“You died today.” - meditating on your own disintegrating body with Vibeke Mascini and Babs Bakels

Issue no4
Aug - Sep 2021
Onbeperkt toegankelijk & Eindexamens 2021

Can art help us to learn to embrace the inevitable end of our lives? The sound-installation This body that once was you by Vibeke Mascini and Babs Bakels takes one participant at a time on a journey of actively visualizing their own disintegrating body. It is not at all about the experience of dying, but about the process of returning to matter.

For their joint presentation This body that once was you artists Vibeke Mascini and Babs Bakels collaborated with researcher Enny Das (Radboud University). Das put together two surveys that a participant is asked to fill in before and after the experience of the sound-installation. The surveys ask her not only about her personal experience with death and loss, but also about how the current pandemic influences her. For the surveys, Das departed from her research into ‘Terror Management theory’: a theory that describes how humans use escapism strategies to block out the biological reality of death. Bakels, who herself has a long-standing fascination with all of these topics, met Das during the first episode of the Dutch VPRO podcast Kassiewijle, co-produced with radiomaker Laura Stek.

Before entering the installation I get a specimen number and fill in the first survey. It contains general questions about my age, education, if I have ever lost someone close to me, and if someone close to me has had Covid-19 severely or even died from it. The data I enter anonymously will be available to scientists for up to ten years!

Once in the space, I am instructed to be very careful with the white material on the floor. It is human bone dust that, as I am told afterwards, has been installed by blowing it into a tent and waiting for it to settle over night. My guide instructs me to sit on the chair in the middle of the white square while she turns on the sound. A calm female voice starts speaking and tells me what the best position for this meditation is: sitting straight with a strong back and grounded through my feet, I should close my eyes or gaze into the white field in front of me. The chair is a little bit wobbly, and the backrest is uncomfortable; it must be an artistic decision, an attempt to make me more aware of my body.

I am instructed to be very careful with the white material on the floor. It is human bone dust that, as I am told afterwards, has been installed by blowing it into a tent and waiting for it to settle over night

“You died today”, the voice states. It asks me to imagine my own dead body in front of me and to observe it closely. During the first days after a body has died it stiffens, the voice explains. She goes more into detail: the skin will become pale, and the eyes and mouth will be half open. I find it hard to really see this in front of me. Rather I notice that I start to imitate the descriptions with my (living) body. In the next stage, the voice describes my dead body as bloated, swelling up from gasses and fluids. I find it hard to sense this stage, but I am starting to see images of someone I knew, who was bloated the last time I saw them. The third stage asks me to observe larvae in the body’s flesh before me. Perhaps it is because I have never seen an actual dead human body in front of me that again I am not visualizing my own dead body but instead am imagining events of the past or scenes I know from movies and documentaries. Interestingly, the survey did not ask me about my experience with dead bodies.

The further the meditation goes, the harder I find it to relate the descriptions to my own body. In the next few stages animals start to eat away the flesh, and the body becomes a skeleton with some left over tissue on it. Over time, the voice explains, the skeleton turns bright white –I suddenly become aware of the white square I am situated in. In-between the different stages the voice explains the biological processes of disintegration. Our DNA will still be detectable in the bones for thousands of years. Hearing those technical explanations I start to become more and more detached from the body I am asked to imagine. Towards the end, the voice describes how my bones turn into dust. My body, she tells me, has always been full of microbes and bacteria I was never able to control. So, in the end: whose body is this dead body?: “Who dies?”. This I would like to hear more about!

“You died today”, the voice states. It asks me to imagine my own dead body in front of me and to observe it closely

The sound-installation is based on the ancient Buddhist meditation nine cemetery contemplations. The original meditation stops at the stage where the bones turn into dust. Mascini and Bakels decided though to take it a step further. To close the meditation, the voice explains that the bone dust itself is a life-giving element from which microbes and bacteria form new bodies, highlighting the beauty of being part of such a process. The whole time I imagined something dry and desert-like to surround me, but now I see bright green grass filled with buzzing life-forms as I look down at the dust of bones.

After the 25 minutes sound-fragment I am being guided to a small space, where I fill in the second part of the survey. This one is longer, asking me how the experience has changed my perception of spirituality, if I got the impression that everything is connected, and asking me about whether I think that if people should get vaccinated against Covid. It also asks about my political views.

This body that once was you is installed at the Felix Meritis concert hall in Amsterdam, a space with high ceilings, bright beige colours and doors all around. During the meditation, I was curious how my experience would change if I would stand up and walk around. Would I have been more able to imagine a body in front of me? Somehow I did not feel free enough to do so and, apart from that, I also wanted to give the intended set-up a chance. Upon entering the sound-installation I did not fully fathom the delicateness of the human bone dust square, being damaged with every movement in the space, as Mascini explains afterwards. I understand now why I have been instructed this strictly on how to move through the space, while I would have liked to decide for myself when and where to sit, to feel free to move around, take my time before leaving, and perhaps even listen again before filling in the second survey. Conceptually, I would have found it rather beautiful to see traces of previous visitors in the neatly constructed square and also perceive its disintegration process.

Mascini and Das state that their collaboration allows them to learn from each other. Das explains further that artworks, in contrast to scientific research methods, are able to invite people to reflect on their own behaviour. With her surveys she hopes to catch unconscious elements of our fear of death triggered by the sound-installation. Mascini elaborates that she has worked repeatedly with scientists and other professionals in her artistic practice, and describes that the disciplines do resemble each other. While the methods and ways of financing are different, she experiences in her collaborations that similar questions are asked about the world.

As a visitor, nevertheless, I would have liked to see the sound-installation and survey more entangled with each other. To me, it seemed that both elements could just as well exist without the other, even though I can see how the survey adds a more conscious layer of introspection after experiencing the sound-installation. In my understanding of scientific research and meditation practices it is common to perform the actions repetitively for them to produce useful data and invoke mental changes. Part of Das’ survey is the possibility to fill in another survey some time after the experience, to get a better understanding of how the participants are affected in the long run. An artwork, on the contrary, is rarely visited on a recurring basis, while, if it leaves a vivid impression on the viewer, it can resonate for a long time.

Overall, This body that once was you has left me with a more deep and warm understanding of the circularity of being on this planet. I am curious what will come from Das’ surveys and if I get the chance, I would like to experience the sound-installation again in the future.

Nele Brökelmann
is a visual artist

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 4 — 2021