A project for INSERT
The Sharp Edge of the Global Contemporary, Artistic Directors: Raqs
click to enlarge,
Graphic Design Florian Stirnemann
Death may be equally inevitable for everyone, but it does not conclude
each life in an identical way. The fraction of time left to the
self before death (or the extended process of dying) closes in on
the conscious mind is the site of a last minute exercise. Each exercise
demonstrates the fact that though death - the great leveler - may
be a general theoretical problem - a question that haunts every
philosophy - it nevertheless appears in various guises, changing
form with time, place and situation. Concretely, there are as many
kinds of death as there are lives, and there as many ways of denial
and expulsion to think about our last minutes.
The discoursive installation will offer different mental and concrete
exercises to be practiced in relation to the time of our death.
Various specialists and practitioners from the fields of biology,
medicine, veterinary science, philosophy, law, religious studies,
forensics, art and anthropology will gather in New Delhi at a specially
designed arena at 'Mati Ghar' exhibition site at the Indira Gandhi
National Centre for the Arts to publicly present and debate different
philosophical theories, scientific speculations and individual practices
on the time of death at the invitation of Hannah Hurtzig and the
Mobile Academy, Berlin. The discussions and debates will be open
to the public, who will be free to enter into direct, face to face
conversations with the invited specialists.
The many lives of death
The invited panel will present their accounts on what death means
to science, law, religion, philosophy and culture. They will present
reports on the controversies attending to its precise moment of
occurrence and on the biological process of decomposition. They
will narrate myths and religious metaphors surrounding death, discuss
political scenarios and ethical conundrums, consider theories of
metamorphosis and attend to martyrdom, meaning and meaninglessness
while talking about death.
The diverse experiential, cultural and historical facets of death
as a human phenomenon are shaped and perceived differently across
the world, and have been seen and talked about differently across
time. This event will embrace and stage that diversity. Even the
seemingly straightforward question of "When, precisely, is
one dead ?" – evokes a variety of answers. The answers
vary with who answers, with who is asking, and why the question
is being asked.
Does death connote finality, or a transition? Is the moment of death
a moment of disintegration into elemental nature or a dissolution
into the cosmos ? Does it occur when a person stops breathing or
when their funeral rites are concluded ? Is it a marker of the marvelous
contingency and brevity of human life, or a prelude to an embrace
of the infinite. Is it a cul-de-sac, a vestibule or corridor leading
to other states of existence, or a prelude to a return to the world
? Is death the occasion for a judgement on the conduct of how a
life was lived? Is it the great tidying up of the mess of all our
days, the instrument that re-establishes the order of the world
? Is it death that ensures that the individual is absorbed into
the collective presence of memory or rendered absent into oblivion?
Does death renew life by making room for the living? Is death a
means for the harpooning of awareness, an occasion for an ethical
lesson and a chance to shape our life; or is it always an unacceptable
imposition that has to be categorically rejected if one has to affirm
The clinical death
No matter how particularly we may view the concreteness of death
and dying, a certain definition of the moment of death has established
itself around much of the world in recent times. We could call this
the definition of 'clinical death'.
In 1968 an Ad hoc Commission of the US Harvard Medical School in
Boston published what came to be known as the 'brain death criteria'.
These criteria include - absence of brain activity, lack of responsiveness,
irreversible loss of reflexes and inability to breathe without a
With the operationalization of this definition in clinical practice
and palliative care it is no longer medically necessary to wait
for the heart to stop beating, or for the appearance of the customary
signs of death like rigor mortis and suggillation. According to
this definition, when one is 'brain dead', only then is one a corpse,
even if the body is still warm and the blood circulating. Except
for a few minor details, the 'brain death' criteria remain in force
in many places down to the present day. It is no longer the heart
but the brain that determines the time of death. (The brain death
criterion was introduced in Germany in 1968, in Finland in 1971,
in India in 1994, Taiwan in 1987. Japan has till today not accepted
the criterion. The UK rejected whole brain death as a criterion,
while accepting 'irreversible brain stem damage' as the criterion
of death in 1977. The Uniform Determination of Death Act established
the Brain Death criteria in the USA in 1981).
In 1968 a legally unobjectionable concept of the 'time of death'
was seen as necessary in order to juridically frame the transplantation
of vital organs that were still supplied by blood. The first heart
transplantation along these lines had taken place on December 3,
1967 in Cape Town, South Africa. Till this time, the doctors operating
an organ transplant worked without a legal safeguard for their actions.
With the brain dead criterion we have accepted (without ever being
asked) a theoretical construct for death. This medicalized theory
of death demands of us that we take a few startling premises as
given: that from now on death has a definitive location in the body,
and that it takes place in the brain. The timeframe for determining
death is brought forward, for – after all – the organs
are still working. We are asked to no longer trust our sensory perception
- for what we see is a body wherein the blood still circulates –even
though we are asked to believe the judgment of experts who have
pronounced it dead. Further, we have accepted that this definition
of our time of death is based neither on a philosophical or ethical
rationale, but on the economic rationality of adjusting the pressing
demand for organs to a real shortfall of donors.
At the same time, it must be clearly acknowledged that the functioning
of the brain death criteria can and does save lives and addresses
the cruel paucity of healthy organs for patients in critical conditions.
However, as the philosopher Hans Jonas noted in his criticisms of
the criteria as early as 1968, this medical theory of death denies
the objective indeterminacy of death.
A tool-kit for exercising the last minute
These different scenarios, motifs and motivations are conceived
as constituting a thematic scaffolding for a set of discursive exercises
to be practiced in relation to the time of death. The conversations
unfolding as a part of 'Last Minute Exercises' under the Pipal Tree
next to the Mati Ghar offer conceptual building blocs from which
we can fashion our own intellectual tool-kit for confronting the
time of departure. Perhaps some of these could become talismans,
mnemonic aphorisms or mantras. Perhaps we could appropriate them
as our own techniques to sharpen our consciousness of and for the
Thanatology, meditation on death, is a time-honored technique,
going back to Ancient Greeks who understood death as an aesthetic
exercise, as well as to practices outlined in the Tibetan Book of
the Dead. These included the suggestion to imagine the faces of
the mourners lined up at the grave. This latter exercise is indeed
practiced today in another guise, by actors playing corpses in American
TV series, who have to be able to professionally and convincingly
embody the presence of death in life before the camera.
How can we take life seriously, if we do not look death in the
face? Let's talk about a different thanatology, under the papal
tree at mati ghar in Delhi.