A Cenotaph

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An earlier version of this text was read at the Tisch School of Arts on February 23rd, 2017 as part of a Footprint Zero event moderated by Sarah Riggs and Omar Berrada. Footprint Zero is an initiative launched by the non-profit organization Tamaas in 2016 which serves as an international call to action for greater environmental justice. An online publication of artists’ work edited by Sarah Riggs and Mirene Arsanios is forthcoming in Spring 2019.

Khaled Malas, Cenotaph, 2017. Image courtesy the author.

A heavy carapace, ultimately pierced.

The first thing I noticed was his neck: it was astonishingly long. The form of his lower body too; those short muscular legs. George stared back at me with cold, unblinking eyes. Disgusted with myself, I felt that stinging warmth of tears streaming down the tightening skin of my face. (I needed a shave).

George.

I could not believe she was willing to lie, or at least misremember and insist (!) that it wasn’t I who first introduced her to George. I was confident that she would stand there, exactly where I was, looking at George with her right arm folded over her left, the latter resting limply against her side, her fist slightly clenched. I could see her large eyes swallowing the creature before her; generating an empathy and understanding tinted by morbid fascination.

I am a man who often cries.

I am on the fourth floor of the American Museum of Natural History. I have walked past dinosaur bones and indiscreet lovers courting in the dim blue light. Also present are loud heavily-sugared children, meteorite fragments, and dioramas of elephants and rhinoceros. Below me, a suspended whale, below the whale; wax arabs, mongols, indians and others behind glass. Although it would only happen several months later, by which time George had already returned to somewhere in Ecuador—Quito! What the fuck was he doing in Quito? –  I also now recall visiting the museum with her on the day of her graduation. She had decided that Commencement was not for her. I heartily agreed, and we somehow found ourselves in the museum gift shop. It was the day I shared my story about squirrels in the park and we laughed drunkenly for hours. Although I had little money, in my desperate courtship, I bought her a grey boy’s size t-shirt depicting an erupting volcano. She accepted the volcano politely.

(This supporting cast of characters is not accidental, for their arrangement is the constellation circumambulating my object of interest: the taxidermied Galapagos Island tortoise christened George).

Remains of tortoises killed by oil(?) hunters in the Galapagos Islands, 1903. Photo: R.H. Beck of Berryessa.

Ever the misfit, I am thinking of George’s reluctance to mate despite a ten thousand dollar reward[1] , forced inter-species manual stimulation of the intromittent organ[2] , and the introduction of multiple she-tortoises into his spacious pen[3] . ‘Fuck them!’ they all must have politely thought. ‘Fuck you!’ was George’s most deafening response, although he said so with far more eloquence than I.

Since I repeated myself so often, she surely understands my position.

A somewhat remorseful recourse to an archaeology of knowledge may explain George’s crude placement here, off a room labeled ‘Mammals’ on the fourth floor. Perhaps the Museum is attempting to make a longer point about the challenges facing our planet, one in which man is not the sole natural force that led to extinction. Yet this view is confounded with the label texts associated with George by his vitrine. These communicate a heavy emphasis on the European discovery of the Galapagos and the resultant impact on native populations of tortoises; whether their killing, movement, or conservation. What is certain is that this strange placement transmutes not only George but the entire Galapagos-associated taxonomical categories into exceptional biological accumulations, wonder-ful objects transported from the edge of the world to their center on Central Park West; long-necked rocks on strong hind legs conceived as remarkable singularities rather than exemplifying particular natural kinds. Thus, it should come as no surprise that George has been sacrificed accordingly, crudely wasted for our viewing pleasure at least since the second voyage of The HMS Beagle.

Tortoise: you twisted creature from hell.

The extinction of George’s species cannot be reduced to a singular moment on the night of June twenty fourth two thousand and twelve, but rather it is a measured unraveling of loss. (Do not stare at me like that: you too have been betrayed by a loved one). The death of George and his present arrangement reminds one that extinction is not an odd moment but a pattern of hopeful entanglements, obtuse sufferings, and ultimate failures that remain to be observed long before the death and subsequent taxidermied production of George himself as the final monument to an idea of a unique species now extinct. (I, too, am lonely. When will this fucking end?). It is also a process that will continue for many years following George’s demise, a specter upon the future potential of all beings: including you, including me, including her. Including everyone; every last fucking one.

[1] Monetary reward enthusiastically reported in Paul Chambers A Sheltered Life: The Unexpected History of the Giant Tortoise (London: John Murray, 2004): p.271.

[2] I.e. George’s penis. In nineteen ninety-three, there was briefly a companion known as ‘the girlfriend’. She was not a tortoise. She was a twenty-six-year-old Swiss graduate student in zoology named Sveva Grigioni. By coating her hands in the genital secretions of female tortoises and gently stroking George’s penis, she managed to demonstrate a couple of times (over the patient course of several months’ work) that George was indeed capable of an erection. But whereas her touch could induce other male tortoises to reach orgasm within a few minutes, with George she never managed to collect any sperm. As is often the case, her grant funding ended before she could complete her assigned task. See Henry Nicholls Lonesome George: The Live and Loves of a Conservation Icon (London & New York & Melbourne & Hong Kong: Macmillan, 2006): p.17-32.

[3] For matchmaking in the South Pacific, see Rowan Hooper “Lonesome no longer?” New Scientist Environment Blog Published July 28th, 2008.

Khaled Malas
Khaled Malas is an architect and art historian from Damascus. He is also a co-founder of Sigil, an Arab collective based in Beirut and New York City. Sigil seeks to explore the marvelous and terrifying metamorphoses of the Arab landscape that is the stake and site of historical and contemporary struggles. Since 2014, they have been engaged in building architectures of resistance in Syria. Their work has been published and exhibited internationally.

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