Posted by Rupert Callender of the Green Funeral Company
Claire and I spent the last day of August At Torre Abbey on the seafront at Torquay, seeing an exhibition called Death and the Maiden, featuring the work of the painter Robert Lenkiewicz.
To the uninitiated, Robert was a flamboyant Plymouth based artist, instantly recognisable by his clichéd, spattered smock and leonine mane of hair and beard, a look it has to be said he could carry off well.
A chronic self-mythologiser and an equally chronic womaniser – Plymouth is populated by swathes of his ethereal, largely unacknowledged children – Robert died in 2002, penniless due to his refusal to ever actually sell any of his work, but somehow managing to accumulate one of the finest if darkest libraries in the world. Whole shelves were devoted to suicide or masturbation, volumes bound with human skin, medieval grimoires, which he obtained through all sorts of nefarious means. Needless to say, death dominated.
He operated from a series of warehouses that he rented for next to nothing, right on the harbour front in the Barbican, the only part of Plymouth to escape the Nazi bombers, and it was here he could reliably be found, bathed in a hanging pool of light with a beauty draped across his lap not quite swathed in scarlet, always seemingly his own muse, the model as mere accessory. Frequently pretentious, endlessly priapic, sometimes fascinating, but often deeply predictable and annoying. An artist in other words. His main talent was for survival through infamy.
Having been raised in what amounted to a hostel for survivors of the holocaust, Robert was always drawn to the disenfranchised, and during the seventies, turned one of the warehouses he rented into a functioning doss house, offering the homeless and mad of Plymouth shelter in return for immortalisation by painting. He formed many deep friendships with these down and outs, mainly men, most of them professional post war gentlemen of the roads, seasonal, travelling alcoholics, not the teenage crack whore runaways that horrify our times. At times there were up to 200 in there. Places of simmering violence and laughter, drink and dance, skilfully lorded over by Lenkiewicz.
One of these, Edwin Mackenzie, whom Robert christened Diogenes due to finding him living in a concrete pipe at Plymouth dump, became a close friend and he painted him over and over again. When Edwin died in 1984 he bequeathed his body to Robert to do with as he saw fit. He had him thoroughly embalmed in the style of Lenin, and due to some typically slippery evasiveness on his part (when asked by the registrar whether he was due to be buried or cremated, he replied “He is not to be buried”) managed to keep him quietly for a while somewhere in his studio.
After a month or two, the authorities turned up asking why he had not been cremated. There followed a grand stand off involving the police, public health officials and of course the media, and a lengthy examination of some very interesting and pertinent questions, such as who owns a corpse, is it a ‘thing’ or a ‘possession’, and does a body actually have to be disposed of at all.
The answer was no, it just has to not cause any health issues, and yes, it is a possession, in this case belonging to Robert. He successfully argued that there are something in the region of 1,500 corpses of varying antiquity exhibited around the UK in various museums; was it the freshness of Edwin that made him a body and not a mummy? Good questions, art at its best, but it infuriated Plymouth City Council, whose history of dour puritanism had already had to deal with his louche image, not to mention the irritation caused by him faking his own death in 1981, and his highlighting of such uncomfortable civic issues with projects on things such as vagrancy, suicide and death.
Robert stubbornly hung onto Edwin’s body until his own untimely death aged 60 in 2002. It is a small irony that Edwin actually lived 11 years longer than Robert, seemingly on little more than air.
When Robert died in 2002, he had £12 in his possession, and owed his creditors over 2 million. 7 years later, lawyers valued his possessions at just over 7 million.
In the ensuing tidy up, literal and metaphorical, of his affairs, Edwin Mackenzie’s corpse was found in an artist’s drawer, still in remarkably good nick, and it was to see what the receptionist had described as ‘a pickled tramp’ that we had come for, rather than Robert’s somewhat predictable sexual paintings; skeletons humping girls from behind like dogs, bony fingers piercing amniotic bags of life, grinning skulls performing cunnilingus, wombs and breasts and ribcages.
What Robert himself said about Edwin’s body is what has struck anyone who has spent time with one: “ the total presence of the corpse and the total absence of the person,” the reason as undertakers we encourage people to return again and again to the body of those they love, to get it to sink in: they are not there. Somewhere, nowhere, everywhere maybe, but definitely not here.
He saw him as the ultimate memento mori, and now, here in a former monastery on The English Riviera as the rather low key centre piece to the exhibition, was the extremely rare chance to see the old boy.
He has been dead a while now but the embalming was done thoroughly. He was a small, undernourished withered tramp to begin with; Edwin said his life on the road began at three and a half, but his yellowing, emaciated hairy body still fascinates and provokes awe, even for people like us who spend our days with the dead.
We don’t embalm. Partly for environmental reasons, though I fear more for the embalmers than the water table, but really for psychological reasons. We think that the natural changes that a body goes through, the drawing back of the features, the sinking eyes, the thinning and discolouration of the fingertips, are things that the family can deal with, and if told honestly about what they are to see it not only fails to horrify, but actually helps.
People unfurl in the presence of the truth, and the truth of what happens to a body in the liminal time between death and disposal is not always what horror films have led us to believe. It is gentler, perhaps even in Walt Whitman’s words, “and luckier.” Refrigeration between visits is of course essential, but the unstoppable, inevitable series of small changes that accompany most bodies’ early move from life to dead, are slight but profound, and are what can take the living to the brink of the furnace or the grave. It is a chance to say, again and again, “Okay, I get it. They really are gone. Let’s do what needs to be done.”
So, despite the fact that he was embalmed, Edwin to us was a familiar if exaggerated sight; withered, crackled almost like canvas, each hair standing erect. And as he has now been dead well over twenty years, the absence of the personality was more pronounced than I have ever seen, but the thought that struck me as I gazed at his naked body was how much of his humanity still clung to him in a way which Gunther Von Hagens’s ‘plastinated’ mannequins don’t.
But why? Both have been chemically preserved in a way I instinctively reject, yet one was filled with a fragile beauty which made me feel part of a bigger picture, and the other made me feel afraid for the road we have taken in the name of infotainment.
Von Hagens’ plastinated people are undoubtedly educating, titillating and clever too, there of their own free will and most definitely art, but are they still in anyway remotely human?
Something, perhaps not even in the technique but in the intention, has stripped them of more than their skin. They are Ridley Scott’s replicants awaiting animation, viscera bizarrely frozen in time, whereas Edwin, all creases and stitching and patina, is absolutely human. He is our future, what our outside bodies will look like when what was once within has gone.
Age continues to wither him, as it should, as it does us all, but he strangely lives on, not posed as an athlete, or jauntily holding his entrails, or stripping off his muscles like body armour, but dead, dignified, still.