BY Olivia Laing in Opinion | 07 MAY 16
Featured in
Issue 179

Green Fuse

The intertwining of life and death in poetry, art and nature

BY Olivia Laing in Opinion | 07 MAY 16

Carved ebony head from Late Egyptian coffin, c.750–525 BCE. Courtesy: The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

The days are opening up, the streets covered in a rain of blossom. Slow burn, the torch of summer lit, a time-lapse rush of green. Maybe I’m looking harder this year. Bad news keeps drifting in. C has lost her sight. Last summer, two tiny tumours seeded in her brain, located just beneath her optic nerve. As they grew, her vision deteriorated. By winter, the  lights had gone out altogether.

Nature is a strange factory, relentless in its productivity. We like to think life and death are opposite states but, really, it’s all tangled up together, the cherry blossom and the cancer: a never-ending production of more, a monstrous fecundity. Like Dylan Thomas said: ‘The force that through the green fuse drives the flower / Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees / Is my destroyer.’

I’ve been thinking about that force, running implacably through its roots and branches. A few months ago, a friend introduced me to the work of Rachel Kneebone, an artist who creates monumental, frighteningly complex sculptures in porcelain. I’ve never seen anything that so purely captures the indifference of vitality, the way life is always shifting into death and out again.

Kneebone builds towers, or maybe pits, of body parts: hundreds upon thousands of elegantly extended, gleaming legs, triumphant and appalling. You look and see a flower; you look again and see a cock. What are these strange excrescences that might be animal or mineral or vegetable, that might be melted wax or human hands? They can’t help but recall the worst obscenities of human behaviour, the genocidal reduction of individuals to piles of limbs; yet, at the same time, they are weirdly, profoundly ecstatic, a smorgasbord of mutating forms.

My friend has a piece by Kneebone: a porcelain bough caught in the act of bursting into bloom. Last night, I went to look at it. Cupped fleshy petals, tendrils that resemble veins; Thomas’s green fuse shaped and glazed and fired and hung on the white wall. The cat was sleeping beneath it on his chair. As I stood there, my phone rang. A New York number. P is dead. P has died at the age of 27.

It isn’t academic, art. It’s about emergency exits and impromptu arrivals, things coming and going through the ghastly space where a person once was.

That same day, I’d been to the ‘Death on the Nile’ exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. The dim and crowded rooms were filled with century after century of objects made to contain the dead, from jars made from river mud to the most elaborate of anthropoid coffins.

The coffins weren’t just receptacles for bodies. They were conversion chambers, places in which the principle part of the soul, the ka, could temporarily take refuge. Some are fantastically decorated with images meant to facilitate resurrection in the afterlife. The wooden coffin of Henenu is painted with a pair of eyes on the eastern side, so that the occupier could magically see the rising sun and so be restored to life. Others are filled with icons designed to host the ka, or provision it in the other world.

These objects attest to a leaky universe, a perpetual motion machine, energy rushing from form to form, a vast migration through space and time. In this transcendental vision, the human body is just another holding bay, a decorated shell.

Towards the end of the show, I came across a vitrine dedicated to the burial of Nakhtefmut in c.890 BCE. His body had been lost or discarded by tomb robbers or Victorian curators, but the objects that accompanied it were still intact. Four battered statuettes, with the carved heads of a baboon, a jackal, a falcon and a man: stubborn attendants to a long-completed disappearing act.

Beside them was a small, blackened object. A bouquet of dried spring onion and garlic, the wall text explained, threaded onto shards of palm, picked in some fertile delta 3,000 years ago. There it was again: Thomas’s green fuse, now dark with age, still humming with the power that once passed through it.

Olivia Laing is a writer and critic. Her latest book The Garden Against Time: In Search of the Common Paradise will be published in May 2024.