2021 Honorable Mention – Miriam Saperstein


Medium: Oil pastel on paper

This artwork is the culmination of researching how human bodies decompose, and the interplay of life and death that is part of the process.

Before starting this piece, I threw myself into the world of forensics and soon noticed the absence of a comprehensive post-mortem timeline, or in other words, a step by step timeline that explained the order of decomposition for human bodies. I decided to make that timeline. I studied the macro: how a whole ecosystem reuses the nutrients from the body; and I studied the micro: the chemicals that cause the body to stiffen. I discovered why no one had made a timeline that covered all the aspects of a body’s decomposition: the rates of the different processes depend on the external and internal conditions of the body, making each body’s journey unique.

By nature of being a single-panel, two-dimensional artwork, time is flattened in this piece, making it possible to show multiple stages of decomposition at the same time. Additionally, by using oil pastels, I gave the piece a blended or fluid feeling, mimicking the rapidly changing states of matter that occur during decomposition, as well as the fluidity of the order and extent of each part of decomposition.

I contrasted what rises up out of the decomposing body, such as nitrogen-filled bile and eventually plant stems and mushrooms growing from the nitrogen rich soil (usually the ground is first burned by the nitrogen and then later organisms are able to grow with all the nutrients), and what sinks down, including blood and eventually, plant roots and mycelia. The process of blood sinking due to gravity when the heart stops pumping is called livor mortis. The accumulation and leakage of bile is part of putrefaction. The piece shows the life cycle of flies such as blowflies that find food and shelter through decomposition, demonstrated by abstract details like the dots representing blowfly eggs, and the flies present at on the mouth, which has turned blue as a representation of algor mortis, or the initial cooling of the body. This piece experiments with what’s seen and unseen in a visual composition, as well as during the decomposition process. The cross-section style of the drawing allows the viewer to see into the body where the blood is draining to the bottom, as well as into the soil where the body is placed. However, the bodies are also drawn in abstract, as more organic shapes, showing that this is conceptual and still an artistic rendering. Through this work, I tried to understand the implications of human decomposition through colors and shapes. The shapes of the body mimic the shapes of the mushrooms growing from it, and share similar lines as the pathways of blood and bile.