Author: Sakib Shahriar
Thanatology was a hotly-disputed conceptual art movement from the moment of its inception. Artists who identified themselves with the movement often explored feelings and sensations of death and decay, whether through paintings and visual art, performance pieces, or self-experiments.
Art critic Oscar Ries argues that thanatology formed in response to widespread ecological and economic collapse taking place in the modern world. Thanatologist Mildred Rosters often addresses the fear of death and disappearing from the world in her work: “Many of our oppressive institutions still in place today function on the fear of death—on the desire for permanent security from decay. If we can let go of this fear, if we can accept our eventual disappearance from the life of the Earth, perhaps we may yet save ourselves from the climate disasters we currently live, or perhaps we may at least stop inflicting systemic violence against our own people.”
Many of thanatology’s founding members, including Rosters, Michel Gagnon, and Agnes Toyokawa, were accused of promoting and romanticizing death and suicide. Gagnon in particular gained infamy when he was arrested in Highland Park, California on loitering and public indecency charges; he was running a streetside public art installation where he pretended to be bleeding out on the sidewalk for three hours.
Hayatul Rahman was much lesser known outside the insider artist circles of thanatology. Rahman was interested in beginning processes of decay and necrosis on her own body while she still lived. Though many thanatologists experimented on themselves, Rahman was notable for how much farther she pushed her own experiments compared to her contemporaries.
Many of Rahman’s pieces fall somewhere between art and science. Initially trained as a molecular biologist, her early pieces involved viral engineering, often having a virus localize to a specific body part or organ to create a controlled zone of necrosis. In later works, she explored extreme living conditions, including month-long fasts and extended sensory deprivation.
Rahman first gained recognition among other thanatologists through “Opposable,” a 3-day private art demonstration she held in July of 2057 in her New York apartment. Invited friends and fellow artists spent the 3 days living and feasting with each other, while Rahman’s thumbs slowly decayed via a localized virus until they became unusable altogether. Rahman wanted to explore the possibilities of communal life in the face of decay: “I slowly grew incapable of simple tasks like gripping things in my hands; more and more I had to rely on the people around me to do chores I was used to doing, like cooking and cleaning.”
Rahman’s most recent performance piece, “Infinite Life,” involves creating and injecting into herself a venom that cuts off her brain-body connection and slows her oxygen consumption to a minimum, entering her into a prolonged and indefinite death-like state without her body immediately decaying or becoming necrotic.
In her artistic statement for the piece before she entered into dying, Rahman mentions growing fascinated with jewel wasps producing a similar venom for cockroaches, so that their larvae can incubate near and feed on the incapacitated cockroach’s body. She also notes: “The length of this performance piece is indefinite. My body will sustain itself for an unknown period of time, and I’ve asked my partner to note the date and time at which my body finishes dying, after which point I will be buried under special request without a coffin at Centennial Park Cemetery, Pasadena, California.”
Conceptual artist and experimental thanatologist Hayatul Rahman entered into dying on October 14th, 2075. She leaves behind her wife and two children.