Excerpt: ‘Vile Bodies’, by Elizabeth Caplice

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Marlene Dumas, Jule-die Vrou, 1985. Saatchi Gallery.

There are few things I crave more than formlessness for my own body. I crave a body without organs. I look at Marlene Dumas’ Jule-die Vrou and wish my own body was blurred like the red face that merges into the red background, and the head—just the head—as separate from the body. When I first encountered this painting, it moved me to tears. Even now, I’m still not sure why. It depicts a face that fills the canvas, painted in red, with red lips that dominate, and dark eyes, and a nose and chin which are smudged with orange for shape. There’s a smear of black to pull out the right side of the face and the edge of the hairline, but the red fades in and out of the background, which is the same shade of red as the foreground. There is something potent in the woman’s gaze, but what is more potent to me now is the redness: red takes on an abject quality from the blood I see drawn from my veins, and a formlessness of her face dissolving into the rest of the canvas. She drifts in and out of focus.

I crave a body without organs.

Cancer bleeds out like this, in and out of every inch of my existence, formless and heaving and dark and bloody, until every reach of who and what I am is flooded with it. This is distant from the reading I had of this painting as a 19-year-old who stared back into her eyes, open-hearted and overwhelmed by the simplicity and the beauty of the use of red and her bleeding-out face.

Part of art’s appeal to me is the tactility and the repetition, the act of making something ‘real’. There is something in the substance of objects, of complicated origami boxes and a skein of yarn, that is satisfying and grounding, and the substance of the body, which so tangibly is connected to the act of making. Yet when I draw or paint, I struggle with notions of meaninglessness. This probably was most pointed when I spent a week and a half in a psychiatric ward. It was an undramatic experience: I watched Deadwood, knitted a large brown scarf out of alpaca yarn I bought from a cheese factory in Braidwood when I was on day release, and made elaborate origami. The ward had a craft room, so I purchased a bundle of art supplies to try and draw. I would do tiny and elaborate drawings of leaves and folded origami pieces into large modular units. The drawings filled me with a strange grief: nurses and doctors and co-patients would pick them up, stare at them, and look at me, confused as they told me my drawings were amazing, and despite this praise and admiration, I knew it was based only in the fact that the drawings look good. My drawings are far from amazing: they are simply technically accurate, but dead and empty. My scarf was a pattern I altered from a book I found somewhere years ago, and I still wear it now. I made it, and it still keeps me warm, which is what I think I mean when I use the word ‘real’. It confuses me why I feel like this, when I adore paintings and strange site-specific installations and drawings so much—which I value as ‘real’—but in my own making, I internally invalidate anything that is not a pragmatic product that I can use in a tangible way.

The scar is known as a ‘chevron’ incision: it runs from the base of my sternum to an inch above my navel vertically, and horizontally from one side of my torso to the other.

I tend to be, in any sort of making, a person driven by process rather than outcomes. When I write, I do it because I like to write more than I enjoy a finished product. My spinning and knitting efforts, extensive and elaborate, often end in garments I never wear, or yarn I’ll probably never knit. What interests me is the use of my own body in the creation of these items—a creation or performance of the body and of the self through the process of writing. A part of me wants to develop a substantial practice again, based around my body, images of my body, and the process of disease. I get moments of energy and intensity where I could make the feeling and the moments I spend here, suspended between scans, abstracted in blood test results, into art and into meaning. When I write, I feel like I can do this better than in art, due to my constant terror which staring into the formless void that visual art triggers in me.

I’ve also obsessively taken selfies since my diagnosis, documenting the shifts and changes and mutations that take place on my face and body. One of the hardest photographs to share was of my post-surgical abdomen. The scar is known as a 'chevron’ incision: it runs from the base of my sternum to an inch above my navel vertically, and horizontally from one side of my torso to the other. It has puckered my skin and distorted my muscles. I have no feeling on large patches on my stomach and I probably will never regain the sensation.


This piece appears in full in The Lifted Brow #28: The Art Issue — buy a copy today (or subscribe) and we’ll post it to you immediately. Or you can read the piece online in full as part of the digital version of our magazine.

Elizabeth Caplice is an archivist on temporary hiatus, and writer.