Following the immensely successful Encountering Corpses II, Manchester Gothic Arts Group produced a creative response: Encountering More Corpses.
The Encountering Corpses symposium at Manchester Metropolitan University was based upon the research of Professor Craig Young from the department of Human Geography. Professor Craig Young is a Human Geographer with interests in the intersection of place, landscape, history, memory and the politics of identity, particularly as expressed through issues surrounding death and encounters with the dead body in the context of a range of socio-cultural, political, economic and technological contexts.
Following the symposium, Manchester Gothic Arts Group (MGAG), who have become increasingly well-known through their engagement with the Gothic Manchester Festival, produced art-work to challenge and confront depictions of the dead body, the ethics of organ donation and the mania surrounding celebrity deaths. Their artwork explored particularly the difference between medical discourses surrounding the dead and the real lived human experience of death.
Dr John Troyer (Centre for Death and Society, University of Bath), Dr Julie Seymour (Hull York Medical School), and Dr Trish Green (Hull York Medical School) explored organ donation in the first panel at the Encountering Corpses symposium. Matthew Carson, of MGAG, described organ donation as a “big subject for the UK”. The group explored the economy, ethics and stories of organ donation through their artwork.
As a result of the event, Carson has signed up to be an organ donor. His work at the exhibition included some simple pencil sketches of organs most needed for transplantation, for example, the heart, lungs, and kidney. Carson described the sketches as “experimental”. The simplicity of these sketches juxtaposes the complicated reality of organ donation, where, as Dr Julie Seymour explained, narratives of organ donation as providing ‘the gift of life’ can often hide the inequalities behind the practice, for example who gets organs when there is a shortage of donations. Carson told me about how in his research he had discovered the story of a man in China who had been declared “legally dead”, and how this story had brought the contradictions to light for him.
Matt Carson and Kolyn Amor, bearing this in mind, created The Table of Transplant Statistics, taking inspiration from the periodic table. The table depicted transplant operations carried out in 2015, “including those patients still waiting for an operation and those for whom it is too late”. Neil Watkin’s clockwork heart also drew on the medical interventions used to preserve life, for example, pacemakers. He said: “Most of the time our bodies run like clockwork, but sometimes a vital component fails”.
Cultural Encounters were discussed in the second panel at the Encountering Corpses symposium. This panel included Dr Jonathan Westaway (UCLAN), Dr Ruth Penfold-Mounce (University of York), and Dr Gemma Angel (UCL).
Luxury in death is not given to celebrity bodies. Kolyn Amor’s I’m Mortal Magnetism featured magnets with images of celebrity corpses on, including Bruce Lee, Chairman Mao, Bela Lugosi, Elvis Presley and Edgar Alan Poe. Amor invited viewers to guess the order in which the celebrities died. This satirised the capitalist market of celebrity merchandise, and also questioned the mania and obsession famously following some celebrity deaths. Neil Watkin similarly displayed artwork connected to Ian Curtis’ death.
Liz Watkin challenged the medical definitions of the dead body in her artwork, encouraging us to look and think deeper than the physical corpse. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a ‘corpse’ as “A dead (usually human) body”, which Watkin refers to as “a short, and somewhat stark statement”. Watkin said, “Just because “life” has been pronounced “extinct”, it is not the end of how you feel about the person or the relationship you once had with them”.
The installation featured clock cases with items with a personal history inside, to encourage viewers to consider the lived reality of death as opposed to medical definitions where everything is black and white. She said “My artwork on this occasion is personal, having lost both of my parents over a recent and short period of time”. The artwork included roses, which died as the exhibition continued, and crystals in place of tears: “tears like hard sparkling crystals of emotion”. Watkin’s work beautifully contemplates the process of mourning, encouraging viewers to think, not only about the deceased, but about everyone the death will affect.
The word ‘death’ is filled with a multitude of connotations. Death is inevitably and contradictorily a part of life, and is such a concept that is impossible to understand. Manchester Gothic Arts Group, through their artwork, are not seeking understanding of death, but exploration of our lived experience of it, through medical encounters, media encounters, and emotional encounters, which are inexplicably entwined.
Carson said “organ donation struck me as one of the few occasions where artwork has a real world impact. Through our artwork we want to encourage more people to ‘tick all the boxes’ and save somebody else’s loved one”.
To find out more about the Encountering Corpses project click here.
This piece was also published on Manchester Metropolitan University’s website.