Saturday, January 20, 2007


The recent decapitation of Saddam Hussein's half brother during his execution by hanging reminded me, believe it or not, of an art exhibit I saw a few years ago. It was at the Hirschorn Museum, part of the Smithsonian Collection, in Washington, D.C. I don't remember the name of the artist, but let's just say that to call him avant garde is a major understatement. It was probably the weirdest art exhibit I've ever been to but was nevertheless enjoyable.

One of the pieces of the exhibit was in a pitch black room. After you stood in the room for 30 seconds or so, a light came on to reveal a poster in front of you. The poster told the story of a doctor during the French Revolution who was interested in seeing how long the human brain remained conscious after it was separated from the body. This being the French Revolution, he had plenty of opportunities to study it.

The poster went on to describe a beheading where the doctor continued to talk to a head after the guillotine dropped and separated it from its body. He described the face's expressions and reactions in some detail, noting that the head remained conscious for about 50 seconds - about the time, the poster's last line read, that it took you to read this poster. Then the lights went out and the room was pitch black again.

It was an eerie feeling standing in the dark room. I don't think a better demonstration of the length of time the head remained conscious could be made. What was the head feeling during this time? Was he feeling a sore neck? Did he have a headache? Could he feel his body? Why do we find such macabre things interesting?

Answers to those questions require further study, I guess. I moved on to the next room, where the artist had a movie of a bug moving its legs over and over again. Beauty in art, I suppose, is in the eye of the beholder.


Blogger Awesome Mom said...

I do find it interesting to think about but I would never volunteer to be a part of that study.

11:24 PM  
Anonymous CAK, Chris and Vic said...

This may sound cynical . . . but I think some oddities are interesting because the observer and/or the discoverer may be bored. I think somebody should write a book about the creativity, the lengths we go to to discover novelty; the insatiable need for {mental and physical} stimulation, born of boredom.

Kids who push the limits in classrooms, and who teachers label as unfocused or as behaviorsl problems may be bored. Maybe the creator of the exhibit(s) you talk about did so out of boredom---you know "It was somethin' to do."

11:52 PM  
Blogger Ninotchka said...

What I want to know is:

What did he say to them?

12:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

what ninotchka said.truly fascinating to me in a macabre kinda way,i do wonder if the head can think,at least for a few moments.but i wouldn't ever volounteer either, awesome mom,lol.and besides that,aren't we in the 21st century now? what kinda gov't mind does it take to behead someone?,even inadvertently?shudder....

6:36 AM  
Anonymous Bugs said...

All I can say is...EW!!!!!pytwna

3:26 PM  
Blogger Lisa said...

I remember reading about this in some European history book in college. From what I remember there were a few outliers whose heads were conscience into the minutes. I found it quite fascinating... especially the descriptions of facial expressions and the like.

12:42 AM  
Anonymous Long Time Listener said...

Do we want to know what it is like hovering literally on the brink of death? Do we want to know if our version of heaven (if we believe in it) exists? Do we want to know if there is simply nothing? Our knowledge of our mortality is part of what makes us human. The more we can learn about that moment of crossing out of our mortality- the more we seek to control it maybe?
Crickey. Time for a lie down now.

8:12 AM  
Blogger neonataldoc said...

Thanks for the good comments. I liked the one that said "crickey," because that's sort of the way I felt after the exhibit.

By the way, does anyone know of a dictionary with blogosphere abbreviations? I've got lol and some others figured out, but bugs, pytwna has me stumped.

12:15 PM  
Anonymous katszeye said...

It looks like the artist/exhibit you saw is by Douglas Gordon.

Here is a link to an article about the exhibit:

12:53 PM  
Anonymous Bugs said...

but bugs, pytwna has me stumped.

I have to laugh!!! I must not have clicked the box for the word verification right and typed the "code" into the body of my post.

I'll do better!

7:37 PM  
Blogger neonataldoc said...

Thanks, bugs. I'm laughing at myself now.

9:26 PM  
Anonymous Ursa said...

I was in Mexico City in January of 2001 on a school trip, and a friend and i found ourselves with some downtime. Earlier that day we'd seen an add for a torture museum, and, young and naive, we decided to go see it.

The guillotine experiments you mention were discussed, as were several other forms of torture. (For instance, i'm now painfully aware of exactly what water torture is.) The thing that stuck with me the most was the notion that decapitation doesn't kill you instantly, that it takes at least several seconds. I found that incredibly chilling, even as numb as i was from wandering past numerous forms of cruelty and pain.

12:44 PM  
Anonymous poptart said...

There's a cult movie called Curdled that asks the same question. The main character becomes obsessed with decapitation. Rather a funny film, though. Quentin Tarantino directed, IIRC.

2:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You people are ill.....

3:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not the sort of discussion I expected on a blog by a Neonatologist. I'm wondering if this is an aberration or if I should get my kid out of the NICU right away. Sign me,

3:26 AM  
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1:40 AM  

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