A wax museum is spooky enough, but imagine one that's empty because the bodies have all been destroyed by fire. In the chaotic studio of artists Steph Kese and Erin Pollock, the outlines and traces of people still appear—in drawings and paintings that plaster the wall, in 15,000 photographs and 50 gigs of video footage—but the wax figures themselves are gone. The artists liquefied them all.
Kese and Pollock searched the city for interesting-looking people willing to be their subjects. Each of the 17 people was coated in plaster, with an orange straw sticking out each nostril. When the plaster hardened, the human was extricated, and the artists filled the molds with combinations of various waxes, Crisco, butter, Vaseline, and oils. (Each material hardened and melted differently, and took on different appearances and behaviors—the artists were running a materials lab as well as a studio, making charts of melting points and so forth.) Once the wax set inside the plaster, the artists hacked off the white plaster surface to reveal what they called the "beige babies."
In the process, deformations occurred, strange encrustations appearing, chunks of flesh tearing off with the plaster. So the next phase was plastic surgery and cosmetics: smoothing the flaws, painting the eyes, hair, clothing, tattoos, nail polish, makeup, birthmarks. Each clone emerges slowly, a fictional creature with almost exactly the same features as a real person.
The artists invented life stories for each one. For photo shoots, they placed the subjects in staged situations, precisely arranged and lit. This sometimes meant hours of holding the bodies up to their own, sweating along with them under the lights. In the final photographs, the white-haired man with the cruelly deep wrinkles is seen sitting on the stoop of the Publix with a suitcase; he happens to be based on a casting of John Boylan, the Seattle man who for years has hosted casual monthly bar-side discussions about art. Occasionally, the artists cast a couple, together. The man with the beard and the woman with the braid—the only casting that remains in the studio, still in their "beige baby" stage—cling so tightly, they collapse on each other.
Finally, once the characters are as lifelike as they can get, perfectly sculpted and painted, posed and captured, the artists destroy them.
The bodies are hauled to Georgetown for their demise. In a covered area outside Equinox Studios, there's a custom-built melting plate made to do this strange work. The plate is four by eight feet, made of welded steel suspended over a bed of propane pipes and sturdy feet, the whole contraption weighing a thousand pounds. For each burning, an artist wielding a blowtorch adds to the propane-powered blue flames, while the other works a still camera. A video camera is trained on the proceedings.
The first sign of change is color streaming out from the body in horizontal rivulets, running off the sides of the plate onto the floor. The body submerges slowly into these liquids, slinking down as surrounding areas bubble and boil. Kese and Pollock get only one chance to see each meticulously crafted body obliterated.
Viewed afterward, each video is a murder scene and a resurrection. Play it forward, and the bodies liquesce peacefully. If they've been set in the midst of wax props, like hundreds of flowers, those melt first, welcomingly. Then the tips of the fingers go, and the edges of the backs and legs, as if all that were happening was a little sinking. Then the arms are all the way under, the chest, the cheeks, the eyelids, eyelashes, nose. Gone. What remains is a steaming, swirling soup.
Played in reverse, the bodies rise up from their materials like, maybe, events at the beginning of the world, if the beginning of the world were now, and if the swirling mass spit out fully formed women wearing makeup and short skirts and carrying spray-paint cans. (That particular character was featured in her photographs as a graffiti writer on a dark street.)
The artists aren't sad when the bodies melt. They've spent weeks working on their cold and clammy skins, propping up their heavy bulks, holding their boneless weights in place to shoot photos. They've known only corpses. Then, when they burn, these characters come to life. "It's so good," Pollock said. "They get a little bit of life when they melt. Especially as we've found ways to turn their heads during it."
Pollock is a native of Alaska, Kese is from Seattle (she sometimes is called Kesey, but that's a mistranslation of what the pair originally intended as "Kese y Pollock"), and they met at Whitman College. After going their separate ways—Pollock to Florence to study painting and Kese to Buenos Aires for film—they eventually did a joint show of cast-wax sculptures in Anchorage, and then were invited to do a public commission. It's a backlit wall, and protruding from it are the cast faces of 52 residents of an Anchorage neighborhood, selected during camp-out sessions in a grocery store ("Sugar aisle! Come quick!" one would text the other). They finished it in 2010, and then by 2012, they'd raised more than $45,000 on Kickstarter to do this project in Seattle.
Now, in an empty Belltown storeroom that once housed Egbert's furniture (it melted away, too), they'll introduce these characters—then take them away. First you'll see the photographs. Then videos. "So many people told us to keep them," Kese said. But they didn't.