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This Mortal Coil in Birmingham

25 December 2015

In the cold concrete kitchen of a former warehouse on the east side of Birmingham, Esther and I huddled naked around a small sink. We doused our faces, necks and chests with barely-warm water until, after repeated soaping, splashing and shivering, we had removed the last traces of body paint. We were chilly but happy. Our painted skin had been skeletal… we were once more on assignment for Art Macabre.

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Part 1 – an invitation

Our début Death Drawing duo poses had been for DeadFriday at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. As we returned to London that evening, our minds were alive with dreams of how we might next work together. Little did we imagine that within just four days we would be offered a new opportunity to model farther afield with Art Macabre. Director-supremo, Nikki – aka, Raven Rouge – wrote to us:

Wondering if you’d be interested in being my deathly duo again? This time an event at Vivid Projects in Birmingham. Friday 27 November, modelling 6:30pm to 8.30pm. Arriving for 6pm to be ready. Some duo poses, some individual. All with a deathly theme…

Diaries were adjusted and the gig confirmed; we would be part of This Mortal Coil.

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Part 2 – Birmingham

It had just gone half-three in the afternoon when Esther and I stepped off the train at Birmingham New Street station. For both of us this was a first-time visit to England’s erstwhile second city so, with a couple of hours to kill, we went walkabouts. Midway along New Street itself we found a colourfully festive Christmas market that reached as far as the eye could see to the east and west. Eastwards was our instinct.

We paused to partake of a little glühwein at the far end then sauntered further till we found a side alcove of St Martin in the Bull Ring church in which to rest discreetly for a while. Retracing our steps, we continued to the market’s western end. Twilight and rain had begun to fall as we took shelter with fried potatoes, mushrooms and of course, more glühwein, until it was time to find the address we’d been given.

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Part 3 – Vivid Projects

Our host for the evening was Vivid Projects, based in the Warwick Bar complex of one-time factories and workshops that now accommodates services, industry and the arts. Google Maps faithfully delivered us to 16 Minerva Works, Fazeley Street, where we buzzed for admittance and were ushered through to a vast interior. It was cold and dark and moodily Spartan, but we were glad simply to be out of the rain.

Nikki was already on the scene and well advanced in constructing an elaborate pose space for us. There was a main stage, a side room for longer poses, and a backstage area for our preparations. Heaters were many, but of limited effectiveness in such a cavernous building. She introduced us to our fellow model for this event, the wonderful Geeta von Tease, and in due course painted me a skull-face. We were ready.

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Part 4 – Death and the Maiden

As we neared 6:30pm, the warehouse began filling with patrons. Nikki emerged at the appointed time to set the scene for our evening’s entertainments and to get the artists warmed up by asking them to draw visions of death from their own imaginations. After this, Esther and I stepped forward in our robes for the first sequence of poses. It would be a reprise of the Death and the Maiden poses we’d presented in Oxford.

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© Greg Milner Photography for Vivid Projects with Art Macabre.

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© Greg Milner Photography for Vivid Projects with Art Macabre.

For 5-minutes we embraced in a twisted dance of death, each with one arm around the other’s body and our other arms high, holding hands. Next, for 7-minutes Esther feigned sleep while I hunched over her in sinister fashion, clutching a scythe. Finally in this sequence, Esther was seated for 10-minutes while I stood behind her, holding one of her arms; it was to remain ambiguous whether I was pulling or she was reaching.

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© Greg Milner Photography for Vivid Projects with Art Macabre.

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© Greg Milner Photography for Vivid Projects with Art Macabre.

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© Greg Milner Photography for Vivid Projects with Art Macabre.

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© Greg Milner Photography for Vivid Projects with Art Macabre.

Part 5 – Kali

As all this unfolded, Nikki was painting Geeta’s face blue in readiness for the following poses. Geeta would be Kali – the Hindu goddess associated with empowerment. She began with a 5-minute standing pose in which one arm was crooked upwards and the other downwards. After this, she posed for 10-minutes seated upright with both hands holding an Art Macabre finely-painted black clay skull on her lap.

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© Pete Orman.

Meanwhile, Esther and I had retreated to the long-pose space as it was equipped with a better heater than our backstage area. With just one chair available, I sat beside the heater and Esther sat on my lap. When Geeta started her second pose, Nikki joined us to give Esther a painted skull-face to match my own. For the second part of this evening we were both to be Santa Muerte – the Mexican personification of death.

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© Greg Milner Photography for Vivid Projects with Art Macabre.

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© Greg Milner Photography for Vivid Projects with Art Macabre.

Part 6 – Santa Muertes

Once more there would be three poses in our sequence: 5-minutes, 7-minutes and 10-minutes. For the first of these we both stood: Esther as red Santa Muerte upon a black-covered bench; me as white Santa Muerte with one foot on the floor, the other on the bench behind Esther. At the end came a catastrophe; as I lowered my raised foot, I accidentally kicked the hitherto unseen black skull and shattered it on the floor.

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© Greg Milner Photography for Vivid Projects with Art Macabre.

First gasps, then silence. I felt devastated but the show had to go on. Nikki remained composed and readied us for the next standing pose, in which I was the green Santa Muerte of luck – I couldn’t quite believe how bad mine had just been. In the long-pose room, oblivious to our drama, Geeta sat for a smaller group of artists. Our final pose of the evening was a tender Sante Muerte version of ‘Pietà‘ by Michelangelo.

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© Greg Milner Photography for Vivid Projects with Art Macabre.

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© Greg Milner Photography for Vivid Projects with Art Macabre.

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© Greg Milner Photography for Vivid Projects with Art Macabre.

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© Greg Milner Photography for Vivid Projects with Art Macabre.

Part 7 – an appreciation

As is customary at the end, after warm applause all around, the artists set out their works upon the floor for general admiration and for us to photograph. Notwithstanding the ill-fortune of a broken skull, everyone was relaxed and uplifted. The Vivid Projects people kindly furnished us with complimentary wine as we mingled and chatted and shared our mutual enthusiasms. It had been a good session.

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Before Geeta, Esther and I disappeared to divest ourselves of draping and wash away our face paint, Nikki took photos that recreated our Pietà and captured us generally enjoying the moment. After our chilly wash in the kitchen we found that time was all too soon a-pressing; we had seats reserved on the ten past ten train back to London, with a twenty minute walk ahead of us first.

Part 8 – noodles

It was with deep regret that we bade farewell to Nikki as she still had much packing away to do. Her ticket was valid for any train, whereas ours could not be transferred. We left her in the capable care of the Vivid Projects team and returned once more to rainy streets. Outside Birmingham New Street station we paused to buy noodles from the Wok Your Way noodle bar before toiling to locate our platform.

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© Greg Milner Photography for Vivid Projects with Art Macabre.

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© Greg Milner Photography for Vivid Projects with Art Macabre.

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© Greg Milner Photography for Vivid Projects with Art Macabre.

As if to double our pain at leaving Nikki, it turned out she missed our train by only a few minutes. Her timing had been constrained by how long it took Vivid Projects to lock up and shuttle her to the station. Even so. We exchanged fond text messages and looked forward to our next adventure together. Maybe for 2016 we’ll collaborate in London – who knows? For now we love taking death drawing across the UK.

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