Thursday, 9 January 2014

Poor Things

That poor dead two-headed baby. Emerged from the womb directly into the bottle. No name, no brief moment of existence as a person before bam! into the jar, a thing. Poor thing. A wonder, a monstrosity, a specimen, but never a person.
I forget this, sometimes, when I study the specimens I choose to draw. Four hours in the Hunterian, drawing "skull of a young boy with a second imperfect skull attached to its anterior fontanelle".
I post the image thoughtlessly online, proud of my skill, my hand to eye coordination. A friend and academic, whom I met at a conference on monstrosity, asks if it is 'the double-headed boy of Bengal'. No, I say, how can it be? - it is in London. It is specimen P1535. It has no history to me except for that which I created when I drew it. Her research produces in short order evidence that it is, in fact, the remains of the child she mentioned - I look at a painting of the boy, the little person, and not until then do I begin to wonder at his short life, and sad death, and the macabre instance that led to his skull - his little head, removed from his little dead shoulders - making the journey from India to London where I and innumerable other curious visitors can gawk at its uncanny asymmetry.
But still, the skull - the specimen - is not the boy. I still can no more refer to it as 'he' as I can consider the adjoining specimen - a deformed calf - as a living being, except to wonder (in the case of the calf) how such an extraordinarily folded structure might have looked with skin and flesh still on it. They are become things, objects of wonder, and I am not the same kind of researcher as my astute friend, who studies monstrosity and never disassociates the objects of her study from their lives as beings. Is this indicative of a horrible lack of empathy on my part? I see the wonder and beauty and fascination of the abnormal, the gorgeous aesthetic of skeletal remains made more interesting and fantastic by the departure from the norm. I don't immediately wonder about the life -or non-life – of the little creatures before me.
I like to think - I hope - that this lack of empathy is not just a callousness come from a selfish
self-obsession without regard for the feelings of other; from a brutal disconnect with other living beings that in popular culture so often epitomises the emotional barrenness of the psychopath, the serial killer. Rather I hope that my reaction, or lack of reaction, is born of a lack of this relationship with my own self. I am disconnected from my self, at sea in terms of identity, accustomed to thinking of myself as an object, a thing. Poor thing, naughty thing, sweet thing. 
Bad thing.
Maybe the truth is somewhere in between. My work seems to be about exploring the intersections of things: the gap between the viewer and the specimen, separated by the glass of the jar, the doors of the cabinet, the distance of years. When I draw the 'poor thing' in its jar, I cross that boundary, that semi-permeable membrane invisible to the eye, and this process of diffusion has its own effects. I don't feel pity, or empathy, or sorrow for the life or non-life of the baby in the jar. I connect, while drawing, very directly with physical remains. The wrinkled skin on tiny bottled fingers; the delicate crackling line of the fissures of the skull, meandering across its terrain like the Colorado river seen from a satellite; the tiny cluster of whiteheads on the pickled cheek of a Negro man whose half-head, for reasons unknown and unresearched by me, has come to be found in a glass pot on the shelf of a cold basement storeroom.
I don't do the research, follow the paper trail of identity and information on the origins of this material. I hadn't previously considered why not; I consider it now, and I still don't know. My work is not a journey to discover the narratives, the stories and histories and lives of these half-forgotten former people: I think that is a job for someone else. What I do is substantively different: I unpack my relationship with each object into every line I use to describe it. All those lines, little marks, like text but not text, tell a story of their own. They tell the story of my relationship with my own body - its demands, its alien presence, its unnatural existence here where, somehow, I feel I have no right to exist. They tell the story of of my disconnection with my own life and sense of being, of belonging; and perhaps they tell this same story to someone else. This is not just a drawing of a monster about whose short life I care to know nothing: this is a drawing of all our short lives, our deformities, our dysfunctions, our comparisons with perfection that leave us wanting, our inabilities to achieve what we feel we should achieve, our failure to live up to someone's high standards, our lack of self-awareness, self-control, self-worth. Our inability to realise our own potential may be locked into those tiny scrabbling marks that skitter across the sketchbook page like the nervous tracks of short-lived mice.
I would like to find myself in a small white room, armed with pencils and charcoal sticks, so that I could take these drawing off the page and onto those square white walls, cover the walls and floors and ceilings of that room with these things, these bones and heads and parts, all the wrong things of nature, collected by men who themselves had no thought of who they were putting into their cabinets, only what, and who were so full of themselves and their right to do so. Of which I am quite glad, because if they did not, then I would not be here now, selfishly losing myself in the tiny spaces between that thing, in the cabinet there, and this thing, me, here.
Well - if that is the case, does it in fact make me, the artist, complicit in the grotesque objecthood embodied by the specimens under my gaze? Or am I merely the recorder of pathologies and teratologies, alienated from their nature with no role other than to collect and project an image as clearly as possible, with no intervention? No, if I were merely a lens, set to reflect this material objectively, I would use other media than pencil or plaster or clay. The materiality of the medium affects the objectivity of the gaze: pushing the plastic matter through my fingers until it takes on the form of a little homunculus, scratching a pencil across the page until the shape and dimensions of a solid object begin to emerge - this articulates my intervention. I am interrogating the object, and interpreting its form, and something of myself is intersected into its representation. Something of the specimen goes into or through me, and something of myself enters it at the same time: art as an enactment of the Locard principle. There is always an exchange. Something is left behind, resonating in the brittle light of the cabinet, the fragile glass of the jar - and something is taken away.
Actually, upon reflection, my sense of curiosity about the person behind the specimen seems to be linked very directly with two things: has the specimen a face, and is it the face of an adult? The two bottled faces, eaten by horrific cancers, on a low shelf in the Musée Dupuytren caused me to wonder about the lives of the men they once were, as did the horribly enucleated half-head in the wet room of the Mütter Museum. These thoughts still led to no desire to research their former lives: perhaps creating my own narrative was more interesting to me than finding the real one. I made a story of the delicate line of pimples, the raffish beard, the soft, sparse hair and eyebrows of each of these specimens. It's harder to see a story in the grinning skull, be it adult or child, and even in the case of the bottled babies – each recognisable from the next, as I realised when I saw other artists' drawings of the same specimens, and knew which collection they could be found in, so distinct are they – their baby faces told no stories apart from the same one, that of being born wrong and dying too soon. Their neophytical features seem too unformed for more than a generalised tale of 'poor thing', all too quickly replaced with 'strange, deformed thing' and a whole other set of responses, come to by using chalk and clay and pen. Poor in identity, rich in meaning: matter translates to matter, and the rest matters not.

All text and images copyright Lisa Temple-Cox 2014

Image list:
1: From the Wet Room 1 (Mütter Museum)  charcoal pencil on photo-transfer
2: Skull of a Young Boy (Hunterian Museum)  pencil on paper
3: Model of a Wet Specimen  (Mütter Museum)  clay
4: Teratology Shelf (Musée Dupuytren)  watercolour on paper
5: From the Wet Room: half-head (Mütter Museum)  pencil on paper
6: Beaded Baby (Museum Boerhaave)  pencil on paper
7: Three Bad Babies (Musée Dupuytren) clay, card
8: Bearded Face (Musée Dupuytren)  pen on paper
9: Child's Arm holding the Eye's Vascular Tissue (Museum Boerhaave) watercolour pencil on paper

With thanks and apologies to Whitney Dirks-Schuster

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