Green Fuse

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


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

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 lives in Cambridge, UK. Her book The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone (2016) is published by Canongate.

Issue 179

First published in Issue 179

May 2016

Most Read

Forensic Architecture, Naeem Mohaiemen, Charlotte Prodger and Luke Willis Thompson are this year’s nominees
It’s the first statue of a woman placed in Parliament Square, marking the centenary of women’s right to vote
In further news: New York art project fights mass incarceration with house music; Marcia Hafif passes away at 89
From a preview of Konrad Fischer’s new space, to Simon Fujiwara’s thought-provoking commentary on gender bias
The Chinese dissident artist has justified posing with politician Alice Weidel, who has branded immigrants ‘illiterate’
‘I could be the President of the United States, and still half the people in the room would question my authority’
From Linder at the Women’s Library to rare paintings by Serge Charchoune, the exhibitions to see outside of the main...
The argument that ancestral connection offers a natural grasp of the complex histories and aesthetics of African art is...
Ahead of the 52nd edition of Art Cologne, your guide to the best shows to see in the city
‘I'm interested in the voice as author, as witness, as conduit, as ventriloquist’ – the artist speaks...
In further news: a report shows significant class divide in the arts; and Helen Cammock wins Max Mara art prize
A genre more associated with painting, an interest in the environment grounds a number of recent artists’ films 
A new report suggests that women, people from working-class backgrounds and BAME workers all face significant...
The divisive director out after less than six months by mutual consent
In further news: Gillian Ayres (1930-2018); Met appoints Max Hollein as director; Cannes announces official selection
With miart in town, the best art to see across the city – from ghostly apparitions to the many performances across the...
From Grave of the Fireflies to The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, the visionary director grounded fantasy with...
In further news: art dealer and Warhol friend killed in Trump Tower fire; UK arts organizations’s gender pay gap...
Emin threatened ‘to punch her lights out’, she claimed in a recent interview
As the Man Booker Prize debates whether to nix US writers, the ‘homogenized future’ some novelists fear for British...
‘Very often, the answer to why not would be: because you’re a girl’ – for this series, writer Fran Lebowitz speaks...
The artist is also planning a glass fountain of herself spouting her own blood
‘The difficulties are those which remain invisible’: for a new series, writer and curator Andrianna Campbell speaks...
With ‘David Bowie Is’ at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, Glenn Adamson on the evolution of the music video – a genre Bowie...
Under a metahistorical guise, the filmmaking duo enact hidden tyrannies of the contemporary age
The area’s development boom isn’t just in luxury property – the art scene is determined to keep its place too
In further news: Laura Owens’s 356 Mission space closes; John Baldessari guest-stars in The Simpsons
With his fourth plinth commission unveiled in London, the artist talks archaeological magic tricks and ...
When dealing with abuse in the art industry, is it possible to separate the noun ‘work’ from the verb?

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

January - February 2018

frieze magazine

March 2018

frieze magazine

April 2018