:: Article

A matter of light and death

By Steve Finbow.

Hector Meinhof, Three Nails, Four Wounds (Infinity Land Press, 2018).

The opening pages of this book have something of the atmosphere of Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, seven eleven-year-old girls having a picnic, drinking rhubarb juice, talking about their hair but, rather than dreamlike, things soon become nightmarish, starting with the discovery of a hanged puppy in an insane asylum cemetery. The reader may have intuited that something was amiss, the short chapter being bookended by images of sinister monks and nuns and dead infants in their tiny coffins taken from Hector Meinhof’s collection of vintage death, post-mortem and medical photography. Inside the asylum, the girls discover an anatomical model of a pregnant woman from which they extract the foetus. They explain, “We’ve been told that the patterns seen on a person’s fingertips are traces left by the soul when it entered the body. Therefore you animate every object that you sculpt with your soul.” This evokes Roland Barthes’ claim in Image—Music—Text that “One can see here the difference between photograph and painting: in a picture by a Primitive, ‘spirituality’ is not a signified but, as it were, the very being of the image. Certainly there may be coded elements in some paintings, rhetorical figures, period symbols, but no signifying unit refers to spirituality, which is a mode of being and not the object of a structured message.” In this intense yet delicate book, the textual and photographic binary system creates a vacillating spirituality somewhere between light and dark, now and then, here and there, life and death.

In Photography and Death, Audrey Linkman explains that “Motives for the commission of post-mortem portraits in the nineteenth century must have been many and varied, relating to the specific circumstances of each individual loss. Unfortunately, few early examples survive today in contexts that would explain the reasons behind their commission or which could clarify their meaning and significance to the bereaved. The post-mortem portrait implies a desire to see and remember the person in death. Possible explanations for the practice can therefore be sought in the rituals surrounding death, and the feelings of duty and obligation owed by the living to the dead.” For the girls in the narrative, ritual is everything, bloodletting, torture, the Eucharist, communion and baptism are perverted into Catholicism as Sadean institutionalism, or a thanatic Lewis Carroll as re-imagined by R. D. Laing.

Barthes again, “Truly traumatic photographs are rare, for in photography the trauma is wholly dependent on the certainty that the scene ‘really’ happened: the photographer had to be there (the mythical definition of denotation). Assuming this (which, in fact, is already a connotation), the traumatic photograph (fires, shipwrecks, catastrophes, violent deaths, all captured ‘from life as lived’) is the photograph about which there is nothing to say; the shock photo is by structure insignificant: no value, no knowledge, at the limit no verbal categorization can have a hold on the process instituting the signification.” And that’s what happens in this book, the photographs of dead babies and children, of emaciated and diseased bodies, of executions and post-mortems have no signification in themselves but transmogrify from traumatic to beautiful through the surrounding textual thaumaturgy – “Death is the eidos of that Photograph.”

Torture is a form of ritual, a limbo between life and death, health and sickness, freedom and incarceration, and the girls, fasting and emaciated, practise their pre-serial-killer skills of vivisection on horses, kittens and swallows, while the preceding photographs remind us that “Limbo represent(s) an ‘unduly restrictive view of salvation’, as ‘people find it increasingly difficult to accept that God is just and merciful if he excludes infants, who have no personal sins, from eternal happiness, whether they are Christian or non-Christian.’” Dan Fox further explains that limbo exists in “delimited spaces”, in the torture of birds and the resurrection of insects, in those non-places of asylum and hospital ward, in the wound and the wounded, the shroud and the shrouded.

This is a world in which God is dead, where the end times are accelerating, where church merges with asylum, innocent girls become torturers, love becomes insanity and the art of light is used to portray darkness. One of the girls says, “And inside the dark room, as you fall on your knees in front of the door: a rectangle of shut-out light, the light of the very life forbidden to you, creates a frame around the darkness that your future is opening up.’ It is, as another explains, a “tableaux of the destruction of mankind” where all that will be left will be the records, until they finally fade and turn to dust. The text and photographs in this book produce, as Barthes writes, “not a consciousness of the being-there of the thing (which any copy could provoke) but an awareness of its having-been-there. What we have is a new space-time category: spatial immediacy and temporal anteriority, the photograph being an illogical conjunction between the here-now and the there-then. It is thus at the level of this denoted message or message without code that the real unreality of the photograph can be fully understood: its unreality is that of the here-now, for the photograph is never experienced as illusion, is in no way a presence (claims as to the magical character of the photographic image must be deflated); its reality that of the having-been-there, for in every photograph there is the always stupefying evidence of this is how it was, giving us, by a precious miracle, a reality from which we are sheltered.” 

The book as object is exquisitely designed and produced, marble-white pages, the feel of funerary stone, a book of remembrance and of what is possible. And, however strange the subject is, it does provide us with a reality, the reality of suffering. Barthes once more, “the photograph is undialectical: it is a denatured theatre where death cannot ‘be contemplated,’ reflected and interiorized; or again: the dead theatre of Death, the foreclosure of the Tragic, excludes all purification, all catharsis.” What Meinhof does here is create a space in which the history of the nineteenth and twentieth century are delimited by violence, dead bodies, torture, emaciation and crucifixion but also by technology, birth, faith, art and memory. In The Ongoing Moment, Geoff Dyer states, “In photography there is no meantime. There was just that moment and now there’s this moment and in between there is nothing. Photography, in a way, is the negation of chronology.” Three Nails, Four Wounds, accelerates time through memory, the “Photograph(s) may correspond to the intrusion, in our modern society, of an asymbolic Death, outside of religion, outside of ritual, a kind of abrupt dive into literal Death. Life / Death: the paradigm is reduced to a simple click, the one separating the initial pose from the final print” and the speed of the shutter becomes “an explicable nano-flash of consciousness that looks to us like a transition between two significant points of entry and exit, but is merely an accident in infinite nothing” as is life. Despite its necro-nostalgia, Hector Meinhof’s Three Nails, Four Wounds reads as hermeneutical eschatology, it reads as though he has chronicled the future – this is how it will be.

Steve Finbow’s fiction includes Balzac of the Badlands (Future Fiction London, 2009), Tougher Than Anything in the Animal Kingdom (Grievous Jones Press, 2011), Nothing Matters (Snubnose Press, 2012) and Down Among the Dead (Number Thirteen Press, 2014). His biography of Allen Ginsberg in Reaktion’s Critical Lives series was published in 2011. His other works include Grave Desire: A Cultural History of Necrophilia (Zero Books, 2014) and Notes from the Sick Room (Repeater Books, 2017). Death-Mort-Tod: A European Book of the Dead is forthcoming in December 2018. He lives in France.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, November 11th, 2018.