Marilyn Zusman was a rising star, a photographer notorious for her controversial subject matter and fearless realism.
Two years previously, Marilyn had won a substantial modern art award for her series of photographs of homeless teenagers in Manchester and Glasgow. These had provoked both critical acclaim and accusations of exploitation. There was something unnerving about the clarity of Marilyn’s visions of these freezing and half-starved children, misery etched on their dirty faces, the paraphernalia of cheap, nasty drug use scattered around. Because Marilyn was a middle-aged, slightly matronly figure, it was even more disturbing. People were shocked when they met her that such a ruthless vision wasn’t coming from a young, dynamic, callous-looking figure known for cocaine binges and drunken outbursts in expensive and exclusive nightclubs.
One of the pictures was especially disturbing. It depicted a boy of 14 or so – it was hard to tell because of his emaciation – sprawled on a dirty pink nylon sleeping bag in a doorway stained with vomit and urine. The boy’s face was squashed peculiarly against the paving, almost dissolving into it. It appeared that he was dead. It had pitched her name into the tabloids for the first time. Previous work depicting nudity and some South Indian road workers hauling heavy stones up a motorway embankment was unearthed and reprinted in the two-page colour spread, as evidence of her cruelty and moral poverty.
In fact, this publicity meant that she sold large amounts of prints and got a book deal, which when published sold thousands more copies than it otherwise would have done. Her dealer was delighted. After a long confidential chat, they jointly decided that controversy should be further courted. Marilyn began to overtly take pictures of the dead, which proved immensely popular.
Now a respected artist with the highest credentials, Marilyn gained access to morgues and hospitals, where she photographed corpses whole and broken, newborn and ancient, burned or squashed. She switched to black and white for this series, because the colours were garishly strong and the first, colour, prints lacked gravitas. Gravitas was essential to the work’s acceptance. So they mounted the first show and it went down a storm. Marilyn refused to appear on television, but she was interviewed for magazines and Sunday supplements. Alongside her homely, greying, hand-knit portrait, the reproductions of the melancholy cadavers appeared in all their incongruity and frailty. It was media dynamite.
Marilyn and her dealer began making rather a lot of money. As a follow-up, Marilyn gained access to a forensic research facility, a ‘body farm’, where bodies ‘donated to science’ by their previous inhabitants lay in the open for months, even years, so that the process of decomposition could be studied. Marilyn took pictures of the rotting corpses and their current inhabitants, the maggots and beetles and millipedes that were the vanguard of putrefaction. She took pictures of bellies swollen with gas and reeking fluids, and frazzled, gaping half-clad skeletons, a few tufts of gingery hair remaining. Marilyn also went to archaeological sites and photographed ancient skeletons, crouched in their small irregular holes, stained with rust and verdigris, the only remains of their earthly possessions. She photographed mummies in museums, desiccated and fragile, the power and influence which they had once wielded still evidenced by the reverence with which they were handled.
The resulting show cleverly contrasted this reverence for the long-dead with the cavalier treatment and deliberate decay of the newly dead. Again, it was a sensation, and Marilyn began to be feted as a philosopher as well as an artist. There were some who said that her work was becoming sublime. Marilyn started to believe her own publicity. She appeared on television now, as an interviewee or a pundit. She talked in a measured, rather old-fashioned accent, with just the slightest hint of her Cornish background. Although Marilyn was always careful to dress staidly in Laura Ashley prints and large cardigans for these appearances, actually Marilyn was a millionaire and an international celebrity. She received invites to showbiz parties and charity fashion events, although she never accepted them.
Marilyn’s exposure to death and hardship had, in fact, made her rather a cold fish. Her TV persona was a carefully marshalled caricature, a kind and respectable front upon which mud would not stick and scandal could not rain. In reality Marilyn would have liked to dye her hair, have some surgery, wear expensive clothes and take a young and handsome lover. But so far, there was not quite enough money, and fame itself had not yet grown stale.
Marilyn had gone to London to see her dealer. They had to talk about the third book/show which they had agreed would be the last of the death series. Marilyn now thought that it might be her last work of any kind. For her, the lure of the life she desired had overtaken the desire to make art – a desire she had been fulfilling for nearly all of her sixty years now.
“Jerry”, she said as his secretary withdrew from his expensive office, “I’ve come to a decision. I’m going to do this last lot, and then I’m going to die.”
She left the phrase hanging there in order to see his reaction. Jerry looked suitably surprised.
“Yes, I’m going to disappear, fake my own death, and become anonymous. Then I’m going to become another woman, Jerry, and I’m going to enjoy the fruits of all this goddam labour, I’m going to drink, Jerry, to lay beside swimming pools in diamonds, sipping cocktails, and by hell, Jerry, I’m going to fuck like the very devil!”
Jerry’s mouth fell wider open. It was hard even for Marilyn’s closest accomplice to reconcile the heart of the woman with the cardigans and sensible shoes. People are easily fooled by appearances.
Jerry’s shoulders dropped several inches.
“Okay, Mar, okay. I thought for a moment you meant the real thing! But okay. I sympathise. I guess I’m already enjoying the high life, and I admire your fortitude, keeping up appearances and so on. Just a year or so more and you can drop the front, and go off and turn yourself into whoever you want to be. But first things first. The new work.” He steepled his fingers and attached them to his chin. Over this construction he considered her, and waited for her reply. Marilyn was the genius. Jerry had the phone numbers.
“It has to be more extreme. So far it’s been the passive dead. Now I want the angry dead! I want murder victims! Violence! I’m in an angry mood and I’m going to find angry corpses!” Marilyn got up and paced with energy around the office, pausing to look at a huge print of a desiccated and papery torso which she had found in a ditch at the forensic facility.
“Don’t you think it will be going too far? Not to mention getting relatives to sign the releases…”
“Then we’ll get them from places where you don’t need permissions. I’m serious, Jerry,” she said after seeing his face. It was Jerry who fielded the calls and took the flak, who persuaded the galleries and publishers that this work was not gratuitous, was in fact very important. “I’ve got the money and I’ve got the contacts lined up. I’m planning to go out to Darfur and work over there, but I’m also getting some imported to work with over here.”
“Imported? Imported? Are you crazy? There is no way on earth that they are going to let you import bodies. And no-one is going to accept war-zone work – it’s not a new concept. It’s reportage, for fuck’s sake! Come on, I know there’s better than this!” Jerry was exasperated. But Marilyn was not perturbed.
“Jerry, I’m still your employer. I do the work that I want to do, and if you really can’t sell it, then that’s a problem. But you cannot tell me what to photograph! You can’t suddenly pretend that you are the one with any idea of what will be art or not!” (Here she conveniently ignored Jerry’s twenty years at the top of the art world) “You’ll see. This will be the best work ever. And it will be so poignant, so shocking and touching, that everyone will understand why I chose to end it all afterwards. You’ll see.”
And Marilyn sat down, took out some plans, sketches and ideas, and began to explain them to Jerry.
Two weeks later, Marilyn flew to Africa and started work. She set up a network of desperate contacts, with whom her dollars went a long way. She organised an aeroplane, refrigeration, and a collection of vehicles. Then she travelled around with a group of soldiers, no more than children, photographing the scenes of violent death and chaos that they encountered daily. But Jerry was right, really. In this work there was nothing that an experienced journalist could not have captured, and perhaps, less insight than such a photographer might have achieved. So she returned to England and began the arrangements at that end. Marilyn worked in Cornwall this time, at a small airstrip which she had purchased. The bodies, mutilated and torn, began to arrive, in cold storage. They were mostly the corpses of black people but sometimes white. She went to a wrecker’s yard and bought some written-off cars and twisted motorbikes, just mangled heaps of metal. She even got wind of a small plane which had crashed, and bought that too. Her plan was to pose the dead bodies in the wrecks, in such a way that imparted more consciousness of mortality than chance could achieve – chance stripped bodies found in car wrecks or lying in heaps of all personality, made them passive, and these she wanted to stare defiantly at the viewer, discomfiting and worrying them.
She set to work, rolling the bodies around on trolleys and stretchers, heaving them into position with surprising strength and posing them to her will. She pried eyes open, glued crushed flowers into hands, arranged adults in smashed cars which had children beneath the wheels. She sat the dead in position so that they appeared to be staring, glassy-eyed at the camera.
And gradually, a sense came over her, an unearthly sense, but one which she was aiming for: that the dead were not gone, not at all. All the corpses she had photographed before had been far away, lifeless matter, empty flesh that in no way except the most superficial resembled human beings. These were different.
And they began to whisper to her “Marilyn, Marilyn, turn me around,” they’d suggest, “I’ve been in a few pics already, I don’t want to be recognised!” “Marilyn, Marilyn, try propping me up with that piece of metal, I want to be able to look right out past the camera and into the world!”
At first, unnerving though it was, Marilyn thought these comments were just a reaction of her own mind, a kind of fracturing to create the distance she needed to be able to make this work. One morning she came out to the airfield, very very early because she liked dawn light, and she found several corpses crammed into the wreck of a Maserati which had arrived yesterday.
“Jerry!” she yelled down the phone, “Some bastard has found out!” The bodies were kept locked up in the cold storage unit, to which she had the only key. “I don’t know how they’ve done it – the lock’s intact, but the door is open, all the bodies are rapidly decomposing, and I’m sure the police will be here any minute!”
“Calm down, I’ll be with you as soon as I can – I’ll get the next train. Go home. Clear up as much as you can and go home. If the phone rings, or anyone knocks, don’t answer. I’ll text you when I get there. But just calm down!”
Actually Jerry was just as freaked out. He’d always had his doubts about this project. He just prayed to god that there was anything he could do.
Meanwhile Marilyn began to shift the bodies back into the cold store. She heaved the first one onto the stretcher. As her hands touched the corpse, that of a young man with a large ragged gunshot wound in his chest, its eyes sprang open. She jumped back, startled. It was probably some effect of delayed rigor mortis. But the corpse grabbed her hand.
“Marilyn, Marilyn, make me famous! I want to drive that red car!”
Marilyn turned, and ran. She couldn’t waste energy screaming, she just ran, her head pounding, feeling that she could faint at any moment, her vision made into a tunnel by dark enclosing specks which swarmed thicker and thicker, until she was running blind into the dark, and she lost the fight with unconsciousness and fell.
When she awoke, she was at home, lying on the sofa. The sun was high in the sky, but there were no policemen in evidence. At first she consoled herself with the thought that it had all been a dream, but then she heard Jerry’s voice on the phone.
“Yes, I’m really concerned. ‘She’s such a tough old bird, but something weird seems to have happened this time… Uh-huh…well, I’ll call you back later…no, nothing, thank god…okay, Louis, speak to you later – bye.”
Jerry came over, looking worried. “Are you okay?” I found you lying out there – I’m not sure how long you’d been out of it – must have been a few hours. Want to see a doctor?”
“What about the – the – ” she could not even say the word ‘corpses’.
“No, you did great, not a sign of any –, or any mess. I’ve put the word out about who might have been poking around – it’s bound to be some local kids, nothing to do round here…”
“No, no Jerry! I didn’t manage to clear any of it up!” now she was really scared. It meant she must be losing it, that it was finally getting to her. This was the end.
“Well, my dear, whatever happened, it’s all cleared away now, and you’ve nothing to worry about right now. Just get some rest, and I’ll organise some food.” Jerry meant order some food – he couldn’t even make toast.
It took several months for the show to be ready. Much of the developing work was done by assistants, who had never been to site, and only knew about the trip to Darfur. The pictures were startlingly good, and gave one a sneaking suspicion that the dead do not go away, after all, but retain some power over their bodies, and therefore the world of matter. This power seemed to shine out of the open eyes and defiant faces of these war- and accident-ravaged people. Marilyn was hardly ever at her studio, she found that her nerves jangled when she saw any of the pictures, and especially ones featuring the dead man who had featured in her awful vision.
In the end she could not even supervise the hanging, but left it to her most trusted assistant, with some instructions. It didn’t matter very much – the work was so strong that you could have hung it in a dark cowshed and the critics would respond. And it made her plan to fake her own death much more convincing. Everyone was worried about her already.
She went along to the show that night dressed soberly, looking a little pale. She chatted quietly to some journalists and to some friends. Inside she triumphed and almost forgot to stay in character. This work was the best received yet! Everyone was commenting on how her ‘immense sensitivity’ was bringing the dead to life in the photographs! There were close questions about Darfur, which she could, of course, answer in all honesty. And she looked shaken by this work, very shaken. Jerry was delighted. Finally, the yacht of his dreams was in sight! And a gorgeous model was chatting him up! Flattering him! They were home free!
Marilyn wandered around a different corner, into a side room she’d not yet visited. There was a giant print of a crushed Maserati. In the driver’s seat, a young man with a ragged gunshot wound lolled, hands still on the wheel. In front of the car a beautiful woman lay sprawled, dress torn open to reveal her breasts, and bruised and broken body.
Marilyn stood gaping. A critic sidled up to her.
“That one’s amazing. How on earth did you find these scenes? Of course, it’s as much a matter of chance, but then the angles you’ve managed, and the light – so delicate, not at all African.”
“Yes,” came a decidedly African voice from behind them. “Yes. It was hard work, very tiring, and of course – we weren’t used to the cold. But the effect is astounding. I’m very proud to have been a part of it.” Marilyn spun around to see the young man from the picture. Standing there. Gaping wound, obviously dead and a little the worse for wear after so many weeks, muddy from the pit in which he’d been buried after the site was closed down. The critic smiled nervously and backed away. He thought it was some kind of stunt. A weird stunt, but convincing.
The young man just stood and looked at Marilyn. “I know it’s not as good as yours,” he said, “but we’ve not got your experience. Thanks for including it anyway. Bernadette will be very happy.”
“Bernadette?…. I, I,…” Marilyn’s voice trailed off.
“The girl there, Bernadette. She was a nun, of course, killed by the militia after they did god knows what to her. But you’ve, we’ve, given her a new lease of life, a chance to be happy here in the UK.” As he spoke, bewildering Marilyn completely, Bernadette limped into the room. Rather sickening noises accompanied her steps – her legs were broken and bent out of shape. Bernadette was grinning broadly, and her eyes lit up when she saw the huge photo of herself.
Marilyn backed out of the room and back into the main room. Now she knew she was losing it. She needed a drink.
But in the main room she saw that all her ‘models’ were mixing with the guests. They all looked excited and happy, and were talking loudly. And the other guests were looking horrified. Not at the models, but at her. She was a phoney. She’d posed live models and made then up to look as if they had terrible injuries! The models were describing the airstrip, and how the shed in which they’d stayed had been so very cold, and everyone’s faces were growing dark, angry, as if she’d brought some poor refugees over here and treated them cruelly in order to make art! But these people were dead, didn’t they understand?
“They are dead!” she suddenly yelled. It was beyond her control. Silence descended. It was in poor taste. Or perhaps it was part of the show, no-one really knew. The make-up that that models were wearing was very, very good. She ran over to a boy with a huge gash in his neck
“Look! Look!” she remembered that this boy’s neck was chopped almost through and that his head has swung back and almost fallen off when she was positioning him. She grabbed his head and pulled it back slightly, but it resisted. “He’s dead! His head was falling off!”
Blank and disgusted stares met her all around. She ran again, propelled by the horror as she had been at the airstrip. My god, she thought, I’m actually mad, but I’m sane enough to realise it! The models uttered piercing ululations and ran after her, out into the street.
And so it was ever after. Marilyn was pursued by all her African models wherever she went. They insisted that she take their pictures at Disneyland, in the Caribbean whilst shark fishing, and skiing in the Alps. “You made us live!” they sang happily when she protested. “Just one more photo!”
Meanwhile the corpses spent all her money and eroded all her acclaim. No-one was really sure what had happened. Her insistence on retaining this entourage of poor refugees dressed up as increasingly dilapidated cadavers might have been a great artistic and political statement, but it was disturbingly exploitative, smelly, and frankly bonkers.
The only photos she took now were hasty snaps, capturing the final moments of the rotting models, who insisted on immortality with increasing urgency as their flesh collapsed and withered. And when they finally mouldered entirely, Marilyn had them ‘interred’, at their insistence, in a large mansion in the Italian Riviera, piles of dusty bones ranged in front of large TV sets, arguing about what to watch, and demanding constant attention.
Eventually Marilyn left them there. A trust fund serviced the house, and she found a couple of staff unscrupulous enough to manage the place without asking any questions. She got into a tiny boat and sailed away. The servants immediately collected up the piles of bones and threw them into the ocean. The mad woman would not return, and so they lived in the house themselves at her expense. The voices of the dead models rose up from the ocean and drove Marilyn on her little boat out into the Atlantic. And there they dragged her down to an unquiet eternity with them under the sea. And they complained all the time that she hadn’t brought her camera.