Self Portrait (Beech Wood)

Self Portrait - Beech Wood © Graeme Walker 2020
Self Portrait (Beech Wood). Acrylic on marine ply. 92x61cm. 2020.

There is a difference between the reality of life and death for all living things and the reality narrative held by society. There is a land mass, that is to say, an island, sufficient in altitude to have remained above water since the melting of the last ice age. In one of the approximately 8000 languages spoken by the human animals, this island is currently called "Great Britain". Great Britain is the land mass that forms the largest part of a human-animal political entity we currently call "The United Kingdom". It is where I was born, where I currently live and possibly where I will die.

I am a human-animal and one day I will die. But what will happen to my body once the "I" has left it, once it's physical processes have ceased to function and other living things begin to assist in its disassembly? In the United Kingdom there are two options that the human-animals have agreed upon, burial and cremation. Whereas most other creatures of the world are at some point eaten before their organs stop functioning, the human-animals are either eaten by bacteria, beetles, worms and other small creatures when they are buried in the earth, or they are burned.

This is of course, neither consistent over time nor geography. According to Cicero, Diogenes asked that his body be "thrown anywhere without being buried". And, originating in Iran, the Zoroastrians still place their dead in Dakhma (Persian: دخمه), or Towers of Silence, whereupon vultures would devour the corpse. Of course, with the almost total annihilation of the vulture population (the subject of another painting), the Zoroastrian tradition is currently proving unsustainable, as is doubtless, the similar Tibetan tradition of Sky Burial (bya gtor), which also relies on the presence of carrion birds. History also tells us of many other traditions, most of which are lost, or ignored, polluting, or "illegal", such as funeral pyres, burial scaffolds and mummification. In certain political entities, current human societies permit the transformation of corpses into gem stones, or compost. In international waters, burial at sea is generally accepted. However, for most of us (and certainly those who reside within the boundaries of regulation on this land mass), burial and cremation is all that is permitted.

It strikes me that herein lies the difference between reality as lived and reality as narrative. Indeed, in this instance, I take issue with how the establishment and imposition of law upon the body of a sovereign animal leads to both rigid acceptance of the options and therefore to an assumption of state ownership of the body, neither of which is in reality, true. Truth is not the same as consensus, or perspective. In life we are both owned and unowned. We are not actually owned, but nevertheless we are owned by agreement. And I fundamentally object to this. We have no right to legislate people's bodies, if only because it implies that they are not sovereign beings, when in fact they are.

So the question comes: at which point does a person cease to be sovereign? The fact that we have structures in place to "respect people's wishes" implies that sovereignty can persist after death. I would argue that an animal of any kind only ceases to own themselves once they are both dead and forgotten. For human-animals, who regard our persons to be greater than the sum of our bodies, the mere disassembly of the dead body in soil or fire, is insufficient to render our wishes void. The fact of burial markers, of mounds, mausolea and memorials gives weight to this. We do not forget, until we do. And even then, in broken graveyards and looted tombs, the archaeologists move in, with the hopeful (although not always successful) ambition to elucidate, contextualise, interpret. Of course, by that point, the person is long gone and all that remains is the measuring tape, the calipers and scales of science. And science is an insufficient measure of humanity, of persons alive and dead.

Yet in our judgements, we regulate bodies, both alive and dead, for it gives us nothing more than a sense of realising our narratives of power and order. And orderliness is absolutely one of the many human-animal methods of avoiding paying attention to mortality. It reduces complexity and nuance to something manageable, in other words: easily negatable. Of course, most of us are content with this, most are content to not look at it, not think about it, tick a box on their last will and testament that says one option or the other, place it in their filing cabinet and get on with their lives. Yet others (and of course, I include myself among them), call in to question the implied and real impositions on our sovereignty. Yes, I see we are in a highly populated world and if everyone suddenly wanted funeral pyres, or flaming rafts there would not be sufficient trees to burn them. But I also see that this is not what most people want.

I have long stated that "death is broken", that it has become impersonal, dehumanised, over-medicalised, traumatic, miserable. The human-animals, certainly those who reside on this land-mass, have stopped being surrounded by death as maybe they were three or four generations ago, they have lost touch with it, lost understanding and meaning. We know this because regardless of how people think and behave, people still die. And regardless of the fact of mortality, people still behave as though it is somehow "mendable", which in itself implies that death is a bad thing, which of course, it is not.

No one asked anyone's permission, no one asked if anyone would like to be born, we just are. Similarly, no one asks us if we would like to die, we just do. This is reality and it is a beautiful thing. Paying attention to death in a realistic and respectful way leads to realism and respect in one's life; it gives life meaning, context, shape and direction; it gives purpose. As humanity negates its own ending, it lives in a morbid present, for the fear of death and the subsequent repression of that fear does little to prolong anyone's life. This repression, it causes distortion, of perspective and behaviour, which shapes the structures with which we order ourselves, rarely for anyone's real benefit.

This painting, a self portrait, depicts my own wish to be wrapped in a simple shroud and placed in an autumn beech wood. It is a provocation for the viewer to enter into a discussion about their own wishes, in accordance with their own beliefs. In it, I try to show a gentle peacefulness, one that is not in the least sinister or macabre. Yet in the argument, I am interested in the tension that arises from my inability to have my wishes carried out, for I live in a situation that is dominated both by fear and it's neurotic policies.

Graeme Walker, June 2020