Pushing past the door you find yourself in a room engloomed with menace, the floor strewn with straw. Suddenly you hear a slow, rhythmic pounding, as if someone is halfheartedly nailing a child's coffin. You turn to your right, past the shelves of glass jugs filled with ash, and discover that the sound is actually a sluggish drip of water beating a giant basin. Near this is a gurney awaiting a corpse, within reach of a collection of scalpels, knives and scissors: cutlery in the kitchens of Science.
On the other side of the basin is an area cut off by antiseptically white plastic drapes. Beyond the drapes is a cot (looking like some flea-ridden flophouse grab) next to a desk. The desktop is scattered with files on various victims of violent crimes along with a middle school's overhead projector and a scrapbook stuffed with clippings on commerce and crime in Portland's Southeast.
Were you to have turned left at the door, you would have entered a chamber where a dead body lies on a slab covered with a diaphanous shroud. The body is that of a rather hairy man. As you examine his corpse, he suddenly seems to come to life again, as his chest swells with air, then exhales. Commentary on the body is provided by a voice coming through nearby headphones. You discover that the stiff is freshly dead and that it has already begun to enter the first stages of putrescence. But you saw the body breathe!
Welcome to the Resurrectory.
Part performance piece, part installation, the Liminal Group and Portland Art Center's collaboration is a walk-through nightmare of old murders and archaic investigational proceedings. The Resurrectory can work on many different levels but is easily divided into two primary offerings. First, there's the installation itself, which takes up almost the entirety of PAC. This can be experienced during the day on your own (preferably alone), where you can linger over the occasionally heaving corpse or rifle through the desk's drawers to find more clues as to what has happened or has yet to happen in the space. Second, the installation becomes a set for an evening of music, movement and spoken word, best enjoyed in groups...for safety's sake.
The inspiration for this piece was a bizarre case in 1820s Edinburgh, where two men, William Burke and William Hare, began supplying the local anatomy school with ever-so-fresh bodies for dissection. Rather than soiling themselves with common grave-robbing, they beat Death to the punch and manufactured their own corpses from strangers passing their way. The anatomy-school faculty, cool rationalists all, were only too thrilled with the results.
At night, the corpse of the hairy man has attendants. There are two musicians on either side of him, while above his head stands the anatomist and lecturer (played by the marvelously impassive David Abel). Gowned and stern at a lectern, Abel's assessment of the body's decay becomes a forensic aria to decomposition. In fact, as he breaks down the corpse's breakdown through cell death and self-consumption, the body does begin to rot before our eyes. The body is, in actuality, a plaster replica, though the human features, the breathing and the disintegration of matter are supplied via film by Portland filmmaker Jim Blashfield.
In the main room, the "operating theater," the excellent Madeleine Sanford performs the prepping of corpses less as Death's handmaiden than as his showgirl. Under her proper-length chef's apron, Sanford sports a rather short skirt and fishnet stockings. But in a bow to period rectitude she does sport a bustle, bunched from a few handfuls of rubber surgical gloves. Sanford periodically demands from her underlings (Georgia Luce, Jeff Marchant, Kate Sanderson and Jacob Thomas Coleman) reenactments of how the corpses came to be, all to the accompaniment of the water drip as death knell.
Liminal has again achieved the creation of a whole world with this rueful morgue. Though the operating-theater action suffers at the moment from being too static, the overall effect is wonderfully thought-provoking and chilling. While digging around on your own during the day, you may find a little gilt hand mirror that seems to have been dropped by one of Burke's victims. On the back, anachronistically, you'll read, "Paul Shank's Safari Hotel in Scottsdale, Arizona." Then comes the threat: "Look at Yourself and Think of Us."
The Resurrectory Liminal at the Portland Art Center, 2045 SE Belmont St., 239-5481. 8-10 pm Thursdays-Saturdays. Free installation viewing only, noon-6 pm Wednesdays-Saturdays. Closes June 18. $6-$10.
burke (vt) burked; burking [William Burke, 1829, Irish criminal executed for his crime] 1: to suffocate or strangle in order to obtain a body to be sold for dissection.