I’ve been considerably frustrated by his project over the last week — the mixed responses from people have forced me to rethink my approach.
On one hand, people have been confronted by the process of the project thus far, seeing the full visceral nature of the material, but on the other hand, the feedback I’m getting from other people in the class is that it’s simply not confronting enough through materials alone.
I’ve been thinking a lot about concept and communication through making. someone once said to me that in order to communicate a concept through objects, you must peel back the layers of meaning and metaphor so that the idea is basal. So that the concept can be communicated simply. It seems obvious — viewers will layer their own meanings on to the form, you needn’t weigh it down with excess metaphor.
I began to consider the reasons behind my revulsion of the violent acts, behind the cruelty, the flesh. I thought about the time when I decided to stop eating meat, when the feelings of revulsion were at their highest.
It began in 2003. I was barely 18, in my first semester of a design degree, living at home, It was in January of this year that my home town was hit by serious bushfires. My mother and sister got caught in the path of the fire whilst trying to rescue my sister’s horse, and were seriously injured. My mother received second and third degree burns to over 30%, and my sister over 65%.
In the weeks and months following, both of them underwent multiple procedures and surgeries in an attempt to save their lives. There were kidney failures, collapsed lungs, tracheotomies, amputations, muscle grafts, skin grafts, skin and bone debridement, and multiple serious infections. Bodies deconstructed and reconstructed. Somehow, both of them made it through, and enjoy a relatively good quality of life today (in no small part due to their incredible strength, determination and depth of character).
Of course, the initial shock of learning the ill fate of a loved one is severely distressing, but nothing could have prepared me for the visceral horror I was to experience over the course of that year.
I remember in full, vivid horror my first sighting of my mother and sister, in the Intensive Care Unit. Having been airlifted to a specialist unit in Sydney, my dad and I had risen early on the Sunday-after-Black-Saturday to make the three-hour drive [in absolute silence].
In a reclusive ‘mediating room’, we were given a two-hour ‘prep’ from the head burns specialists as to the current conditions. They informed us of the present, asked about the past, and talked only about the immediate future. As if the week after that didn’t exist. They described with typical frankness what the bodily state of the patients were, in numbers and science, in probabilities and cold, hard facts. The full extent wouldn’t be clear for at least a week, but it was at present not promising.
Then, my father and I were led into the ICU.
I will never forget the smell of that place. Heavy chemical disinfectant, masked with a heady, unrealistic floral perfume. Heavily sweet ammonia, struggling to mask the saltiness of stricken bodies, of plasma and sweat and blood and protein. Like one is the antithesis of the other, and somehow they are meant to make a neutral product. There are still certain supermarkets I can’t enter because of that smell.
We were led past elderly people with the rattle of imminent death in their lungs. Past overdoses, past diabetic comas, past organ failures, heart attacks, strokes. Past people hooked up to machines, machines that breathed, pulsed, pumped. Machines that beeped and hummed and beat in a tired, stagnant rhythm. I hated that place. It was a machine. Senseless. Giving and taking life, like some absurd, impulsive god. A Deus ex Machina.
At what was almost the end of the line, I peered through an almost shut curtain, seeing a morbidly obese shape, bloated, heavy, straining under the weight of breath and machine. A swollen, amorphous shape. But when our guides stopped short of the end of the room, I knew something must have been wrong. Very wrong.
That mass of flesh, it was them. One of them. I couldn’t tell which one. Their bodies, in a state of extreme trauma, ballooned up with fluids. So much so, that the skin on their limbs and hands had to be split [through all layers] via scalpel. In this situation, no pressure bandages are applied. The skin was heavily damaged – pink and black, wet with fluids and patched up with squares of mesh dressing – white and soaked with blood and yellowing plasma.
I couldn’t tell them apart. Not immediately, anyway. It is profoundly disturbing to not recognise your own relatives. Those unconscious mechanisms we have for facial recognition hit a wall. I was overwhelmed by this intense absurdity. Simultaneous love and revulsion. The grimace on their faces – massively swollen lips pulled back in what may have been pain, terror, or sheer physical reaction – revealed their teeth. Like what dental records are to the decomposed body, the teeth were the only recognisable remnants of my mother and sister. Yellow-white teeth, still straight, regular, defiant.
I have included below images of patients with similar injuries, which will give you an impression of the physical trauma associated with severe burns – but I must warn you, they are GRAPHIC and REAL and I don’t really think you need to look at them to understand the nature of the subject.
It is impossible to empathise with someone in this state. I say impossible because the I think that if you were somehow able to comprehend being conscious in that horrific state, feeling the sensation (or lack of sensation, as is experienced with severe nerve damage associated with full-thickness burns) of a forever-changed, forever-changing state. I have felt so much guilt for being unable to comprehend that. For dissociating my concept of them from the reality of them. It has taken so long to reconcile those two things. I still have not reconciled my guilt.
So then, what becomes of the KONFRONTATION project? For me, material and process becomes a way to reconcile these memories. More on material and process in the next post.
I must also add this link to the Boston Globe website, as it houses some dramatic imagery from the recent bushfires in Victoria, Australia. The images show the cruelty and fragility of the Australian landscape and the devastating aftermath. Again, your personal discretion is advised.