My Mother Photographs Me in a Bath of Dead Squid | Lars Horn | Granta

My Mother Photographs Me in a Bath of Dead Squid

Lars Horn

My mother always wanted me to look dead. Even when a car slammed my body against concrete, skull ricocheting off the kerbstone. When I woke to paramedics – blood loss, suspected spinal, head blocks. When the ambulance doors swung open as we took a roundabout, a paramedic grasping the stretcher, equipment hurtling out the back. As I was rushed into the emergency ward, my mother photographed me strapped to the spinal board, blood matting my hair, drenching my once-white Le Coq windbreaker. ‘No, don’t wake up, look dead, Lars, look more dead.’

‘Open your eyes.’

A mantle blurred into view. I sat up, gasped. The bathwater – littered with dead squid – veered, slapped soft bodies against ceramic. I blinked. ‘I can’t open my eyes underwater. It stings.’

‘But I need you to look dead.’

I untangled a tentacle from the plug chain. The water carried it – slack, filmy – past my torso.

‘Lars, darling, the photos won’t look right if you don’t look dead.’

‘I’m cold.’

‘I can’t add hot water. It’ll affect the squid. Look, get under there, hold your breath, open your eyes. Come on, I haven’t much film. And I can’t waste this, I spent good money at that fishmonger’s.’

A fine art teacher, my mother led a yearly trip to Aberystwyth, Wales. During one of these trips, in the communal bathroom of a seafront B&B that hadn’t seen an update since the fifties, my mother began a photography project that would span decades of my life. I have modelled in baths, glass cases, on beds, beaches, in forests. My body covered in dead fish, offal, dried flowers, ashes. My body cast, photographed, filmed, watched by gallery audience. My mother’s instructions always: Look dead, Lars, look more dead.

I peered over the rim of the jaundiced tub at the rotten cork linoleum. My mother adjusted her weight, checked the light balance on her Nikon. A rancid odour lapped up from the dead squid. I could barely detect the cloying mix of bleach and antiseptic that announced the bathroom’s cracked mirror and lacklustre tiling. I looked down at my legs, at the squid drifting against my shins. Look dead, Lars, look more dead. I inhaled, slipped below the water. Cold swallowed, blunted. I heard the muffled click of my mother photographing me, the squid. I waited one last moment, opened my eyes.

In the emergency ward, the nurse came in and saw my mother taking photos, telling me to open my eyes, close them again, look vacant, look dead. Dead, dead, dead.

‘Do you want this woman escorted out?’

I lay on a stretcher in head blocks. The ceiling pulsed: ‘No, just the phone, get her to put the phone away.’

‘Madam – the phone.’

‘But I’m her mother.’

Always that: I’m her mother. In supermarket aisles, in the car, on the street: I shat you out my body like a melon, I can do what the fuck I want. And even when a doctor poked at the glass and grit in my face, pushing so roughly that I breathed sharp. When another doctor saw this and lost his shit, medics rushing to pull the first ‘doctor’ away from my body. When the actual physician explained that a psych patient sometimes stole a white coat and walked A&E pretending to be staff, even then, how I groaned, began to laugh, how my mother and I laughed. Look more dead, Lars. Dead. Just look dead.

For her funeral, my mother wants a black carriage drawn by black horses to carry her coffin down the high street. She wants a jazz band to follow in her wake, play ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’ under the banner: music to die for.

When I queried the cost and feasibility of the Victorian ceremony, my mother replied, ‘It is my dying wish.’ (She is not dying.) ‘You must do it or live with the guilt, because I won’t be forgiving anyone. I’ll be dead.’

My mother recently said that she will have to record herself performing her own service, because no one else will do it with sufficient passion.

On this point, I am inclined to agree.

For the remainder of our time in Aberystwyth, no one used the bathroom my mother co-opted for the photo shoot. The stench of dead squid had anyone gagging barely two minutes into brushing their teeth. For the entire week, three floors of guests filed round the stairwell, waiting for a ten-minute spot in the establishment’s only other bathroom. Waiting there, towel flopped over her forearm, my mother decided to move the project outside of the B&B. The next three days, she photographed me in rock pools, lying face down on the sand. In one negative, molluscs line my back. In another, a severed salmon head rests beside my own.

In Sophie Calle’s Voir la mer / See the Sea, 2011, inhabitants of Istanbul who have never beheld an ocean are driven to the shores of the Black Sea. Calle films them from behind as they unmask their eyes to take in the shoreline. When they are ready, they turn around to face the camera: eyes charged with the sight of wild water. Bodies seen and seeing. Tangled dynamic of artistic means and subject.

My mother drank hard, laughed hard, spoke hard. She spent money she didn’t have, said things she didn’t mean. She didn’t cook, swore by TV dinners, and most certainly did not think everything I did was wonderful. She preferred the phrase ‘What are you tit-arsing around at?’ to ‘How was your day, darling?’ When I brought home school projects or ‘bits of twonky shite’ as she referred to them, she did not pretend they deserved a place on any living-room shelf, but simply took them off my hands, exclaiming, ‘God, what am I meant to do with this gobshite?’ Quickly followed by: ‘I mean, darling, it’s lovely,’ all uttered in the single movement of project to pedal bin.

My mother never wanted a home-made gift or a hand-drawn card: ‘Don’t be cheap, have the decency to buy me something that’s not an eyesore.’

She is not a conventionally ‘good’ mother. But then, put like that, it sounds like a slow death sentence anyhow.

England, midwinter 2005. An unheated art studio. Modelling for a recumbent full-body plaster cast.

In the abandoned toilet block, snow obscured the awning window. My breath misted the mirror. A pipe dripped. The tube light – its plastic casement pitted with dead moths – flickered. The weather could not have been worse for a plaster cast. I snapped a swim cap over my hair and ears. I undressed. My feet settled upon cold, gritty tiling. Days before Christmas, the building stood empty, cavernous. I retrieved a tub of Vaseline from my bag and applied a layer to my face, arms, underarms, stomach and groin. I smeared the Vaseline over my eyebrows and eyelashes, held on to the sink, blinked.

Prior to a plaster cast, bodily hair must be greased with petroleum jelly. The difficulty lies in never applying so much as to obscure the patterning of the skin – pores, scars, individual hairs – as this gives a high-quality finish and realism to the cast. But too little and the removal of the cast could turn into a slow, full-body wax.

The technician knocked on the toilet-block door, ‘You ready?’

‘Just the cling film to go.’

‘I’ll wait, let me know if you need help.’

As a child, I always wore legging shorts for modesty when being cast. But as the fabric absorbs the liquid plaster, the shorts bind to the cast, meaning one has to be cut out of them. Unlike cotton underwear or shorts, cling film repels liquid plaster, preventing the removal of pubic hair or the irritation of sensitive skin.

Pulling a roll of Glad Wrap from my bag, I stretched it over my genitals and taped it in place. I opened the door. ‘Ready to party.’

Between the ages of four and nineteen, I modelled for:

Thirteen full-body casts: ten plaster, two Sellotape, one tissue. Three performance pieces: bed, wake, autopsy table.
Four short films: one in which I sleep with eight others on a wall of scaffolding; a second that shows me surfacing from a bath of black water, gasping on repeat; another whereby I walk in wax shoes until they shatter underfoot; and another still in which I wear paper clothing as buckets of water are dumped over me.

Across those fifteen years, my mother collected:

Eight animal skulls: lion, alligator, water buffalo, bison, horse, camel, cat, monkey.
One framed set of Victorian wax dental casts.
Three life-size anatomical models.
A turn-of-the-century glass eye (blue).
Two articulated skeletons: pigeon, frog.
A taxidermy seagull.
A child’s shoe retrieved from a bog, the mud having preserved its leather and laces since the Middle Ages.

The time we visited Florida, my mother purchased a second suitcase so as to accommodate the shells, coral, shark jaws, snakeskin wallets and sea sponges she’d bought. The 1940s rowing oars required a more elaborate persuasion of air staff.

Customs was never a quick affair.

If my mother found a dead animal, she would place the corpse in a carrier bag and head home to bury it in the backyard.

Six months later, flesh and fur and feathers decomposed in earth, she’d dig up the skeleton.

We did this while drinking lemonade, Diet Coke.

My aunt once helped my mother with a photography project. My mother wrapped her in layers of cling film in the heartland of British suburbia that is my grandmother’s back garden. It was midsummer. Each day clung stickily to the next. My aunt, sweltering, fainted. My mother tore her from the plastic as my grandmother marched out of the kitchen: ‘What on earth will the neighbours think?’ As her forty-year-old younger daughter staggered naked between plastic lawn chairs, a group of dog walkers looked on from the meadow beyond the garden wall. At this, my grandmother reached her limit: ‘Even the Labradors are staring.’

Another year, my mother dried flowers by laying them over the living-room floorboards, until we had to jump from one vacant foothold to another. The postman caught sight of me, once, performing this intricate ballet from sofa to kitchen kettle, and I shrugged, not seeing what was so strange about any of it.

A fan heater wheezed across the studio’s herringbone floor.

‘This is all we’ve got.’ My mother turned from a boiling kettle. ‘The other heater’s packed up. You still okay to do this?’

‘I’ll manage.’

Black sugar paper covered the casting studio’s windows. Bulbs hummed overhead, shivered light onto a laminated table. On the table, two basins stood beside pre-cut piles of plaster bandage. My mother filled the basins with boiling water, adding a glass of cold to make it workable.

‘Right, last calls: lavatory, Vaseline? Anything else you need?’

‘No, I’m good.’

Full-body casts run at high cost – studio space, technicians, models, materials. They also require considerable time and logistical coordination. Needing to urinate or defecate during the casting process will cost an artist hundreds of dollars and hours of their time. The cast will have to be abandoned – unfinished, unusable. The night and morning before a cast, I eat plain rice or pasta and drink as little as possible. I also, prior to applying Vaseline or cling film, pass a hot washcloth over my face, neck and chest. The body will soon be cold and covered in warm, wet bandage. The washcloth pre-emptively triggers any need to urinate induced by temperature difference.

I lifted myself onto the table, lay on my side. My mother and the technician adjusted my limbs.

‘Bring the arms into the chest, that’s it. Now, this arm, lay that atop the other, but not perfectly. Yes, off-centre. And the fingers – don’t separate them; they’ll be too fragile once cast. Maybe bring the knees up. Can you work on that space across the stomach, between the thighs and the arms?’

The technician clicked on a paint-smattered radio. Static hazed, settled over my collarbone, my ribcage. My mother wetted a strip of two-by-two-inch plaster bandage, pulled it between forefingers to remove excess moisture, and smoothed it onto my skin. Rubbing the wet bandage, she distributed the plaster of Paris across the webbing. The technician repeated the process along my feet. Christmas hits whined from the radio. The smell of plaster eddied off my body – mild, powdery. I closed my eyes, exhaled.

A full-body cast, performed by two people using plaster bandage, takes around three hours – work speed and ambient temperature depending. That midwinter day, with temperatures groaning below zero, with a team of only my mother and one technician, the cast would take four and a half hours. Curled on my side, the majority of my weight fell on my hip and shoulder. After only fifteen minutes, my body ached. The cast would prove one of the most demanding I would ever endure.

After my parents separated, I lived alone with my mother from the age of four until I left home at eighteen. We rarely ate together, instead using the dining table to assemble photographs, severed talons, wings. In the evenings, we read or worked in separate rooms. The bathroom was different.

My mother says that the best thing I ever did for the house was to put a chair in the bathroom. While this might suggest just how little I did for the home – a sentiment my mother would back – I’d like to think it also points to how we used that room. To the late-night talk, words clouding vaporous in steaming heat. How, at hours of disjoint from work and routine, we were able to relinquish something more honest of ourselves, one of us bathing, the other sat listening as thoughts fell into water. How it has always been in a bathroom that my mother and I find an understanding. How water – crashing, stilling, water carrying a body exhausted – how it engenders a rare generosity.

Lars Horn

Lars Horn holds MAs from the University of Edinburgh; the École normale supérieure, Paris; and Concordia University, Montreal. Horn’s work has appeared in the Kenyon ReviewWrite Across Canada and New Writing Scotland. They live in Miami.

Photograph © Richard Allen

More about the author →