Discovering a Body
by Steven Canny
Back in April 1999 Theatre de Complicite began a collective investigation into the discovery of a body. Eight years before, after unusual weather conditions had started to melt the glacier, the head and shoulders of a man had been discovered sticking out of the ice high up in the Oetztal Alps on the Italian-Austrian border. Initially climbers thought that it was a mountaineer who went missing during the Second World War. Over the following weeks they began to realize that they'd found something altogether more resonant. This frozen corpse arrived directly to us from the late Stone Age, some 5,200 years ago. The exceptional feature of the find was that many objects of this man's life had survived with him. The body was wonderfully preserved by the constant temperature in the glacier and is of rare archaeological significance. It helped to changed the way we think about our ancestors. This man carried with him a story of his life, a story spelt out in clothes, tools, weapons and a number of natural remedies.
Our thoughts on this discovery led us on a two year journey and created a piece called Mnemonic. The piece is about memory, about remembering, and it emerged from the pitiful collection of bone and tissue that was taken out of the glacier. But how do we make sense of such a discovery in an artistic context? We began by reading The Man in the Ice, written by the principal scientist in the field, Konrad Spindler. Over the next eighteen weeks we thought, worked, talked and improvised on ideas about what the find meant to each of us. In the early stages these improvisations largely attempted to extract a narrative from the scientific account and find an evocative, theatrical, means of expression. We worked contrary to the spoken word and tried to find a physical language that could allow an audience to understand the nature of his life and the intensity of his last moments.
Early in the process we repeatedly considered the intrinsic truth that there is a common humanity which binds us to the Iceman. This introduces many other questions. What past do we share? What connects us to the places our dead are buried? Is it the need to find a place of certainty, a true story of our ancestors? Is there also a desire to make an external, logical, sense of their stories? Without a clear sense of the past is it possible to contemplate the future? In the creation of the piece we constantly analyzed our own history, our own collective past. We considered these questions and spent much of that summer working towards a recreation of the death of the Iceman. Still today there is a tendency for the attention to concentrate not on the life he lived but rather on those horrifying, freezing, last moments. Last month we were approached by a scientific journal to comment on new research which suggests that the Iceman was killed by an arrow wound only recently discovered between his scapula and the upper ribs. The distinct, isolated, tragedy of his death lives on in our imaginations.
This reflection, amongst others, also exists in David Farrell's photographs from Innocent Landscapes. These photographs are also about discovery. They are about the search for a truth, about the search for the bodies of sons and daughters. They observe and reflect the potency of the 'sites of the disappeared' which were extensively excavated after the passing of the 1999 Northern Ireland Location of Victims' Remains Bill. They are photographs of landscape and yet they also suggest the very end of our lives. They are vivid, hyper-real, and often perplexing. The photographs are interspersed with specifics, maps and place names, and yet it is often hard to understand just what we are witnessing. But the attempt to make some sort of sense is central in understanding the intention of these photographs. By looking at these vast disrupted landscapes we are taken through the experience of any number of lives in Northern Ireland and into the epic and, necessarily, the tragic. These scenes demand extended consideration. They ask us to think about how the banal underpins the horror and the terror. Like the discovery of the Iceman it is the ordinariness of the process which shocks. The quotidian simply exaggerates matters and creates a context that gives us a common reference point. In the Alps it is the contrast between the modern climbers, in their garish outfits, as they trample the snow down and the fragility of the naked Iceman. In these photographs the word BODIES accompanied by an arrow painted on a rural road has terrible, mundane, associations. We have no way of knowing why the word is there but its presence is uncomfortable. We are surprised and uneasy. Elsewhere we see scraps of rubbish which punctuate the emptiness and stillness of the sites. Incredibly it is also the rocks, the stratigraphy of the earth and the flowing of water that insist on a reaction. They are at once painfully detailed and still always mysterious. We can know little about the emotions of the family of the dead but cannot escape questions about grief and loss. For us these photographs are a provocation. They are both a reminder of the brutal facts and also our only possible encounter with the horror of the last moments of these lives. They are both familiar and eternally alien, compassionate and dispassionate. But always we are asked to return to the perceived reality of the situation and to try to make some sense, some connection, with what it is that we see.
Yet somehow many of these pictures, with their sense of foreboding, show another aspect of the landscape. They show us a dispassionate topography, a cold-faced grave swathed in green and not caring for the fate of puny humans. Other photographs have the opposite effect and, like our investigation into the Iceman, immediately suggest a story about the moment of death. Then Farrell manages to strip away the surrounding terrain and focuses on the experience of a person who may have found themselves facing death, at night, in an alien land. And so these photographs ask us to go through a system of reappraisal. There is an interesting collision when we apply the situation to our own perception, our own fears. This collection is a study of our past and is largely formed without the explanatory assistance of the human form. It is testimony to the integrity and clarity of the photographs that the dead are so present.
It is a compelling postulation that there is a tension between wanting to keep a memory alive and achieving a sense of peace, of acceptance. In our work on Mnemonic we came to reflect upon what the discovery of a body suggests to each of us, of the stories that collide at that moment. A body found so far from the moment of his death reminds us of the complexity of our own bodies and of our place in mankind's short history. And so the more I look at these photographs the more I am reminded that whilst landscape shapes us, swallows us, carries us away, it also invites us to contemplate mortality and to resist it while we can.