Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Foreign Bodies

This blog post and train of thought was inspired, indirectly, by the current exhibition at UCL and related venues entitled 'Foreign Bodies'. Curated by students at UCL, and using specimens from that collection, it is at once a display of unusual objects, and an opportunity to consider things simultaneously anatomical, historical, scientific and sociological.

My exploration of this exhibition began by my entering the University through the wrong door, and seeing the second part of the linked series of displays first. I found myself in the UCL Art Gallery, where I came upon a selection of the Galton collection of life and death masks.
Having previously seen these in a storage room at UCL, where many were charmingly stored with paper hats on their heads to keep the dust off, it was interesting to observe them on display. The documentation that used to accompany them has been lost, so - alongside the fact that many from this collection are missing - there is nothing to tell you who the subjects once were, or even if they were alive or dead when the mould was made. There are some tell-tale signs - a tension between the eyes in the living subjects, a disconcerting laxness about the mouths of others, a disturbing disjunction in the necks of those that may have been hanged - and some anecdotal reference, such as that relating to the death mask of a boy - a child musical prodigy who died very young.

 Part of what I found alluring was the fact that they have become so dirty. A lack of funding for the kind of cleaning they might require has resulted in a visual illusion of negativity: the creases are clean and white, the surfaces of the skin grey and grimy. This seemed like a metaphor for their state; a reversal of tone, reflecting their uncanny position between the actual and the representation.

Most interesting, perhaps, was the conversation I ended up having with the young woman behind the desk, of whom I inquired if I was, in fact, in the right place. We talked for quite a while - about the death masks, and other anatomical objects: about states of being, the moral and ethical effects on surgeons of cutting into the body (a form of trangression that might cause shockwaves in the emotional states in which they, quite literally, operate). About the possible reasons why Jeremy Bentham's death mask might be in Norwich Castle (his body, famously, residing just down the corridor from where we stood). About mapping, and identity, and being an outsider - being in-between, on many levels. It transpired that we had met some years previously, when she organised a symposium on facial recognition that I had attended when I first began my MA and my current body of work, and this led to another conversation about recognition, identity, and chance encounters.

It was very interesting to discuss this idea of being outsider, or in-between states and places. I think more and more that the mapping project I am currently engaged in is very much a search for identity and self, using the anatomical museum, its contents and location, as a metaphor. I am still struggling with writing this in a way that makes sense. The hardest thing is to articulate what the expected outcomes will be - why am I interested in the subjects and objects of these anatomical collections, and what do I hope to discover?

Still, that is all part of the process. And it is interesting to consider that a sense of being an outsider is an advantage which others might not have - this is something else that we spoke of, and I think that might be true - the additional ability to emphasise with others who are in-between, and to see patterns which those who are comfortably embedded in their lives or cultures might not.

I realised during this conversation that this synchronous meeting could perhaps have been the real purpose for my visit.  I am more convinced than ever that sometimes the delays, frustrations, and stumbling blocks that we perceive as being put in our paths - or that we put there ourselves - must be for a reason, to do with our individual approaches to actualising the life changes we desire to make.  The notion that the path we think we are on is not the same as the one we are, in fact, following, might be the underlying reason that I went to see this exhibition, and why - most tellingly - I came in through the wrong door..

for more information on the exhibition and related subjects visit these blogs:

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