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 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?’
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.
My grandmother tells stories of my mother as a teenager deciding to dress ‘as an artist’, which is to say, sporting two flannelette dressing gowns beneath a cape to the grocer’s, or a fur coat held together by some thirty safety pins to church. Regardless, my grandmother made her elder daughter walk several paces behind her.
When, at two years old, I learned the word no and screamed it every time someone tried to put me in a dress, a girl’s bathing costume, a girl’s T-shirt, shorts, underwear, anything pink or pretty, my mother only stood back and said, ‘This kid’s as queer as they come.’ She watched as I picked out boys’ toys – cork guns, plastic swords, Action Men, Mighty Max, a boy’s twenty-one-gear bike. Watched as I chose boxer shorts, green nylon swim trunks, as the hairdresser handed me a magazine and I turned and turned the pages until there was a picture of a man advertising perfume, until I pointed to his crew cut, looking warily upwards to see if it would be approved.
The bathroom back home is smallish and hasn’t seen a renovation in decades. The doorknob crashes off the door. The tub lies scrubbed of enamel. A bullet hole fractures the window from the night when a neighbour shot an air rifle at the lit pane, my mother’s silhouetted body stepping out of range by seconds. Paint peels from the floorboards. There’s no shower, only a rubber mixer head that hangs, limp, from the bath taps. A bathroom accessory so 1950s in style that my mother is perpetually worried Boots will stop carrying it. The tiling – a 1970s beige-brown stripe – frames all this across two walls, wavers beneath the single, hesitant bulb. It is the one room we’ve never had the money to redecorate.
When I think of my mother, it is almost always of her in this room with its copper boiler that takes two hours to heat, in this room holding out against all odds, her shoulders rounded in the tub, water rippling over her limbs.
In the time we’ve spent in the bathroom, mirrors fogged with steam, a sliver of light spilling round the doorframe from the landing, my mother has told me she’s tired, no, really tired, my love; she’s voiced her fears, consistently asked for and ignored my advice; she’s recounted who’s engaged or pregnant or getting divorced at work; she’s told me we’re in debt, that the house needs remortgaging a third time; that she wants to do an installation piece of nine sleeping women and will I participate? She has asked what the fuck I’m playing around at, told me I’m making a mistake. Usually, I come back and tell her she was right, maybe it takes a night or several years, but she’s almost always right. It’s a strange thing to acknowledge: that your mother knows you better than you know yourself.
I do not remember the physiological changes of puberty, do not recall developing breasts or hips. They all remain things that my body renders thankfully impossible to excavate. But I do remember my mother telling me that I’d find a way, in this skin, find a way to articulate the body as tension, as contradiction. How, with time, these edges might even cohere – brief flickering of moth to light.
My mother, a woman who in childhood photographs looks like a boy. A woman who, at university after another student was murdered in her building, shaved her head and wore men’s clothing. A woman who frequently passed as male. A woman who once said to me, ‘If times had been different, I’d have turned out like you.’
I came out as queer while my mother drew a bath.
She spun the faucet fully open, water collapsing upon water.
‘Thank God we don’t have to play along with that any more.’
The technician dried her hands on a chequered rag. She took a pair of scissors, cut a plastic straw into short lengths. Modroc covered my entire body except my face. The radio wavered – dull, indistinct, distant. My body shivered. Pain seared across my hips, ribs, shoulders. I controlled the urge to shudder.
‘Almost there, my love.’
My mother emptied, refilled the basins.
The technician crouched to my eye level: ‘We’re going to cover the forehead, eyes and jaw now. I’ll let you know when we’re starting the mouth. After that, it’ll be one sound for yes, two for no. All right?’
Steam rose off the basins, warped the light.
‘Okay, Lars, close your eyes.’
As plaster bandage layered across my eyelids, the reddish glow of backlit blood extinguished. Darkness swelled.
I heard the technician’s voice near my ear. ‘Mouth now.’
I closed my lips, made a noise in my throat. The technician slowly inserted a section of plastic straw in each nostril.
‘Can you breathe?’
Noise in my throat.
The radio slurred into the darkness. Plaster stung my eyes, itched my mouth. Air rattled – thin, weak – through the straws. The metal legs of a stool dragged across the floor. A kettle boiled. Spoons clinked against mugs.
‘An hour’s drying time to go, Lars.’
There is a moment during a full-body plaster cast, after several layers of Modroc have been applied, after the eye sockets and mouth have been sealed into darkness, when only two nostril holes or a straw between the lips feed your breathing, a moment when you panic – even after thirteen casts and accustomed to the process.
I counted, slowed my breathing.
When I was fourteen, an autopsy table retailed at £1,000. My mother sold off antiques and flipped through pages of beds, stretchers and stainless-steel tables in a medical supplies catalogue. One week later, an ‘Autopsy Table ST 10/500 Moveable’ was ours.
For three separate performance pieces, I lay on the table, my body partially covered by a white sheet. Some twelve hours in total. My mother announced the project as a doctor might recommend a cure: ‘Half a day’s death to temper your youth, it’ll do you a power of good.’ I flexed my face muscles – the plaster tugged at my eyelashes. I flexed again. My eyelids peeled from the cast. Eyelashes tore from their ducts. I rolled my lips, tasted blood as plaster rent skin. I breathed within heavy carapace. The cast compressed my ribcage, my back, my throat, my cheeks.
‘Lars, we’re almost there. The plaster needs another twenty minutes. Can you hold on?’
My body struggled to convulse, to vomit. I breathed through the straws – slow, insipid. My eyes watered. My nose ran. My body shivered.
A cast cures by leaching the model’s body heat. It rigidifies, shrinks. The cast increasingly restricts the chest cavity, forcing a slow, shallow kind of breathing. Yet, amid this, one must maintain a state of absolute immobility, of perfect stasis. Look dead, Lars, look more dead.
Aged four and modelling for my first full-body cast, I screamed when the technicians plastered over my eyes and mouth, screamed so fiercely that the technicians had to rip the plaster from my face and remove the rest of the cast early.
Thinking I was going to suffocate, I shouted for the technicians to ‘get the fucking bastard thing off me’. The technicians all agreed: ‘Definitely your kid, Sheri.’
Another time, during my twenties, my mother asked last minute if I could come to her exhibition opening earlier than arranged. I apologised: I worked, otherwise I would have. The next day, I arrived at the gallery. Pushing through the doors, I found my mother lying naked in a vitrine of offal and maggots. The maggots seethed through her hair, crawled over her face, between toes, fingers, over her stomach.
She calls it a scheduling error. I call it divinely ordained escape.
The irony is, had she simply explained that she needed a model for maggots and entrails, I’d have called in sick to work. I doubt it’s even a lie when one spends the day beneath heaped, rotting death.
Years later, when my mother learned that the woman I would eventually marry was not only a writer – a career of which she approved – but also Puerto Rican, she couldn’t have been happier: ‘Puerto Rico has the most exceptional funerals; the extreme embalming there is an art. You know, Lars, I thought about having you done that way, if ever you died first.’
Only in death would my mother ever have me model as alive.
One tends to imagine bodily sensation increasing as the modelling process progresses: how levels of physical discomfort rise due to cramps and muscle fatigue, how extremes of temperature seem to escalate. And yet, even if I experienced this early on, even though I still contend with discomfort during casts, performances and film-photography shoots, so often, modelling is a way through, even past discomfort. Odours dissipate. The fetid loses its aversion. Maggots, flies, butchered meat – all cease to cause repulsion. The body can accommodate. Become a thing of changing dimensions. Of breadth. Space in which the world can rearticulate.
In Rachel Whiteread’s Untitled (One Hundred Spaces), 1995, the vacuous undersides of one hundred chairs are rendered solid, cast in bright, gummy-like resin. The sculptural forms – cuboid, the occasional concave scroll of a former spindle – stand in regimented lines. I remember a description saying they were all taken from the undersides of bathroom stools. Now that I look again, years later, I can only find it listed as chairs. I wonder if that was ever true or if I only imagined them as bathroom stools, subconsciously saw those strangely aqueous objects as echoes. The river of one’s own life sweeping outwards, swallowing anything within reach.
Even in my teens, when my mother drank heavily, when I would draw the bath for her near midnight, help wash her back as I placed pint after pint of water on the rim for her to drink, even when I made sure she dried off, put on pyjamas, got safely to bed, we still talked. Even if she was drunk, she told me how and why she wasn’t coping, the job, money, raising me, how everything was veering, not working out right.
It was also in that bathtub, years later, that my mother returned the favour after I had a breakdown, after I stopped talking, my back a wreck of torn muscle tissue, my body swollen, lethargic. Decades since she’d last helped me wash, she soaped my skin, told me this would pass, not to worry, that of course I’d think and read and write again, that I’d not always be dependent. Only years later did she admit that she feared I’d never get back to myself.
She washed my hair, my face. My mother, not known for her sentimentality. Once, a friend phoned, said, ‘Sheri, my husband’s been having an affair, I think we’re getting a divorce.’ My mother replied, ‘Okay, my baked potato’s just cooked, so I’ll eat that and phone you afterwards.’ My mother, who will eat her dinner before listening to your heartache. This woman carried me that year, knelt at the bathtub to wash me, sat next to me as I hyperventilated on the bedroom, the living room, on any and every available floor.
My mother gives her best advice in the bathroom. She’ll tell me when I’ve fucked up, when a situation is or isn’t my fault. She’ll tell me how the book she’s reading really does put my situation in perspective, and it’s often true because medieval plague and superviruses and the minds of serial killers do have a knack of doing that. She tells me when to get my shit together. Most of all, though, not to be too hard on myself when it all goes arse over tit, because it will, because it has to if you are to live.
When I tell people about growing up with my mother their responses usually fall somewhere between disbelief, humour and concern. As for how I felt: I remember arriving at university, this supposedly wild and exciting time of one’s life, and realising a few weeks in that never had my life been so ordinary, never had I been so perfectly, painfully bored.
Barring performance art, society tends to understand artwork as the static end product of a creative process. As terminal object, relic. As artefact. Objects to which we come in temporal reverse. I am most interested in artwork as creative process. In the dynamics that occur before, and up to, any final outcome. I like the slipperiness of that. Revising, refining, hauling to surface. The physical effort, bodily gesture. I want the slow plasticity of binding action into object. Collisions of body and media. Physicality collapsing into physicality.
There is something about bathrooms that approaches modelling. The stasis. Being in one’s skin, differently. A room of water. Of piped current. The particular kind of intimacy – with oneself, others. How water carries a body. Takes time, memory, takes physicality within the tide of itself.
After some four hours, my mother slid a hand between the cast and my skin. She pushed into my back, my thighs, drew a thumb along my calf. I made small movements, lost hair, bled. I emerged cramped, shaking, bruised. The technician supported my weight as I staggered, legs folding, to the toilet washbasin. The technician held me as my body juddered, applied a warm washcloth to the bruising that stretched from my thigh to my ribs. For the next hour, I collapsed.
The bodily depletion after an extensive cast defies easy category. The lack of coordination. The inability to immediately regain autonomy. Muscle seizure. Blood seething up the arms and legs. This strange reacquaintance with movement, temperature, with sound. A shaking of death from limb. The instability of something newly birthed.
Photographs make me uncomfortable. The frontal smiling. To fashion oneself, pose. But to have one’s body curated, articulated and placed. To have it arranged in unfamiliar ways. I like that. How it forces me to feel my body differently. Its strange pace. To hold the body in stasis, duration leadening the limbs with new weight. To feel the shifting texture as one occupies space. I like the estrangement of modelling. And its strangeness.
Being transmasculine, my body largely resists feelings of ownership. The sensation of waking within limbs that one recognises, of finding oneself reflected, to sense propriety over one’s body – I have never felt that. I am still surprised, even after thirty years of living in this skin, when I catch sight of myself in mirrors. It still manages to come as a slap of cold water in the early-morning light. I experience my body as vessel, as carrier, as God-given, perhaps. Bearer of a disjointed entity – watery thing that doesn’t fit the body I walk within. Maybe that is why modelling sits comfortably with me: my body rarely feels like my own, anyhow. I am grateful for my body, for how it moves me through the world, but I do experience it as distance, as transient shell that I will walk out of in the same way I walked in. I identify with the gazes put upon it. Their exteriority. To look at myself more than as myself. To experience oneself from within, but, also, crucially, from without.
Photograph © Yushi Li, The Dream of the Fisherwoman – 2, 2018.