21 Grams

November 17th, 2009

A few weeks ago we euthanized our cat Rebecca, who was nearly eighteen years old. Her kidneys were failing, she couldn’t walk, and she was suffering. We took her to the vet, stayed with her while the overdose of anesthesia was administered, and were with her when she died. One moment she was our beloved pet, and the next there was a lifeless body. The feeling of loss was palpable, as though suddenly there was a vacuum created when life left her.

Rebecca (1991-2009)

Rebecca 1991-2009

As I wrote in “Being and Nothingness,” “… our soul, our spark of life, is an energy that is released from our bodies but still exists. I’ve never studied physics–never even took Physics for Poets and Jocks in college–but my layman’s take on the Law of the Conservation of Energy bolstered that view….”

In the May 1907 publication of the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, Dr. Duncan MacDougall published his theory that shortly after we die, we lose 21 grams of weight, which he believed to be the soul departing the body. Based on his experiments, Duncan concluded that dogs do not have a soul. But sheep do. Really. Sheep. So basically Duncan was an idiot. Think about it. Sheep but not dogs. So forget I even mentioned it. Maybe we don’t lose 21 grams when we die. Or maybe we do, but it’s not our soul; It’s air, waste, whatever. But still, there is a definite change in the moment when one dies. When the candle is extinguished. When the light goes out in King Kong’s eye.

Everyone. 21 grams. The weight of a stack of five nickels. The weight of a chocolate bar. The weight of a hummingbird. – 21 Grams

Last Friday evening I was at Gallagher and Lindsey Realtors in Alameda, where I curate satellite exhibits for the Frank Bette Center for the Arts. I was on hand for the 2nd Friday Estuary Art Attack, of which G&L is a member gallery. After an hour or so I nipped over to Autobody Fine Art to check out their exhibit “La Isla De Los Muertos.” (You can walk everywhere in Alameda. I love that.) There were altars and skeletons, as expected. What I didn’t expect was the photograms.

A photogram is “a photographic image made without a camera by placing objects directly onto the surface of a photo-sensitive material such as photographic paper and then exposing it to light. The result is a negative shadow image varying in tone, depending on the transparency of the objects used. Areas of the paper that have received no light appear white; those exposed through transparent or semi-transparent objects appear grey.”

Photogram of Chip

Photogram of Chip (2008)

Adrienne Bolsega, aka Opal Essence, exhibits two photograms of a dog named Chip. Her statement reads, “Chip was Adrienne’s neighbor’s dog. When he came to be photographed he was dying. Adrienne placed him on the paper and he layed down, peacefully, allowing his soul to float onto the paper. The resulting images are more than just a print. They capture the moment when life is barely left in the physical body and the soul is liberating itself.”

Q: Does a dog have a buddha nature?
A: Mu.
– Japanese Koan

Triangle Photogram of Chip

Triangle Photogram of Chip (2008)

I stood there looking at these images, thinking about my cat who had just died. I choked up, as did the woman next to me, who was thinking of her dog who died more than a decade earlier. Viewing these photograms didn’t make me sad. It was more like watching the end of “Ghost,” when Patrick Swayze is walking into the light. He says to Demi Moore, “It’s amazing, Molly. The love inside, you take it with you. See ya.” And you reach for your hanky. (Please don’t give me a hard time about the spoiler. The movie came out in 1990.)

I was reminded of Sally Mann’s “What Remains,” but mostly in how it differs from Bolsega’s work. I had written, “[Mann] recognizes that when a person dies they are no longer there, but also feels that the land is consecrated—made holy—by death. When her beloved pet dog dies, she buries it in a steel metal cage. When sufficient time has elapsed, she digs up the skeletal remains and lays them out in her studio to photograph. To disturb this animal’s grave and use it in this manner seems nothing less than desecration, robbing it of its sacredness, its holiness.”

Bolsega’s work, on the other hand, is a reverent affirmation of the dog’s lifeforce. It is bearing witness to his passage, and focuses on his soul rather than his carcass. Its observation does not interfere with the respectful disposition of his remains. The photograms–and the very fact that Bolsega thought to capture this transition–are tremendously powerful.

 “All dogs go to heaven because, unlike people, dogs are naturally good and loyal and kind.” – All Dogs Go to Heaven

If you’d like to experience this for yourself, “La Isla De Los Muertos: Day of the Dead Exhibition and Festival” continues at Autobody Fine Art through November 29.

On a lighter note, while I was at Autobody I picked up this screen printed, tea- and rust-stained patch by Henry Miyoshi of Korrupt Label.


Ironically, this image of a skeletal rat will breathe new life into my tired old jacket. It only cost me $6. And weighs about 21 grams.

Michael Singman-Aste
Postdiluvian Photo

2 responses to “21 Grams”

  1. opalminded says:

    Thank you so much for your comments on my images displayed at the Autobody Fine Art Gallery.
    The time I spent at “La Isla De Los Muertos: Day of the Dead Exhibition and Festival” was very educational and I was honored to be included in the show. There was an all woman mariachi band performing the night of the festival and they were FAB. I hope this becomes an annual event for the Autobody Fine Art Gallery, it was one of the best Day of the Dead experiences I have had.

    Thank you for responding about my photograms in such a honest way.
    The work IS powerful.
    Your response was straight from the HEART and I am extremely appreciative.

    The whole show is a treat and worth a visit, I really liked the figurative piece hanging from the rafters.

    Opal Essence

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