Singapore Contemporary Young Artists

Playing With & For The Community

urban body speaks/ Death: a prologue

Nasri Shah


Too often we associate the urban body with restlessness. Phrases such as “the pulse of the city” betray our tendency to mistake the transience of the urban environment as a constant movement of people, rather than its continual emptying.

Instead of the city as a collective of spaces in which we live, could we think about the city as spaces from which we leave? Does the city manifest equally in the ways that we live as in the ways that we die?

Death: the word itself acts as a full-stop to an activity of words. But dying, like living, represents an amalgamation of choices inflicted upon the body. People don’t only die from Death itself—they also sometimes die from a host of factors that the modern-day urban settlement cultivates and contains. Diseases to accidents, war and revolutions, the legacy of the built environment expresses itself through the body not only by the way it nourishes life, but also by the way it diminishes it. In the words of the poet Cyril Wong, “We are ultimately searching for our graves.” And so we shall, for the choices in our everyday lives can never be separated from those of death. Often they overlap as paths charted through the city—pavements and staircases, for example, that function simultaneously as routes to work and routes to impending death.

It is, however, not my intention to present a macabre view of the body. On the contrary, we live in an era that monumentalizes and even celebrates death. Across beliefs, societies and cultures, death is the one of the few universal conditions of the body that both unites and divides the subjectivity of the city so compellingly. Doomed artists such as Amy Winehouse and Andy Warhol now share the accomplishment of a having attained a shorter expiry than that of the media’s attention span, along with figures like Australian euthanasia activist Angelique Flowers. The continued broadcast of their lives become inseparable from news of their deaths, writing their tragedies into the literature of their music and paintings, long before news of their existence would fail to excite us anymore; their deaths become the news. With the aid of the media, death becomes evidence of a common humanity through which Warhol , Winehouse and Flowers are defined—and more tellingly, begin to lose their geo-specific definitions.

This paradoxical nature of death point events such as the funeral of recently-deceased Kim Jong Il simultaneously to the unity and division of society at large; the North Korean population, wailing in unity, is made to juxtapose with the unflinching Western viewer witnessing the procession from behind the TV set.

In the spring of 2008, the German artist Gregor Schneider announced his intention to invite a willing, dying participant to spend his or her last days in a constructed room within a museum. Should this be a point of contention? Never mind Schneider’s plans to arrange for a nurse to be on-site at all times: death is to be whispered amongst private company. Death, uttered out loud, becomes a spectacle. Like the flesh-and-blood bonanzas up on the movie screen.

To transcend that boundary where death no longer confronts us as fiction but fact collapses the glass walls that our urban condition has cultivated so carefully—glass walls of the camera lens, the television and the computer monitor that allow us to see all but feel nothing. Urban society thus presents us with a paradox—a body we are thoroughly and visually familiar with but that never ceases to surprise us through new jolts of pain, pleasure or loneliness.

Consider Andy Warhol’s recollections on the afternoon of 3rd June. The time is 4.15pm, and Warhol has just been shot three times over with a revolver by feminist writer Valerie Solanas:

Before I was shot, I always thought that I was more half-there than all-thereI always suspected that I was watching TV instead of living life. People sometimes say the way things happen in movies is unreal, but actually it’s the way things happen to you in life that’s unreal… 

When I woke up somewhereI didn’t know it was at the hospital and that Bobby Kennedy had been shot the day after I was- I heard fantasy words about thousands of people being in St. Patrick’s Cathedral praying and carrying on, and then I heard the word “Kennedy” and that brought me back to the television world again because then I realized, well, here I was, in pain.”

Warhol’s words strike us as fascinating less because of his musings on the supposedly desensitizing qualities of television, and more because of the fact that the television is precisely what resurfaces his physical sensations. Emerging from his post-operation stupor, Warhol’s first glimpses of the world is mediated by the broadcast coverage of Robert Kennedy’s assassination attempt. Realising Kennedy has been shot, Warhol finally sobers up to the reality that he, too, has suffered the same fate. His sense of the body is articulated not only through its mere physicality, but mirrored by that of the all-seeing optics of the television.

What these point to, is not the alienation of the self from the body, but its increasing fragmentation. As the networking of the world intensifies, both body and itsdemise become increasingly visible. Our sense of the self is multiplied into the bodies that we feel with, see with and more importantly, are seen with. We feel, see and are seen not only through our own bodies but in the  ways we engage with others. Our bodies are not actually extinguished any differently from times past; instead, what is produced out of this new urban condition is a change in the way that we choose to perceive and talk about death/Death/dying amongst others. Death no longer ends at death.

The urban body is no longer its physical singularity, but one put together by the multiplicity of voices in various mediums. This body exists amidst contradictions: on one hand, television tells us that the world and everyone in it is dying. On the other, science tells us that the human body now lives longer, better, prouder. Death represents not the end, but the formation of new legacies and debates that sustain themselves through the media, literature and art.

We can now choose to think about death as the prologue of an urban body; as our sense of self divides across the multiple bodies we watch , the self persists beyond its respective deaths, spilling out onto the tabloids, obituaries and online videos by people that also claim our own body.


This is the first in a series of written perspectives on how the urban and the body manifest in the other, in a running accompaniment to the visual art exhibition called, well, urban body. Nine artists will present visual provocations–in a bid to expose and make tangible the cityscapes of our formed selves.

A published compilation of both art and essay will be available at the exhibition.

urban body opens on 2 august 2012. For details and updates, check out the event page on facebook.

Copyright © 2012 Author. This article may be downloaded, reproduced, and distributed without permission as long as each copy includes this notice along with citation information (i.e., name of the site in which it originally appeared, date of publication, and author’s name). Permission must be obtained in order to reprint this article in a published work or in order to offer it for sale in any form.

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This entry was posted on July 2, 2012 by in Exhibitions, Others and tagged , , , .

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