On Saturday night I went to an opening at the Museum with a girl wearing a beautiful red dress and nothing underneath. Many other people were there, great conversant crowds, but they seemed like ghosts, drifting in shoals -- shoals of ghosts, that's how it is these days.
In a small, black-walled room we found a simple installation by Douglas Gordon. Some white text on the wall. A naked light bulb illuminating it. Something like this.
In 1905 an experiment was performed in France where a doctor tried to communicate with a condemned man's severed head immediately after the guillotine execution.
"Immediately after the decapitation, the condemned man's eyelids and lips contracted for 5 or 6 seconds. I waited a few seconds and the contractions ceased, the face relaxed, the eyelids closed halfway over the eyeballs so that only the whites of the eyes were visible, exactly like dying or newly deceased people.
"At that moment I shouted 'Languille' in a loud voice, and I saw that his eyes opened slowly and without twitching, the movements were distinct and clear, the look was not dull and empty, the eyes which were fully alive were indisputably looking at me. After a few seconds, the eyelids closed again, slowly and steadily.
"I addressed him again. Once more, the eyelids were raised slowly, without contractions, and two undoubtedly alive eyes looked at me attentively with an expression even more piercing than the first time. Then the eyes shut once again. I made a third attempt. No reaction. The whole episode lasted between twenty-five and thirty seconds."
. . . on average, it should take between twenty-five and thirty seconds to read the above text.
In fact it takes between thirty-five and forty seconds. But after thirty, the light goes out and you are in utter darkness. In the little room you have died. You must wait in the darkness -- not long, perhaps a minute -- until the light bulb comes back on for another thirty seconds, and then you may finish reading, thinking of death.
We wandered through the other installations -- two enormous screens showed an elephant, in a room, slowly falling to its knees -- but kept returning to the little room with the black walls.
People shuffled in and out, silent. When the room went black, the end of Languille's consciousness, we groped each other, my hand slipping up the back of her dress, her breath on my collarbone. The warm unobstructed flesh. Then the light came back on, and we read about the guillotine again.