The Skeletal People of Isaac Cordal

If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.

These haunting little street sculptures by Isaac Cordal, which he leaves on the streets of San Cristóbal de la Casas in Chiapas — I saw photos of them, was transfixed, didn’t know why, couldn’t forget them. Then I realized: so small, so ordinary, so vulnerable, so commonplace, wearing suits or dresses, overcoats, standing together, sitting quietly, aging husband and wife, bald office worker, man kneeling and hunched as if exhausted, old woman clutching her purse — even the most dramatic of them, a pieta, seems a mother holding what may be a drug-overdosed son — in other words, a tragedy far too common, as ordinary as dirt in the street. These little skeleton people are us. And of course they’re skeletons, as we are, always, beneath our skins — and as we are, always, because our deaths wait inside us, are inevitable, clock quietly ticking us toward them, our deaths so common and pre-ordained, like the rising of the sun on an ordinary day, like grass sprouting in spring, clouds crossing a grimy urban sky. These compelling little figures, so small in the face of everything, even in the face of existence itself, made so small too by the hugeness of the city — in their plaintive silence, these are all part of the Long Cry of the human heart.

And yet, as Issa says, and yet…

Cordal says more too, and in the quietest, subtlest way. For in many of these images, there are green growing things too. One skeleton-man sits on a sidewalk, his knees drawn up before him, amid a pile of blossoming clover which is growing out of the crack between the sidewalk and the roughly-painted wall behind it. He looks like a flower himself — a strange dry flower of consciousness and vulnerability — at the center of this burst of dark-green leaves. Another kneels in a low square cut-out section of wall, a vent or a drain, in which a luminous green weed is growing, its leaves reaching for sunlight, and only inches from a dandelion growing, again, in the crack between sidewalk and wall. Another figure kneels beside a vibrant green weed in another small squared-out space. And the mother and prostrate son are set beneath a low curving pipe over and around which what look like geraniums are growing in profusion.

Of course one is projecting as one interprets any art as ambiguous as this, though I suppose interpretation is always some kind of projection. But I believe that, though projection is of course a highly complex thing, it can also be an epistemological opportunity, a way of seeing into things, a form of revelation. And I can’t help — out of my very humanity, it seems — looking with a mixture of sorrow and ebullience at these images, particularly at this juxtaposition of mortality-burdened figures and the great leap of growing things beside them, however humble and compromised the circumstances may be. Skeleton-people living out their little lives — weeds growing amid the rough and barren chaos of an immense, crowded, heavily-polluted city — I see the vegetation god, I watch him laid low, I see him spring up, the tears come to my eyes, a strange joy fills me.

More Like This

A Black Love Story Unfolds in Southeast London

Caleb Azumah Nelson's novel "Open Water" takes an unflinching look at the joy and heartbreak of being Black in Britain

Jun 15 - Niellah Arboine

How 10 Book Covers Evolved, from Rejected Drafts to Final Design

Book designers explain how the covers you love came to be

Jun 3 - Christopher Louis Romaguera

10 Novels That Revolve Around Paintings

Elizabeth Brooks, author of "The Whispering House," recommends books about the power play between the artist, subject and viewer

Mar 15 - Elizabeth Brooks
Thank You!