Music

British Artists Recreate the Experience of Being a Decaying Corpse

Working with forensic scientists, artists French & Mottershead tell the story of a body after death.
27 September 2016, 2:10pm
Waterborne by artists French & Mottershead being presented at the 2016 Estuary Festival. Photo: French & Mottershead

Bodies—and body parts—are pulled from the River Thames every year, often having been submersed in water for at least 20 days, according to the Marine Policing Unit, who are responsible for searching the murky waters and final resting place for too many lives. With forensic investigations, the reasons behind these deaths—most often suicide—are eventually discovered, but the story of what happens to the bodies is rarely, if at all, told.

That’s some of the thinking behind the latest piece by British art duo French & Mottershead, who created an immersive site-specific experience that tackles the science behind body decomposition through 20 minutes of poetic prose. “Death is hardly mentioned in this narrative,” says Andrew Mottershead. “The idea is to create a space for listeners to contemplate their own mortality.”

Waterborne by artists French & Mottershead being presented at the 2016 Estuary Festival. Photo: Benedict Johnson  

Experienced on boat, Waterborne sees participants put on headphones and taken on an audio journey of their deteriorating body, starting in a canal, through a river and eventually out to sea. The narrative heard is spoken in second person, allowing the user to imagine their own body going through the decomposition process, which is complemented by the Thames Estuary setting—a place where the river meets the North Sea. A body, naturally, needing some time to decompose, the audio piece marks the passage of time using the symbolism of a moon’s cycle.

“We’re asking the listener to bring something of themselves,” says Rebecca French. “That’s been important to us throughout our practice really, presenting situations to people in which they complete through their own participation into the work.”

Waterborne by artists French & Mottershead being presented at the 2016 Estuary Festival. Photo: Benedict Johnson  

Waterborne is one in a series of four looking at body composition through an artistic lens in various settings. Titled Afterlife, French & Mottershead have been working with forensic scientists in determining how decomposition differs when a body is placed in water, woodlands, an art gallery, and a home.

“It’s been a crash course in human decomposition,” says Mottershead. “We’ve explored the impact of temperature, moisture, animals and all those other environmental factors. We’ve also been mining case studies and observed animal bodies decomposing, so we’ve really been looking at the story of human decomposition through the eyes of forensic anthropologists. What we’ve found out is that the story of human decomposition is about transformation, renewal, and change.”

A scientific heavy topic like forensics, however, made storytelling difficult and numerous drafts were made in order to create an audio piece that was both accurate but limited in complicated terminology for listeners to understand and engage with. Research in the area was also confined, forensics typically concentrating on who the body belonged to and how they died.

Waterborne by artists French & Mottershead being presented at the 2016 Estuary Festival. Photo: Benedict Johnson

While some parts of Waterborne are difficult to hear, most of it is meditative, creating a space where participants can explore topics, which may normally be taboo.

“Often those are situations that try to get people to understand they’re relationship to their body, or their relationship to a place,” says Mottershead. “It gives people opportunity to think about those things and the issues that may surround them, which allows people to maybe see the world a little bit differently. That’s what we try to do anyway.”

Waterborne was presented as part of the Estuary 2016 Festival, an inaugural art biennale, which runs until October 2, 2016 in Essex, England.

See more of French & Mottershead’s work here.

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