Woodland is an audio work that invites you to lay down in a pleasant area surrounded by trees and ferns. Placing the headphones over my ears, I settled down and listened to a placid (but not airy) voice describing – with scientific accuracy and regular poetic flourishes – the decomposition of the body after death.
Told in the present tense and the second person, the listener’s imagination is chillingly involved in the process: ‘You are cooling. . . the blood is pooling in the back of your body’. I was immediately shaken by the forensic factuality of the description, that was by turns curiously beautiful (the ground’s texture leaves the dried skin ‘branded’ with its patterns) and horrifyingly disgusting (the body bloats with gases, rips through the clothes and emits poisonous, foul-smelling fluids as it bursts).
But the experience was also strangely comforting. Why? Perhaps because it offers the fantasy of the ‘conscious dead’ in which the ego survives bodily death and oversees each stage of composition in ways that suggest immortality – we are invited to imagine our transformation into fossilised rock over millennia – an immortality that evades the psychological disintegration that is the invisible, unmentioned death process here; one that is, possibly, even harder to confront.
The contemplation of death has been an important element of Buddhist practice for several thousand years. Practitioners still visit the cremation sites of India in order to see into (and past) the fact of death. Woodland – one of four audio works by French and Mottershead – is a contemporary iteration of this ancient practice and it is well worth the effort, and the discomfort, to engage with it. The discussion it provoked with my companion afterward was as powerful as the piece itself, revealing our differing attitudes and beliefs – underpinned by exactly the same fears.