Massimo Silvano Galli
Still Life With Dying
an Art Project with the Medical Faculty of the University of Milan
   
 
Still Life With Dying” ideally continues, in a sort of diptych on the healing powers of art, the discourse began with "Still Life With Teenager” previously made with the artist Michele Stasi. Here we are reversing the point of view of that initial reflection, that was an opening to the vitality of puberty and its ability to animate the inanimate, to deal, now, with its apparent opposite: death, the end that all living bodies are meeting and which is not, paradoxically, less vital, because it also conceals the opportunity of a regeneration; sure: to an un-known-where and in the un-known-what, but just as certainly, with the same need to be cared of a teenager who tries its uncertain future, and with the same need to be taken towards that borde,r where we all will land and, above all, to accompany ourselves during that indeterminable time that precedes death, so to make way to an education for a genuine “Ars Morendi.
 
introduction   |   art work   |   poster   |   the making
 
 

"Life goes in a flash. Your days fly faster than the weaver's shuttle. Or than a stone thrown in the air and falling, accelerating at a rate that is the square of ten meters per second.".

Saul Below, Ravelstein

"The moment that I will close my eyes to this land, the people next to me will say: it is dead. It's actually a lie. I died for those who see me, for who is there. My hands will be cold, my eyes could no longer see, but in reality there is no death because the minute I close my eyes to this world I open to the infinity of God."

Oreste Benzi, Daily Bread



"Dying is only not being seen," illuminate us the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa and, indeed, the only rational tangibility of death for those who remain alive is the fatal evidence of a loss: to know that the living being that was, will be no more intelligible to our gaze.

So we do not die, at least linguistically, because the term "dying" says something too definitive for the real knowledge we have about this phenomenon. Perhaps, instead of "dying", we should say ... "disappear", and then death would merely be a vanishing from the sight of the Other, or better: a vanishing of that image in the making which is the Other; a vanishing of that vital breath that shortly before animated him, now leaving flesh on it behalf until the time of consumption will not make that disappear too.

Like the portrait of Dorian Gray, the lifeless body rots while linger on, more-or-less faithful, the static image of the the vital fragments in the memory of an Other who, alive, keep them imperishably alive: in the perishable existence of the Other.

Therefore the image does not die, remains in who remains and, again, is refracted into a seemingly timeless space, or at least where the time depends on the haggard angle from which we look at the universe, seeing lights of stars maybe death... pardon disappeared, but only from the small observatory of their limited sky, and, in fact, their appearance still comes to our eyes capable, in our watching, of operating a resurrection.

In fact everything we call "life" primarily pertain to our gaze: an animated body becomes inanimate when it loses all trace of motion in front of our eyes, then we say: "It is 'dead'”and  even though words cannot explain, they do help, with their sedative power, to mention the senseless sense of loss, to convince us – as much as they can- that we will never see again that body shaking his numerous cells in the poly simphonic harmony of beauty that bursts out from every spasm of Creation.

So, as far as we know, death is always to die in the gaze of the others. Of my dead self, to paraphrase Epicurus, I can care about just up to a second before dying, beyond that moment opens the Undefinable. However the my dead self that pre-occupied me (which is occupying my mind before death arrives), in truth it is not me, but my corpse, which is always another –as it is well summarizes by that old joke about that guy who get anxiously and breathless to the newsagent, asking if he can kindly be allowed to take a look at the obituaries: the newsagents seeing him so uneasy granted to him, he anxiously open the newspaper and, after checking carefully the page he want, bursts into laughter and joyfully resuming his journey says: "Fortunately, even today I am not in it." The experience of death, in short, can only be experienced vicariously, the death of the Other vanishing from our sight, including that Other who I will be after my death: the corpse that looks like me.

Death, that cannot contemplate us in life, impels us to take care of our corpse before the irreparable damage happens, the only way to protect its integrity in our absence, to bring our trace of humanity where our humanity will not arrive, to leave our own testimony as unique being, a single specimen in the world capable of revealing the unknown truth that everyone, in his incomparable essence, is able to observe, because our uniqueness allows us to spy from an opening a reality inaccessible to others, doing in everything that we describe or represent a world primal to the whole humanity. And just because my body is always the Other who looks like me, it happens that to take care about my death in the only way that I am allowed to, which is representing it during my life, making it a metaphor, I actually end up to take care of each any Other, the each and any Other that is different from me. Therefore, in this sense, a reflection on death is always pertaining the care of the Other and, by extension, of all humanity. "The essential characteristic of a dead life," wrote Jean Paul Sartre, "is to be a life of which the other becomes the guardian," and if Sartre means, by this, the inevitability that the dead would become object for the Other,  without any opportunity to evade or escape its determination, it is maybe possible to undertake a creative and educational path so that this guardian would become the caretaker of the Other's dignity and the witness of a life in all its fullness and holiness, and in so doing, to bring it in positive: "[...] everyone be the caretaker of the the solitude of the Other."

So what could really tell my body, when it will not have the opportunity to say and will entrust itself to the gaze of the others?

Well, for the narrow circle of those who knew it will tell, with varying degrees of depth and accuracy, the events of a life: fragments of things said and done; will have, perhaps, one or more children who may resemble it or not, testifying in corpore presenti, his having been here. Then?

The concept behind "Still Life With Dying" assumes that we must demand more from death and not settle for what, more or less natural, life tributes to her. To be with Socrates: making one's life a real "training to die", a pro-jecting in her arms, would say Heidegger, conscious of our finitude and quite because of it, be the more steadfast in our existence as planning subjects, thrown into a world that we did not create and of which we are, in our turn, a "project" which finale is always- indeed-death.
Actually, if we do listen to Freud, the goal of all that's alive is death, and only the tension created by external influences, guided by the instinct of preservation, force the living substance to deviate from that straight line that would fast lead to the end. So, we walk along the winding roads that we call experience with the sole purpose of throwing a distance between us and our goal, driven by the desire to savor the pleasure of the end, and at the same time, restrained by any circumstance which is able to defer that pleasure.

It is like when, engrossed in the narratives of a novel, we fast scroll the pages with the desire to get to the end and, maybe, we do not notice how gratuitous could be the plot and how arbitrary its every move away from that straight line that would be the shortest distance between the beginning and the end - even if often, reaching the end, we do miss every doodle, every expectation that had build the pleasure of achieving the much desired end, and now it is consumed, finished ... forever.7

The pedagogical, healing path wished by “Still Life With Dying ", would accompany the participants to make the monument (Mens 'memory', Monera 'to remember') of each of these doodles and whorls, learning to pause and savor the most minute deviations that life's got for us in its unconscious chasing of the end, making any biographical flourish in a work of creation, signs of existence through which the past shows the transition of a lifetime.
No, not for a narcissistic pursuit of illusory immortality, not as an anxious search for a mere recognition of our inner forms, not for a limiting reproduction of our biographical preconceptions, not only at least, but just to deliver that crucial decentralization from ourselves, to favor our sense of belonging to the Other, to whom we belong much more deeply than we know or believe; that decentralization which is the origin of each work (lets think, for example, of that work which is a child) and that we can access only through an effort in which the ego gives away and subtract itself.

Creativity, of all the territories in which the human adventure expresses itself, is where we are more allowed to grab this opportunity: the space in which the human being can postpone the agony of death and, through a pirouette of the gaze, duplicating himself and decentralizing himself in the work, can bring back to the surface every invisible that disappeared, including the disappeared dead body that himself will be.

“Still Life With Dying " puts the emphasis on the ethical importance of giving home to our own creations, learning to detect, in an ever more refined way, through the metaphor of ourselves in the work: the shadows, the signs and forms of our inner world, as absolute truth of this universe of plural truths which we all have a duty to participate in, thus helping to create successful new perception of things and of the world, so that the beauty of the Other (which is a plurality of several possible existences) would win on the brutal and indistinct de-individualization.

A work of research and reflection, as the previous "Still Life With Teenager”, which is a part of a series of considerations on the use of certain objects of our daily lives and the possibility / ability to transform them into witnesses of our lives, works that remain to tell about us when we we will be no more.

In fact Art and, more generally, all that inanimate world that the post-modern art has been able to transform, starting from Marcel Duchamp, in potential art, is a receptor and a catalyst for experiences, feelings, emotional constructions and architectures, capable of founding a world parallel to life itself, a world that tells us and gives us an image only apparently distorting but, in hindsight, representing a focal multiplication of our most intimate reality.
The objects, like the works, are speaking of persons who have made them, desired, selected, appointed, bartered... getting older with them... and with them evolve, wear out, break and repair, just like men, indeed, more, because they often survive the life of men themselves, survive that reality we call body.8.
Therefore each object is immortal witness that, as for  irradiation, is absorbing stories and feelings of those who live alongside, every object is accompanying this our flesh, though dying, toward its inexorable end.
Learning to transform our objects into works of creation, should not be a gift restricted to artists, but offered to all men in their native (and not always educated or developed) ability to erect monuments, signs of existence through which the past shows perpetuating the memory, especially when the end of a life is disclosed and we are more in need to be cared of, in a pedagogical sense, that is to be taken toward the ultimate goal, still making it a life experience.

We have an illuminating example for this, the Socrates retold in the Phaedo.9 The teacher of moral philosophy, the one that in his life has never created anything, that did not leave even one of his writings, here is, in his captivity, shortly before being executed, caught in a dream that invites him to make art, creeping in him the doubt that perhaps his life, so maieutically able to give birth to the Other from the invisible ashes of knowledge, was not, indeed, capable of creation.
"The Gods" says Socrates himself in the Theaetetus, "prompts me to pursue the maieutical art, but prevented me to create”10.
Now, that same God, right on the crest of the afterlife, order to Socrates to elevate art as a ultimate tool and testimony of a lifetime. Thus, the great Athenian thinker, faced with the impossibility of arriving by the bus of logic beyond the irrational borders of death, surrenders to the soothing lullabies of the imagery: "Maybe it's appropriate," he says, "especially for those about to go down 'the other world', to explore and tell stories about this trip, on how we imagine it could be" and then concludes with a question that is fundamental to this process: "What else could be done until sunset?". Of course, the problem is not death, but what to do until that day, until that moment, wherever it is on the time line of our tomorrow.

“Still Life With Dying " answer to that question that there is a job to do, a work to achieve: the beautiful and striking transformation of self in art: the sting of the senses can transform any furnishings or definition of the world in a figure of speech that, while escaping from any shared truth, is embracing another one, or others, subtler and often invisible, but no less worthy of being observed, screamed, claimed. A daily work of re-creation to ensure that, to be again with Socrates, we may learn to rock that abandoned child that we are housing in our deep, afraid of being left alone in the dark, that child that we must educate and delight day by the day.

Numerous and all too reasonable factors have led to the creation of a human subject, more or less universal, anxious and perennially in search of reassuring certainties with which to toy in existential loops that monotonously close on themselves, and reproduce themselves continuously, led by a real perversion of reason, which should be solely called to illuminate the world, denying citizenship to all that transcends the possibility of a rational explanation, and especially denying the worlds of the possible and imaginable. A man, would say Marcuse, that seems increasingly incapable of "[...] calling men and things by their name -to name what is otherwise unmentionable."11 Henceforth, with the question "Why read a story, look at a painting, watch a movie, listen to a music track, meet the Other?" looks like that is advancing the inexorable impossibility to answer, unless we are just taking refuge in the alibi of pure and sterile leisure and entertainment. We have become "[...] supermen idiots in science and aesthetics,"12 and contemporary man, despite all efforts to classify the world, it seems more like a man who struggles to name the world, or better, to put in existence the world.

We believe that reality exists because so named, and we strive to ensure that this description can be the most subtle, variegated, complex, so complex and varied to perceive, in return, a universe where the heterogeneous overpowers the homogeneous and the unique emerges from the shapeless mass.
Vladimir Majakovskji, in "Poetry and Revolution," delivered to the writer (but I extend this to mankind) this supreme task: "Every writer has to say a new word, precisely because he is primarily a white-haired judge that inserts its rulings in the Code of Human Thought."

So in this way “Still Life With Dying "intends his work: to educate and be educated to 'name the unmentionable' as a contribution to the multiplication of possible realities, a sign that reveals unexpected truths and adds new territories to explore, worlds in which to play to imagine, parallel universes in which transform ourselves, where to get lost for the fun to find ourselves again.. And there is no speech, be it word, be it natural or artificial, be it a sign on a canvas, a sound or a gesture ... which does not conceal this wonderful opportunity to get lost, giving rise to work on the self in opposition to the logic of Western societies, diligently taken in from the mania to accumulate rational knowledge, logical and certified, whose individuals can only be subject to the terror of being mislaid and adopt reassuring strategies and therapies in order to help them to regain or, at most, found themselves. Instead, for this path we are talking about, to be mislaid is the antidote. Getting lost in the imagination of many infinite possible Self scattered in as many as possible Elsewhere, including that Elsewhere so unspeakable that is our own death.

What remains, in fact, wonders James Hillman, what really remains when all is truly lost, when the soul is in extremis, at its ultimate? What remains when we are facing incomprehensible tragedies or some kind of irremediable solitudes, some diseases, facing our inevitable death or that, also unavoidable, of our loved ones? Nothing remains but our inner world, an area where there is no escape, no social mask, no status, nor money to fill the gap between what we are and what we believed and wanted to pretend to be: there "the self is naked”, we would like to say, paraphrasing the essence of Andersen's famous fairy tale, and the soul unfolds the meanings and alternatives of its possible fates.
 
Emerges the importance of thinking about this inner world and our ability to use our imagination to build it and to share it with others, and the whole world. Because only facing the extreme loneliness, and primarily death, ( "When you die you die alone," sang Fabrizio De André), the Self is revealed for what it's worth, and when it is not a crowd, when it is not that vital, invisible combination of body, speech, sounds, objects and ideas generated and nourished by imagination, then those maladies of the soul so typical of our post-modern are taking over, and neurosis, psychosis, depression, borderline personality disorders, personality disorders, extreme weakness and phobias emerge: trouble-shooters symptoms that are obscuring as much as they can that emptiness of the soul where it would be even more terrible to mirror ourselves.

“Still Life With Dying" dwells meticulously on the time of this loss, on this fundamental bewilderment; a time that, despite all the cultural and institutional airbags, is increasingly coming to a society, our society, unprepared to accept it. A time that requires a space of observation and accompaniment that can perceive and accept this real and beneficial evolutionary metamorphosis that often escapes awareness or, equally often, recanted, finds just a disease symptom as a vehicle to manifest itself: the alleged failure (school, work, parenting), the intellectual failure, the disease, the compulsivity of addiction, deviance, depression, but also the extreme conformism, social parasitism, up to phenomena more difficult to question and that occur in various forms, as if vehicles of an extreme appeal, an instance of subjective and collective malaise.

The idea that death, or better said, the path in life that leads to death, can be structured as a work of art asks, first of all, to feed this space of bewilderment, leaving the posture of the obsessive and domineering gaze and becoming, by subtraction, able to recognize the hidden fingerprints that in its depths are forming the being, those invisible links that everyone has with the Other (whether animate or inanimate, in existence or not existing), fingerprints and links that a glance all centered on reason and on his desire for possession is not able to locate.

"Does not know how to live who has not learned to die," reads the medieval book "Ars Morendi”. This way of looking at and playing with death is revealing unexpected and extraordinary possibilities of life and calls all of us, without exception, to make our life a work of art, becoming, each of us in our own way, a witness and a multiplier of Beauty.

Translated into English, Marco Maurizio Gobbo

 

F. Pessoa “Una sola moltitudine” Vol. I, Adelphi, Milano, 1989.
O. Wilde “Il ritratto di Dorian Gray”, Einaudi, Torino, 2005.
Epicuro “Opere”, Einaudi, Torino, 1970.
J. P. Sarte “L’essere e il nulla”, Il Saggiatore, Milano, 1997.
Rene Maria Rilke “Aforismi”, Mondadori, Milano, 1995.
M. Heidegger “Essere e tempo”, Adelphi, Milano, 1979.
P. Brooks “Trame”, Einaudi, Torino, 2004.
M. S. Galli, M. Stasi “Natura Morta Con Adolescente”, in: P.Barone “Traiettorie impercettibili”, Guerini, Milano, 2005.
Platone “Fedone”, Garzanti, Milano, 2007.
Platone “Teeteto”, Laterza, Bari, 2006.
H. Marcuse “L’uomo a una dimensione. L'ideologia della società industriale avanzata”, Einaudi, Torino, 1968.
L. Mumford, “Le città nella storia”, Edizioni di Comunità, Milano, 1999.
V. Majakovskij “Poesia e rivoluzione”, Editori Riuniti, Roma, 1966.
J. Hillman J. “Politica della Bellezza”, Moretti e Vitali, Brescia, 2000.