Evi Numen illustrated the post-mortem scandal of John Frankford, who was victim of one of many truculent incidents that were still happening some thirty years after the Pennsylvania Anatomy Act (1867), due to the chronical lack of cadavers to dissect in medical schools.
And, speaking of gruesome stories, no tradition beats murder ballads, imported from Europe as a sort of chanted crime news. At the Death Salon, after a historical introduction by Lavinia Jones Wright, a trio of great musicians went on to interpret some of the most relevant murder ballads.

Death is a dialogue
Dr. Paul Koudounaris, Death Salon’s real rockstar, explained the difference between cultures who set up a soft border in relation to their dead, as opposed to other cultures which build a hard boundary: in the majority of cultures, including our own until recent times, taking care of the corpses, even years after their death, is a way to maintain ancestors active within the social tissue. What Norman Bates did to his mother in Psycho, in Tana Toraja would be regarded as an example of filial devotion (I talked about it in this article).


Robert Hicks, director of Mütter Museum, explored the implications of displaying human remains in museums today, wondering about the evolution of post mortem imagery and about the politics and ownership of the dead.
David Orr, artist and photographer, offered a review of symmetry in the arts, particularly in regard to the skull, a symbol that refers to our own identity.


Death must be faced and domesticated
Finally, various facets of dying were exposed, often complex and contradictory.
Death defines who we are, affirmed Christine Colby as she told the story of Jennifer Gable, a transgender who during her whole life fought to assert her identity, only to be buried by her family as a man. Death changes along with society, unveiling new layers of complexity.
Dr. Erin Lockard, despite being a doctor herself, while assisting her dying mother had to face other doctors who, maybe as a defense strategy, denied the obvious, delaying the old woman’s agony with endless new therapies.
In closing, here is someone who decided to teach death at the university. Norma Bowe‘s “Death in perspective” class has a three-years waiting list, and offers a series of practical activities: the students take field trips to hospices, hospitals and funeral homes, attend an autopsy, create spaces for meditation and build their own approach to death without philosophical or religious filters, through first-hand experience.

My opinion on Death Salon? Two intense and fruitful days, gone in a flash. Openly talking about death is essential, now more than ever, but – and I think this is the point of the whole Salon – it is also unbelievable, mind-bending fun: all that has been said, both by panelists and the audience, all these unexpected viewpoints, clearly prove that death is, even now, a territory dominated by wonder.

Still overloaded with stimuli, I pondered my unresolved question during the night flight back home. Why am I so fascinated with death?
Looking out the window towards the approaching coast of old Europe, with its little flickering lights, it became clear that the only possible answer, as I suspected from the beginning, was the most elementary one.
Because being interested in death means to be interested in life“.

Little Lost People

What was the last time you actually paid attention to the sidewalk?
Can the microcosm around our feet still hold some unexpected visions?
Does it still mean something to focus on small things and details, and to look down – beside avoiding stepping on something unpleasant?

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In a world where we are taught that everything, from skyscrapers to our own ambitions, should aim high, artists Slinkachu and Cordal – each their own way, each of them with a different and personal approach – seem to want to value all that is small, forgotten, invisible.
The works of these two street artists, who are both active, independently from one another, on the London scene, could be confused at a first glance: they both utilize tiny figurines, and install their provocative miniature sculptures inside the urban context, leaving them to their fate. But the similarities really stop there.

Slinkachu has an unmistakable satirical and sardonic vein, so much so that his installations are presented as snarky micro-stories; Slinkachu mini-men are mirrors, spoofs debunking our miseries, excesses and vanities. How intelligent, how civilized they must think they are – yet dimensions contradict their actions. Whether they believe they are criminals or superheroes, these microscopic little primates aren’t going anywhere.

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Their misadventures are evidently similar to ours, and the figurines sometimes even represent a pop and bizarre version of some of the most debated themes in the news.


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Cordal’s little men, on the other hand, are the nightmare of removal coming back to the surface.
The atmosphere here is apocalyptic, melancholic, surreal, and in his works the miniature cannot be separated from the (often hopeless) landscape in which it has been positioned.
There is something touching and strangely eerie in this anonymous people emerging from the puddles in our cities, or sinking back into them “following the leaders”; there is a Beckett quality to these sad ghosts haunting our drainpipes, to these lost tourists, to these victims of the cruelty of a much too large and heavy world, and to their tiny bodies disappearing in the surrounding filth.










What haunts us, in these figurines, is the fact we recognize them all too well. We can identify, and yet we cannot shake the embarassement of a vague guilt. The world is, after all, custom-made to be our size, not theirs.
The poor, the troubled, the outsiders inhabit realities that are too small, they live on a scale which is too distant for us to realize that we are stepping on them. Still, it would suffice to watch.












Here are the official sites for Slinkachu, and for Isaac Cordal.

Wat Rong Khun


Da lontano il Phra Ubosot, ovvero la struttura principale all’interno dell’area sacra, risplende nel sole abbagliando il visitatore. Il bianco delle complesse e barocche decorazioni è reso ancora più accecante da migliaia di frammenti di specchi incastonati sull’intera superficie, per riflettere maggiormente la luce; nell’insieme la struttura sembra un manufatto alieno, o soprannaturale. Ma le sorprese sono appena iniziate.

Siamo in Thailandia. Veri e propri luoghi della meraviglia, i 33.000 templi buddisti che si trovano sparsi per tutto il paese offrono senza dubbio infinite declinazioni di bellezza e fascino; fra questi, il bizzarro tempio di Wat Rong Khun offre più di una curiosità. Si tratta di una recente costruzione realizzata sulla base di un edificio precedente: negli anni ’90 il tempio versava in pessime condizioni, e sarebbe sicuramente andato in rovina se il pittore Chalermchai Kositpipat, classe 1955, non si fosse fatto avanti.

Kositpipat, uno dei pittori di maggior successo in Thailandia, è sempre stato un artista controverso. All’inizio della sua carriera, era accusato di confondere in modo sacrilego la tradizione e la modernità; una volta affermatosi, fu tacciato invece di essersi venduto all’establishment e di aver perso la sua vena dissacrante.
La notorietà per Kositpipat arrivò nel 1988 quando, dopo alcuni anni passati a dipingere locandine per film, gli venne affidata la decorazione del primo tempio buddista inglese, il Buddhapadipa di Londra, e i suoi murales causarono un putiferio. Nell’illustrare le diverse vite e reincarnazioni del Buddha, infatti, Kositpipat aveva inserito vicino alle raffigurazioni classiche alcune icone della cultura pop o della storia recente. In un affresco compaiono ad esempio Superman e Saddam Hussein; in un altro, tra i fedeli radunati in preghiera, fanno capolino Charlie Chaplin e un ragazzo che sfoggia una colorata cresta di capelli in stile punk. “Si lamentarono tutti – ricorda l’artista – il governo di Bangkok, i monaci e gli altri artisti, tutti dicevano che ciò che facevo non era vera arte Thai“.






Decidendo, quasi dieci anni dopo, di restaurare il tempio di Rong Khun, l’artista dimostrò di non aver perso nulla della propria ispirazione, né peraltro della propria integrità. Kositpipat si sobbarcò infatti tutte le spese per la ricostruzione, che ad oggi ammontano a più di un milione di euro. L’entrata al tempio, fin dalla sua apertura a fine anni ’90, è rimasta gratuita, e le donazioni volontarie non possono superare i 10.000 baht (270 euro circa), in modo da salvaguardare il progetto dall’eventuale influenza di grandi mecenati.



Questa follia architettonica e artistica accoglie il visitatore con una scena impressionante. Centinaia di mani, umane e mostruose, emergono e si allungano da un pozzo abissale, come per cercare di afferrare il passante. Potrebbero sembrare anime dannate, ma la simbologia che sottende questa installazione è invece un’altra: si tratta dei desideri (tṛṣṇā) che senza freno attanagliano gli uomini. Il ponte, attraverso il quale si supera questo pericolo, sta a significare l’abbandono delle brame sensuali e terrene, e varcandolo ci si prepara a lasciare alle spalle ogni avidità e tentazione.







Fra statue che rappresentano creature mitologiche e altre immagini del Buddha, si arriva ai Cancelli del Cielo. I due guardiani, la Morte e Rahu, decidono il destino di chi varca il cancello. L’esterno dell’Ubosot riprende alcuni criteri dell’architettura classica tailandese, come ad esempio il tetto a tre sbalzi e l’utilizzo decorativo di naga (divinità serpente), animali e dragoni attorcigliati sugli angoli e sulle pareti.









L’interno, come accade per molti altri templi thailandesi, è affrescato con dei murales che descrivono la vita del Buddha. Ma, come ci si può aspettare, i dipinti di Kositpipat sono tutto fuorché tradizionali. Ecco quindi che in questa esplosione di colori si trovano gli spregiudicati accostamenti che hanno reso famoso l’artista: i monaci e le figure sacre si trovano fianco a fianco con le icone pop più celebri, da Batman a Spiderman, da Elvis a Michael Jackson, da Freddy Krueger a Terminator, in un vortice kitsch di cui è difficile in un primo momento intuire veramente il senso.




Eppure con questa infantile giustapposizione di astronavi, pompe di benzina, cataclismi vari, Harry Potter, Hello Kitty, l’attacco terroristico alle Torri Gemelle, Neo di Matrix, e chi più ne ha più ne metta, la spiazzante messe di simboli arriva a creare un teatrale affresco della contemporaneità con le sue contraddizioni, le sue violenze di massa, il suo degrado e i suoi miti moderni: in tutto questo “rumore”, sembra voler dire Kositpipat, è ancora più essenziale ritrovare la via interiore verso la pace e la serenità.


Il 5 maggio 2014 il tempio venne danneggiato da un terremoto, e per qualche giorno sembrò che la struttura fosse destinata alla distruzione. Ma, dopo che un’équipe di ingegneri dichiarò che i danni non erano strutturali, Kositpipat annunciò che avrebbe dedicato la sua vita a riportare Wat Rong Khun al suo splendore originario. Oggi è possibile visitare soltanto l’esterno dell’Ubosot, ma già dall’anno prossimo anche gli interni saranno ripristinati ed accessibili.


Il progetto prevede inoltre la costruzione di altri edifici, per un totale di nove strutture fra cui una cappella delle reliquie, una grande sala per la meditazione, una galleria d’arte e un monastero.
La fine dei lavori non avverrà prima del 2070. Impossibile dunque, per Chalermchai Kositpipat, vedere ultimata la sua opera, ma questo dettaglio non lo scoraggia. Per lui, il tempio di Wat Rong Khun è il capolavoro che gli garantirà l’immortalità: “soltanto la morte potrà interrompere il mio sogno, ma non fermerà il mio progetto“.