Did You Kiss the Dead Body? - Rajkamal Kahlon

The project, Did You Kiss the Dead Body?,  is being shown this spring in Cairo and Beirut as part of Meeting Points 7 curated by WHW. The following text is excerpted from a talk given for the Aesthetic Justice Seminar in 2011 organized by curator, Niels Van Tomme, and Thomas Keenan, Director of the Human Rights Project at Bard. The talk's form enacted the structure of my work, which often interrupts the original pedagogical functions of texts and images to reveal a subtext that is violent. The interruption partially blocks the frequency through which the original material speaks. Through the interruption of my own voice within the talk with the official record, there was an attempt to move between the official and unofficial, the clinical and the intimate, the secular and the religious, the past and the present and between the living and the dead.

I am an American artist. I live in Berlin, Germany. Landstuhl, Germany is the home of the largest U.S. medical center outside of the U.S. Itʼs a military base that is the first destination out of Iraq and Afghanistan for American wounded and dead. This is where the dead American bodies are put back together and beautified before being sent home to their families. Landstuhl, Germany and Rockville, Maryland are twin sites where autopsy notations, for Iraqi and Afghan detainees who have died in U.S. custody, are complied into standardized U.S. Military Autopsy Reports. In 2004 I found a series of these partially redacted reports on the ACLUʼs website. I’ve been thinking about the men that the reports identify by the weight of an organ, or the distribution of hair on their scalp or chest. In 2009 I began a project called Did You Kiss the Dead Body?

For me, the reports create a cocktail effect of nausea, sadness and rage. I did not know these men. I do not share their nationality. I do not even share their religion, nor for that matter their gender. But somehow it remains that we are joined. I am them and they are me. This isnʼt a mystical slight of hand. This is a fact. I am in those reports. We are all in those reports. Those men exist inside of us. The fact of their murders, whether the cause of death is "Homicide" or "Natural Causes" - the fact of their murders is a fact that cripples us progressively until we ourselves face death.

'Did you kiss the dead body' is a line borrowed from a Harold Pinter Poem, Death, which he recited for his Nobel Prize Speech in 2005, a speech about the importance of speaking truth to power.

Where was the dead body found?

Who found the dead body?

Was the dead body dead when found?

How was the dead body found?

Who was the dead body?

Who was the father or daughter or brother or uncle or sister or mother or son of the dead and abandoned body?

Was the body dead when abandoned?

Was the body abandoned?

By whom had it been abandoned?

Was the dead body naked or dressed for a journey?

What made you declare the dead body dead?

 Did you declare the dead body dead?

How well did you know the dead body?

How did you know the dead body was dead?

Did you wash the dead body

Did you close both its eyes

 Did you bury the body

 Did you leave it abandoned

 Did you kiss the dead body

-Harold Pinter, Death

To work and think about death means entering into a field of dissolution where once comfortable boundaries of self and other can no longer apply -where the ground beneath you shifts constantly, and you have to merge with the emotional weight and history that carries you. Empathy is understood as the ability to feel or enter into the emotions of another. The science fiction writer Octavia Butler, in her dystopic novels Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, created a main character suffering from an affliction called hyper-empathy syndrome- the inability to observe someone in pain without feeling pain to debilitating effects. This character directly experiences the pain and pleasure of another and is frequently incapacitated by the violence unfolding around her. With her abilities or affliction of hyper-empathy, she gains insight into others through a process that threatens the limits of her self.

I want to raise the dead.

There is a deep contradiction in the reports. The reports are an illusion of rationality and order. Obscuring everything they attempt to clarify, the documentary nature of the reports promotes the loss of memory and establishes a parallel truth fixated upon interrupted parts. Through the report, we forget that this dead body used to be human. The report turns the dead body into a corpse. It represents a second stage of death.

I want to make these men material again. I want to remember what the autopsy reports ask us to forget. Those were human beings who died. In recalling the human being that the dead body used to be, in making this dead body a living human being again, I might know what killed him, and I might learn my own role in his death.

The report is an archive, a secular mechanism. But my thoughts turn to Catholic saints, the relics, bones, fingers, pieces of hair, imbued with centuries of faith, and remembrance of an individual life lived that brings collective meaning and hope.