her get progressively yellower from jaundice, and eventually die. When I asked my father, “When is she going to get better?”, I remember him saying, that she was not. I knew what dead animals were like, but this was the first person who was close to me who died. It had a big impact.
David: In what way?
Alex: I felt life’s impermanence, that this body is temporary. Maybe it indirectly fueled the commitment to my work. I think that every artist or anyone who is trying to accomplish something before their own death has the specter of death grinning over their shoulder .
David: Meaning the sense of urgency that death gives you because you feel the constraint of the time-limit on your life’s work?
Alex: Right. You have to appreciate each day, and do what you can while you’re alive.
David: What was it like working as an embalmer in a morgue?
Alex: I worked in a morgue and a museum of anatomy. I created displays on the history of medicine and disease. I once did an exhibit on bladder stones.
David: What’s a bladder stone?
Alex: Well, it’s like mineral deposits in the bladder.
David: Like a kidney stone?
Alex: Yeah. They used to get rather large and painful, making it difficult to pee, before the invention of ultra-sound detection. Medical science developed ways of cutting for the stone. The museum had a collection of bladder stones, kidney stones, and gall stones, and the surgical tools used to operate on them. They had collections of weird stuff, like a hairball the size of a human stomach taken from a guy who worked in a wig factory and ate hair. There was a skeleton of a guy who had such bad rickets that he pushed himself around in a big wooden bowl. We had specimens of malformations that you rarely see today. Medical science can intercede more effectively and faster now. In the museum there were jars with siamese twins of all different kinds– connected at the head, connected at the thorax, connected every which way. That was the most astonishing collection.
Then there was the morgue work. I would accept bodies when the funeral home brought them in. It was a medical school morgue, so we prepared the bodies for dissection. When a new body came in, if no one else was there, I would do a simplified Tibetan Book of the Dead ritual, calling their name, and encouraging them to go toward the light.
David: Wait, was this on your own that you did this?
Alex: It was not with the permission (laughter) of the medical school. “Oh, he’s over there reading the Bardo to the dead guy.” No, it wasn’t standard operating procedure there at the morgue, but I couldn’t with full consciousness accept these bodies as pieces of meat. Their spirit might still be hovering around the physical body.
David: You definitely felt presences around you?
Alex: Oh, I definitely felt it. Maybe it’s a projection of my fear of death. I might die today or maybe tomorrow. It’s going to happen but I don’t know when. There’s also a simultaneous repugnance and fear — terror in a way — an awesome energy — the Mysterium Tremendum of one’s life. Lifes limitations are confronting. Basic questions of selfhood arise– Who am I? What am I? If life and mind goes on after death, where does it go? All those questions come, like a freight train, through your mind whenever you’re with dead people.
There was the work-a-day stuff that I did. I had to pump the bodies full of phenol and formalin, a kind of embalming fluid. I didn’t drain the blood before putting in the embalming fluid, like in a commercial morgue. Gallons and gallons of embalming fluid would saturate the body, and it would puff up. All kinds of nauseating substances would ooze from every orifice during that process. Then it would drain off a little bit, and you’d wrap it up. Put a little lanolin on the hands and face, wrap them like a mummy, and stick them in the freezer. Occasionally there would be a request from a professor for only particular organs, or particular appendages, like hands were needed once to train hand surgeons. I had to hacksaw off dozens of pairs of hands.
David: I don’t understand. Why did you have to do that?
Alex: Well, there was a convention of hand surgeons doing a workshop. They needed a lot of hands to study and dissect.
David: These people had donated their bodies?
Alex: Right. But the hand surgeons, for instance, didn’t need the whole body, so somebody had to go and hacksaw off the hands, or the head. Now the head… that was a more intense thing. They had a kind of chainsaw-like device and you could create kind of a sculpture bust… down the shoulders, and then across the middle. You’d have a head, which you’d stick on a tray, and take to the place. That was wild. That was too much.
David: How old were you when you were doing this?
Alex: Around twenty to twenty four.
David: And how did this affect you emotionally?
Alex: It was an unforgettable experience. I felt like I probably could have declined, but then I would never have had that experience in this lifetime. It’s doubtful, except in the case of a psychotic murderer, that anyone would have that experience outside of a medical school where dismemberment is part and parcel of the daily activities. Maybe if you were a Tibetan funeral preparator doing sky-burials, you chop up the bodies.
David: Have you gotten to hold a human brain in your hand?
Alex: Oh yeah, plenty of times, and to me that’s the most amazing thing, just to hold the brain. I teach anatomy now for artists at NYU, and we go to a medical school anatomy lab. They always have brains with the spinal cord attached. All those fine threads of neurons, it’s awesome.
David: It’s incredible to hold a brain in your hands, and know that’s where the person’s whole life experience took place. Have you noticed that when you look at a dead body, and compare it to them when they were alive, it doesn’t even look like them anymore without the animating muscles?
Alex: Yeah, I’ve noticed that.
David: As though the animating force, which tenses and holds together the facial muscles, just isn’t there anymore.
Alex: Right. There’s complete relaxation and no tension at all left. If a body came in that had been dead for a few days in the Summer, there was a completely different coloration than if they came in Winter. Bodies prepared by funeral directors are obviously fixed-up to match the person you might have known.
David: So would you use a photograph to work from?
Alex: We never got into that. Although, I used to do make-up work on my own, and worked with morticians wax to create make-up effects, like Quasimodo and other monsters, but that was not part of the job description there. The medical school diener just embalms and prepares the bodies for dissection, or for simple burial afterwards.
David: How did you become involved in performance art?
Alex: Well, that happened when I went to art school in 1970-71.
David: Which was where?
Alex: Columbus College of Art and Design in Columbus, Ohio. I was there for two years. I started reading art magazines, and read about artists like Vito Acconci and Chris Burden, and the so-called “body artists.” There were a number of Viennese actionists, who worked in Austria. I got to meet one of those guys, a fellow named Otto Muehl. In the Sixties they did performances that were very violent and sexual. They used a swans head to enter a women, and then cut off the swans head in orgiastic displays of passion, throwing the blood around. Hermann Nitsch, one of the Viennese actionists, continues to do these kinds of performances where they slaughter lambs, and let the entrails fall all over nude figures strapped up underneath a sort of crucified lamb.
They’re very grisly, and supposedly cathartic displays of performance energy. This fellow Muehl started a place called Actions Analysis Organization. It was based on LSD use, communal living and Wilhelm Reich’s bodywork. Muehl was a cross between Charlie Manson and a Neo-Reichian bodyworker. He was a charismatic character, and was my introduction to performance work. Soon after that, in ’72 I started working with dead animals myself. It seemed appropriate since I had worked with dead animals early on, that I should get back to examining the subject of mortality. Many artists, even well known artists today, who are working with meaning and content (rather that formal concerns) often use performance or installation art to express themselves, rather than painting. Painting that is rich in meaning and narrative content has been given short shrift during this century, since modernism.
David: Are you including people like Laurie Anderson?
Alex: She does create some content-driven work. Chris