Imagine a body left to decay in water. Not just any body — your body.
At some point, your body will deglove, which begins on your hands and feet and “is a process of the skin becoming so waterlogged that it basically expands and slips off the form”, says Andrew Mottershead, from UK artist duo French and Mottershead.
“River water fills your stomach and lungs, permeating the walls of your lungs, diluting your blood and cooling your heart. The muscles controlling your stomach and intestines slacken, your sphincters open and the contents of your bowel and bladder leak out.” — Waterborne
Most people would prefer not to think about this, but in Waterborne at Hobart’s Dark Mofo festival, Mottershead and collaborator Rebecca French invite participants on a 26-minute audio tour of their own watery decay — while on a cruise down the River Derwent.
It’s an experience that mixes the putrid (degloving is just the tip of the iceberg) and the poetic, and manages, by bringing the participant face to face with death, to be wonderfully life-affirming.
‘Dissolve and dislocate’
On a mild winter’s day by Hobart’s standards, a crowd of people huddle together on Franklin wharf to await the beginning of Waterborne. At exactly 4:00pm, we’re ushered onto a pier, where Mottershead passes us headphones and a sound device. Then we’re onto a speed boat, which seats around 40 people, and usually takes tourists out to Bruny Island.
The boat trip lasts only a few minutes. Once we reach a certain spot in the river Derwent, the captain cuts the engine and lets the boat drift. We put on our headphones and begin listening to the slowly unfolding tale of our body decaying in that very water (read by London-based Australian actress Sarah Kants).
“Waterborne asks you to relocate yourself under water and imagine this journey from a small river upstream … and down through the estuary, and into those tidal waters and then out into the ocean. Throughout that journey, the body begins to dissolve and dislocate, as it becomes increasingly at one with the environment,” Mottershead says.
Some people stand while they listen to the story, some sit, but we all stare into the dark cold waters that surround us.
French and Mottershead are known for their site-specific participatory and multimedia artworks. Waterborne is part of their ongoing series, Afterlife.
“The [Afterlife] series stems from a combination of personal fear connected to dying alone and not being found, and also a curiosity about the science of decomposition and decay,” says Mottershead.
The other works in the series explore this process in earthbound settings: a home, museum and woodland.
“[But] water is a landscape, and the interaction with the body in it implies much more of a journey,” Mottershead explains.
“It’s also that some of the phenomena that happen within decomposition, when in water, are incredibly different from a terrestrial or land-based decomposition.”
‘A leap of faith’
French and Mottershead worked with forensic anthropologist Dr Carolyn Rando (University College London) in the development of the Afterlife artworks.
For Waterborne, the artists looked at forensic case studies of bodies found in water, and consulted research on various aquatic ecosystems.
Among their more ‘hands-on’ experiments, they observed the decomposition of pig carcasses in water, and spent some time with, “a specimen of a male penis which had been degloved” at Bart’s Pathology Museum in London.
“[But] There isn’t an awful lot of data available about bodies transported in water,” says Mottershead. “It’s a very difficult thing to test, to experiment, and to research … you have to take a bit of a leap of faith at the science.”
This is the third time French and Mottershead have mounted Waterborne, having presented it at the Anti Festival in Finland and Estuary Biennial in England.
For Hobart and Dark MOFO, Mottershead says: “We had to rewrite it in such terms that would tap into the listener’s own archive of familiar bodily sensations and references … and we had to completely recast it for what we would imagine as being this watercourse of the Derwent.”
To that end, the artists consulted the Derwent Estuary Program, curators of zoology at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, and Dr Shari Forbes at The University of Technology Sydney.
As Waterborne’s audio story progresses, a whole range of aquatic fauna specific to the south-eastern Australian biosphere start nibbling away at your decaying body: midges, elvers, swans, ravens — and the mighty scavenger of our beaches: seagulls.
The poetry of putrefaction
“Your bloat intensifies as the day warms, stretching your skin and tightening your clothes. Billions of bacteria pump out a sickly sweet combination of fishy and faecal decomposition fumes.” — Waterborne
Bloating, gases, degloving — there’s a whole nauseating lexicon of watery decay in Waterborne.
“The research language is really incredibly dry, so it’s actually been a process of us translating those scientific observations into phrases that people can feel,” says Mottershead.
The result of their efforts is an experience that is also strangely poetic: “Down here, winter sunlight flickers through the blue. The salt water is cold, clear, and cleanses what remains of your body.”
“I found Waterborne to be quite a confronting experience, but it finds a beauty on the subject of death and it’s quite poetic,” says Abe, a 22-year-old fellow traveller from Melbourne.
Dying is a living process’
“[Waterborne] may well be quite gruesome at times to experience, but there is a reason for that — and that is an attempt to puncture the fear that we have of our body and our demise,” Mottershead says.
While some participants have found the work nauseating, “the important thing is to use that disgust, and touch that very primal emotion that we have when we’re faced with something that we think that we shouldn’t know about, consider or contemplate,” says Mottershead.
Early on in the piece you hear these words: “Waterborne, microscopic, life-forms enter your body, these live on in your organs and bones.”
As your body dwindles, other lives take hold; over the full 26 minutes of the piece, which traces a decay-cycle of thousands of years, your body becomes one with the natural world.
Mottershead points out, “We don’t mention death, or the cause of death”.
“Murders and people going missing, they’re incredibly tragic events and … that’s a completely different story.
“It’s all about the life that occurs after that last breath, about the process of transformation and renewal.
“We are watery bodies … and if you couple that with the process of going through the rain cycle, it’s a really evocative image of being a part of something bigger than ourselves,” Mottershead says.
Participants have described Waterborne as “life affirming”, but Mottershead suggests, “You could also call it death-affirming. It’s about feeling that dying is a living process”.
The story finishes and the boat begins taking us back to the wharf just as the sun is setting and the signature Hobart cold begins settling in. But you’re alive. And so are the midges and the elvers.
Waterborne is on at the Dark Mofo festival until June 24.