Saturday, 31 March 2012

Making myself a Monster: self-portraiture as teratological specimen

   What is it that makes the objects and specimens of the medical museum so compelling and repelling in equal quantity? What is it about the malformations of the bottled monsters of the teratological specimen that draws our horrified and delighted attention? Since the birth of what is known in the west as modern medicine, the word "monstrosities" has been used to describe physical deformities, ‘irreducible to the "proper body" in their singular, sometimes startling difference’ [1] These accidents of nature suggest something other than the normal self, and yet they are not outside our selves or nature, but recognisably part of it. That sense of alteriety which gives such specimens their fascination and appeal is tied to the uncanniness that is born of strangeness within the familiar.

   I experienced this duality when, as a child, I arrived from an English boarding school in Malaysia to find that everything I had learnt about my 'mother country' was out of kilter. I thought that I was English, but found that I was in fact alien, other, in a country I considered home. Not only that, but I realised that the borders between normality and the monstrous were rigorously delineated here in a way which they had not been in Malaysia. There, in my Malay mother's village, the lines between what was 'real', and normal, and what was bizarre, uncanny, were much blurred. Monsters were all around: in the jungle, or in the corner shop: everybody knew someone who had too many fingers or toes – or someone whose uncle had been eaten by a ghost, or an enormous snake. All these experiences were equally valid. After trying to fit into the dull realism of Essex life, I began, as an artist, to revisit some of these ideas of the strangeness in familiarity, and at the same time began to explore the confusion inherent in my own sense of who I was. Roy Porter suggests that ‘our sense of self presupposes an understanding of our bodies.' [2] There had been a point, at school, when my interests were divided between art and biology: so I began to work from my own fascination for the body, and the medical collection.

   My adult interest in this material began after visiting Gunther Von Hagen’s' “Body Worlds” exhibition in Brussels. It wasn’t, in the end, the plastinated bodies that piqued my interest: rather it was a small display at the end of the exhibition of pre-plastination preservation techniques. In this darkened room there was a horrified fascination as visitors clustered around the teratological specimens. This in stark contrast to the rest of the exhibition where, by the end, most people felt an ‘emotional anaesthesia’ [3] occasioned by yet another bizarrely posed body, become as bland as a mannequin in some netherworld between science and art.   
   Yet his work was inspired by the preparations of Honoré Fragonard (1732-99), whose “Anatomised Cavalier” and dancing foetuses draw the gaze where Von Hagen's preparations do not. Fragonard himself was denounced as a madman for his pursuit of preservation. His ecorché “Man with a Mandible”, with its rolling glass eyes, is both a vision of a man horrified, and quite horrible in itself.

   When I began my research into the medical collection, there were two aesthetic avenues of medical preparation that I was looking at: the wet specimen, and the wax moulage. The use of the moulage came about to serve the needs of dermatological diagnostics, as the wet preparation did not preserve the colours of the skin well. More lifelike, the wax allowed for casts made from living subjects, and gave a three dimensional study which replaced the patient and did not decay. Smaller models were often placed in glass jars like the ones used for wet specimens – to further emphasise in the viewer a sense that they were 'real'. Larger models warranted their own glass bier. 
   There is a part-body in the Deutsches-Hygiene Museum in Dresden of a woman giving birth. It uses as its armature, disturbingly, the deceased woman’s own pelvic bones. A number of disembodied surgical hands float above the partially-dissected womb - all male, and neatly dressed at the wrists with white cuffs and dark suit sleeves, hovering above the anatomical Venus like cherubs around a Madonna.
   These wax moulages have a powerful effect, both when viewed individually and en masse: the largest collection is at the Hospital of St. Louis in Paris, and I defy anyone to remain unmoved by the ‘wall of syphilis’. All these body parts are surreally segregated, removed from the whole so that just the diseased part is on display, surrounded by a neat border of fabric: mounted on a black board like a specimen, one is not meant to imagine the whole, but focus on this intimate portion of disease or deformity.

This hyper-surreality of the moulage led me to experiment with casting my own face. The fragility of the mould resulted in my not being able to take many casts from it: however as the mould broke up, the casts began to resemble the deformities of the moulage – in this process I felt that I was taking the life mask through processes that referenced the effects of congenital accident or deformity, removing it from the body, taking it as part-feature, metonomous. I kept the casts of my slowly collapsing face colourless, and mounted them on coloured boards instead.

They made me reconsider myself in terms of that childhood experience of finding that I was an alien as much because of my skin colour as my post-colonial upbringing. How strange to be other in the country one thinks of as home: and an equally curious sensation, to see your own face disembodied. At this point I began to look again at the wet specimen, and specifically examples of heads and faces.

Wet specimens are body parts or a whole foetus preserved in fluid such as formalin or alcohol. They have been described as ‘objects between nature and representation, art and science’[4] The effect of seeing these aberrations, further distorted by the curve of the preserving jar, is truly uncanny. Freud, in his essay on the subject, recalls an occasion where he comes face to face with his own reflection in a train door, and momentarily mistakes it for someone else: not only that, but someone that he found unpleasant to look upon. This sense of something at once sinister but homely echoes in the correlation of preservation in jars; of bodies, or of fruit. This is particularly true of the teratological specimen. Here, the preserving jar acts as a pseudo-womb, the little monsters within floating placidly in the urine-coloured liquid as if awaiting the moment of birth.

Actually, this, while a poetic image, is not true: often the expression on their faces (if they have one) is anything but placid, and the illusion of the amnion is altogether ruined by the evidence of autopsy: the lack of a brain, large stitches across their heads, glass rods keeping them in position. In the case of the specimen known as 'sirenome' in the Musée Fragonard, the foetus is held in position by a cord tied, disturbingly, around its neck.

I had this idea of toying with the purpose of the wet collection, namely that it should preserve – I wanted to make work in which the heads, in their different materials, decayed, changed and altered in the sterile confinement of their container. The artist Marc Quinn made his head out of his own blood, perhaps the ultimate act of self-portraiture: I thought about using materials such as clay, wax, bread, shit, or fat, and then immersing the heads in liquids such as milk, urine, wine - even kombucha, a living liquid. Here I wanted to reverse the notion of the liquid in the jars acting as a preservative, and reference the familiarity of foodstuffs in the un-homelike environs of the laboratory. In order to do this properly, however, I first had to cast my own head.

Much of what we are, as humans, is determined by our appearance, and much of that, as a woman, is determined by hair. In order to truly face my Self, I realised that I had make my head naked. And so I shaved my head, and made my first uncomfortable discovery– that the back of my head was quite flat. This first head-casting was a two-part mould that involved the use of dental alginate, a pink rubbery substance that smelled, bizarrely, of mint. The alginate broke apart while being removed from my face and I managed to get only one cast from this distorted mould. Interestingly, having been researching life and death masks, this cast brought to mind a particularly famous death mask – that of L'inconnue de la Seine.
 At this point I decided to revisit my visual research in the museum.

   Interest in the medical collection, particularly for teratological specimens, straddles a line between science and sideshow. Early collections by surgeons later opened to public, and these displays further blurred borders between the gallery and the teaching museum. During my visits to the Hunterian and Wellcome in London, and the Dupuytren and Fragonard in Paris, I began to wonder - who is going to these collections? Not scientists any longer, but the curious and creative autodidact. The Mütter Museum, a noted medical museum in Philadelphia, has daily visits from eager schoolchildren and their teachers rather than medical professionals.

   In the Dupuytren, the only cabinet with lights is the teratological cabinet, where the double-headed kitten and goat nestle in jars side by side with the thoracopagus foetuses and other monstrosities. Each small corpse exhibits alongside its deformation a particular and individual appearance: their little faces angry, or vacant, indifferent. The Dupuytren also has two faces half eaten by cancers: part of their compulsion comes from the obvious and horrible disease, but part – for me at least – from the unique and recognisable humanity of each face: one with soft, receding hair floating silkily in the preserving fluid: one with dark brows and beard, and an arrogant twist to his lips.

   Peter the Great (1672-1725) was famously the possessor of a notable wunderkammer- after a visit to Leiden, he bought the entirety of Frederik Ruysch's collection  of anatomical preparations. His mania for specimens, among other drives, led him to execute his wife's lover, whose head was then preserved it in a jar; though in the interests of fairness, he did the same to his own lover. These bottled heads were later found by his grandson's wife, who remarked upon their youthful appearance before, sadly, having them buried.

There is a particularly macabre head in the Mütter Museum. It is not on general display, but is down in the cold storage of the wet room, in a jar held upright by a simple metal bookend. It is Negroid, and for some reason the eye has been rather brutally removed. It is cut in half, right through the delicate, pouting lips and weak chin; however, the particular horror and humanity that I found in this specimen was, for me, evinced by the collection of white-headed pimples on the colourless, sallow cheek.

   Armed with a visual cortex full of bottled horrors, I returned to the workshop determined to try again. This time, another colleague was finally intrigued enough by my bald head to make a three part mould, starting with the back of my head, then my chin and neck, and finally – nose straws and earplugs in place – my face. Word had travelled around the college, in light of my earlier attempt, and this casting was observed by a large group of fine art students, all happily making notes and taking photographs of my shiny Vaselined pate. I experienced on this occasion something strange: people were talking to me throughout this process, up until the point at which my face disappeared under the plaster. Suddenly, they ceased talking to me, and began to talk about me, like an object. I lay there, offered up for display like a medical Venus, listening to the chatter around me, as if I were suffering from 'locked-in' syndrome – for the first time I had the experience of moving from person to specimen.

   Apart from a brief moment of fear when the mould was momentarily stuck to my ears, this was a successful mould-making. The first cast I took from this mould was made using expanded latex, which resulted in a rubbery squashy head that I delighted in carrying around like a baby. The happily uncanny experience of coming face to face with my own face resulted in a number of inappropriate behaviours, such as sticking it up my jumper so the features protruded like an alien baby about to explode from my belly.

   Perhaps the Alien analogy is close to the effect I was experiencing: in the film Alien Resurrection, when Ripley enters the room full of rejected or malformed mutants in huge jars, she sees herself, repeated; the monstrous mother worse than the alien mother of earlier films in the horror of their sympathetic humanity. They are her, but they are not: they are further deformed by their failure to live up to their true monstrosity: she is ‘haunted by (these) alternative versions’ of herself. [5]

What interested me in my playing with the latex head was not only my reaction to my double, but others in seeing me with my doppelgänger. Everyone felt that seeing me, for example, kiss my own rubbery head, was wrong and repulsive in ways that they couldn't articulate. This is where I felt I began to tap into those primal reactions that were evoked by the bottled babies, through a reinterpretation of both the aesthetics of the teratological wet specimen and the facial cast or moulage.

Eventually I made a master mould which allowed for casting in a variety of materials. Having been earlier inspired by the plaster life and death masks in the Galton collection, I began to make a series of casts in plaster. By now, I was less interested in making the heads out of the abject materials that I had started with, after observing the uniformity of the plaster. The blank whiteness of it in contrast to my own skin was so 'other' in its lack of colour and featurelessness. So taken was I by the rows of blank white plaster heads that it seemed to me that the heads themselves should remain inert, white and anodyne as aspirin: it was the liquid that they were immersed in that should reference this contrast between purity and abjection. 

There was also something of a compulsion about repetition, similar to what I found when making multiples of my eyes or lips. The decapitation seemed peculiarly uncanny. Having commissioned a number of jars that were watertight and large enough to contain my head, I built a cabinet to put them in – with lights – and proceeded to fill each jar up to the nose with fluids – milk, wine, water and urine.
The cabinet took on a religious aspect as the fluids reflected the light like stained-glass, and seemed to create a space somewhere between museum and gallery, clinic and altar. The fluids themselves took on religious and transformative significances: the blood of Christ, the milk offered to Ganesh, the psychotropic reindeer urine imbibed by the shamen of Lapland. The jar containing water remained empty of a head, as I eventually determined this should be the 'control' jar. It was later remarked to me that the empty jar was more disturbing than the jars with heads in, as the absence seemed frighteningly more uncanny by dint of its inexplicability – one could envisage, it seemed, a head in a container that is head-sized, but the lack of head seemed to raise a deep feeling of unease.

In the end, the casting of my head did not result in work that was compelling in the way that the teratological specimens or moulages were: to my mind they evoked a different kind of horror: the juxtaposition of clean white plaster and rotting, foul liquids had the appearance of some sordid experiment gone awry. The work became instead a visual exploration of the way in which the museum specimen seems to reflect, in some measure, residues of the human: return the gaze of the spectator to create a deeper reflection, from object to abject, self to other, and back. Here, in the rows of heads colouring and dissolving in unnamed liquids, the artist becomes both subject and object.

All this serves, I hope, to connect the contemporary concerns of science with an unconscious atavism - a simultaneity of the pure and the profane, the proper and the monstrous. But to my mind I have only just begun the first step in a body of work which was inspired, originally, by a single desire: to put my own head in a jar.

1: Jeffrey Longacre, Review of Monstrosities: Bodies and British Romanticism, by
Paul Youngquist. College Literature, 22 September 2005, University of Tulsa.
2: Roy Porter, Flesh in the age of Reason London: Penguin, 2004:44
3: Taken from the chapter 'The limits of empathy' in Linke, Uli “Touching the
Corpse: the unmaking of memory in the body museum” in Anthropology Today
Vol.21 No.5, October 2005: 13-19
4: Taken from information sheet about the AHRC Research Network "The Culture
of Preservation", a series of workshops and lectures at UCL run by Petra Lange-
Berndt and Mechthild Fend, London May/June 2011.
5: From part 3 of Zizek, Slavoj The Perverts Guide to the Cinema filmed by Fiennes,
Sophie. Lone Star Films, 2006

1 'Man with a Mandible, Musée Fragonard, Paris
2 'moulage' clay and wood, Lisa Temple-Cox
3 'Sironeme', drawn from specimen in Musée Fragonard, Lisa Temple-Cox
4 face cast and death mask of L'inconnu de la Seine
5 face, drawn from specimen in Musée Dupuytren, Lisa Temple-Cox
6 'face baby'
7 'Cabinet', assemblage/installation, Lisa Temple-Cox

selected bibliograpy:

Alberti, Samuel J.M.M. Morbid Curiosities: Medical Museums in Nineteenth Century Britain Oxford:OUP 2011
Asma, Stephen T. Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads: the Culture and Evolution of Natural History Museums Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001
Daston, Lorraine and Park, Katherine Wonders and the Order of Nature 1150-1750 New York: Zone Books 2001
Daukes, S. H. The Medical Museum London: The Wellcome Foundation, 1929
Foucault, Michel The Birth of the Clinic London: Routledge, 1997
Freud, Sigmund “The uncanny”(1919) in Art and Literature London: Penguin, 1990
Knoppers, Laura L. and Landes, Joan B. (eds) Monstrous Bodies/political monstrosities in early modern Europe Ithaca/London: Cornell University Press, 2004
Kristeva, Julia Powers of Horror: an essay on abjection New York: Columbia University Press, 1982
Linke, Uli “Touching the Corpse: the unmaking of memory in the body museum” in Anthropology Today Vol.21 No.5, October 2005: 13-19
Porter, Roy Flesh in the age of Reason London: Penguin, 2004
Sawday, Jonathan The Body Emblazoned London: Routledge, 1996
Schnalke, Thomas (Author) Spatschek, Kathy (Translator) Diseases in Wax: The History of the Medical Moulage Quintessence 1995
Zizek, Slavoj The Perverts Guide to the Cinema filmed by Fiennes, Sophie. Lone Star Films, 2006

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