Breasts will sag, butts, and fat little bellies. But in the drawing “Hangend vlees en twee lijnen” (Hanging meat and two lines) by Otto Egberts the meat is, though hairless, not clearly any specific body part. It would have been easy to add a nipple, but luckily Egberts didn’t, as the work is not about women, or how old people look on the beach. It is about mortality.
The small exhibition in the print cabinet of Museum Boijmans van Beuningen is called “Dust Made Flesh”, a series of drawings Egberts made around 1990 but seems, because of the use of brown wrapping paper, to be made in the thirties. In the drawings the body is dissected, as if the maker searches for the ghost in the machine by cutting it up. Drawing is to him an attempt to bridge the gap between body and mind. His work is “a solidified extension of my hands”.
“Hanging meat and two lines” is an intriguing drawing, firstly because of the contrast between flesh and lines. Flesh is organic, three-dimensional and perishable; while a line is something that doesn’t really exist, it is an abstract concept: the connection between two points, or a point that goes into one direction, infinitely.
The flesh and lines are drawn as recesses in black. When looking at the flesh this black seems a dark space. But around the lines, the black seems a surface in which the lines could be cuts, through where light seeps. Maybe like skin.
The last thing that causes tension in the drawing is the hanging itself, that can’t go on forever: if meat is already stretched that much because of hanging, then sometime it must fall. And where? Where is the end of this dark space? The drawing seems to want to present things in an orderly fashion but by doing so raises questions. The gap between the physical and the abstract, the mind, is not simply determined by hanging them next to each other.
The drawing makes me think of a dream: sharp lines are stretched toward their vanishing point, and over it sausage-like shapes have to be pushed with my thoughts. They never reach the end but I am not allowed to stop pushing. This is the nightmare I had as a child when I had a fever. Body and mind worked together to make me a little Sisyphus of thinking.
Years later a scene from the movie Apocalypse Now grabbed my attention; in it a voice says “I watched a snail crawl along the edge of a straight razor. That’s my dream; that’s my nightmare. Crawling, slithering, along the edge of a straight razor… and surviving”. Had the screenwriter had the same dream as me, but less abstract? And what makes this vision a nightmare? Does the narrator imagine how painful it must be to be a snail? Or does he think snails scary animals that won’t die, not even from a razor?
I think the eerie tension stems from seeing something sharp and something soft and living together. We feel the snail inside our own flesh. And the slow movement over a line makes it worse, an inescapable torture instead of a quick death. Our brain imagines the abstract and unchangeable, but our bodies drag us toward decline. Our brain seems against us, and otherwise our body is.
At the same time there is comfort in thinking. We have the possibility to think outside of ourselves, to understand others and to imagine things that don’t exist. And if people take the trouble of pushing their uncooperative thoughts along thin lines to make a “solidified extension of the hands”: a drawing, a movie or a story, we can gain solace from not being the only ones.