Animal Body Worlds

Gunther von Hagens has launched another sensational exhibition, Body Worlds of Animals. Like the original Body Worlds, this exhibition uses plastination to preserve and exhibit dead bodies. Unlike the original exhibition, however, these bodies belonged to nonhuman animals before they became part of this exhibit. (Although I do recall a horse being included in the original Body Worlds, however, the focus there was most decidedly on human anatomy.)

There are, apparently, a wide range of animal bodies included in this exhibition. According to The Telegraph, several of these animal bodies were donated to the exhibition by the Neunkirchen Zoo. Through this donation we are encouraged to keep gazing upon these animals for our own entertainment, education, and enlightenment, even after their death. Unlike the dead humans in the original Body Worlds, these animals did not (could not?) give consent for their bodies to be used in this manner any more than they gave their consent to have been put on display in the zoo in the first place.

On the website for this exhibition Dr. von Hagens states that: “The more the individual thinks about the fragility of his or her body, the more respectful he or she will become toward other people and animals. BODY WORLDS of ANIMALS makes a valuable contribution to animal welfare and to increased appreciation of endangered species. The exhibition strongly supports the educational mission of the zoo and animal welfare organizations.”

The argument, it appears, is that this exhibition makes viewers realize the “fragility” of their bodies and, in turn, this leads to a heightened sense of appreciation of other species. This is a pretty tenuous link, one that echoes numerous arguments that have been made in favour of public zoos and animal theme parks throughout their history. According to this line of thinking, seeing animals in captivity or as “performers” somehow will make humans better appreciate nonhuman animals. The abundance of animal cruelty cases, the extinction (or near-extinction) of species and the destruction of habitats seems to be evidence to the contrary. Further, the notion that continued exploitation of animal bodies somehow supports animal welfare initiatives is very troubling.

PS: Is the giraffe on the Body Worlds of Animals website blinking!?? How many different kinds of creepy is that? Compare this to the stoic-looking splash screen for the original Body Worlds, with its visual nod to the very serious business of science and technology. A dead, blinking giraffe? Really?!?

Theatrum Mundi

My friend and colleague, Catherine Heard, has a new show at Rodman Hall. It is called Theatrum Mundi and it is very, very neat. She has essentially made a cabinet of curiosity in the gallery and it is jam-packed with all sorts of cool stuff. I was honoured that she asked me to write the accompanying essay (see below). Theatrum Mundi is up for a year, so be sure to check it out if you are in the area!

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Theatrum Mundi: A Cabinet of Curiosity

Catherine Heard’s artwork is as diverse as it is provocative. Heard, a Toronto-based artist, has produced a number of works over the course of her career that reference long-standing practices in the history of visual culture. For instance, her wax sculptures are suggestive of both religious votive pieces and of anatomical models of the human body, yet disrupt expectations of both.

Heard’s current installation at Rodman Hall, Theatrum Mundi (“theatre of the world”), is a site-specific project that revives the tradition of the wunderkammer (literally “cabinet of curiosity” or “cabinet of wonder”) – collections of extraordinary objects which were popular among the wealthy and the elite of Europe during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. The objects found inside a typical wunderkammer included everything from jewellery to natural history specimens and, while many scholars see the wunderkammer as the precursor to the modern museum, a true wunderkammer could be defined by its lack of strict curatorial practice. These were dynamic displays that changed according to the whim of the collector who would constantly be searching for something even more precious, even more spectacular and even more exotic to place within their wunderkammer.

The inspiration for this installation came from a “cabinet of curiosity” that Heard created for her own home out of a china cabinet she had inherited from her grandmother. The wunderkammer in Heard’s home includes examples of her own artwork as well as objects and art pieces she has collected. Likewise, the Theatrum Mundi installation at Rodman Hall is comprised of both found and created objects. Objects fashioned by Heard are tucked in amongst objects and ephemera that she has either purchased or has been given over the years. The pieces in this installation range from a crucifix made of matches to dolls made of human hair and from a death certificate bearing the artist’s name to hand-blown glass eyes. We, as viewers of Theatrum Mundi, are unable to tell which objects were made by Heard and which objects were collected by Heard; the boundaries between artist and collector are blurred in this exhibition.

Like the traditional wunderkammers of Renaissance Europe, Theatrum Mundi consists of objects of intrigue which raise questions about the world around us. Specifically, Heard’s fascination with the history of science and with the study of human anatomy is evident in this piece. The drawers and shelves of this installation are full of objects which address cultural conceptions of health, illness, beauty and the grotesque. For instance, in Theatrum Mundi precise anatomical drawings are displayed in close proximity to abstract-looking wax sculptures which are suggestive of internal human organs but are, in fact, entirely imaginative creations. The juxtaposition of “anatomical fact” with “anatomical fiction” casts suspicion on what we have come to believe as the truth about the human body.

Collectable photographic postcards of human bodies considered to be “freakish” because they deviated from socially accepted ideals about what the human body should look like in previous eras are an unforgettable feature of the Theatrum Mundi wunderkammer. The inclusion of this type of material draws attention to the shifting contexts of knowledge production – an image made as a “document” for medical history can simultaneously function as an object of entertainment. The perceived veracity of the photographic record shapes dominant understandings in both contexts. The question we are left with when viewing these images of disease, disfigurement and deformity relates back to the “curiosity” factor of the wunderkammer – are these images simply a “safe” and socially acceptable way of visually inspecting one who is “different”?

Themes of death and disaster also figure prominently in Heard’s installation. For instance, photographs of dead children, a once common and socially acceptable practice for grieving parents to engage in, both fascinate and disturb contemporary viewers. A particularly poignant example included in the Theatrum Mundi installation is a photograph in which a young girl holds the body of a dead younger sibling. This photograph was taken outdoors, and the young girl sits posed by the family car cradling her recently deceased brother. That contemporary viewers are startled by this image is a reminder of shifting cultural norms about death and dying. Stereoscopic slides of disaster (including the attacks that took place in the United States on September 11th, 2001) and View-Master reels on the subject of disease and human anatomy are two more examples of how Heard’s wunderkammer forces us to consider the ways in which practices of looking and technologies of vision necessarily shape cultural ideologies.

In the true spirit of a wunderkammer, the installation will change over the year. This will be a gradual and an organic change, and viewers returning to the exhibition over the coming months will no doubt delight in trying to discover what has been added and what has been removed since their last visit.

The Vegetable Lamb

One of the neatest things I saw this summer was the Vegetable Lamb at the Museum of Garden History in London. At first I didn’t know what I was looking at , as I’d not heard the story of the vegetable lamb before. The legend of the Vegetable Lamb goes back as far as the year 436, and it tells the tale of a plant that grew living lambs as if they were flowers. According to the legend, the lambs were able to bend down and eat the plants surrounding it and were thus able to feed themselves for a while. Once all the surrounding plants had been munched away, the poor little lambs shrivelled up and died, that is if they didn’t get devoured by a wolf first. Below is an image taken from Henry Lee’s 1887 book entitled The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary: a Curious Fable of the Cotton Plant, to Which Is Added a Sketch of the History of Cotton and the Cotton Trade.

The plant that prompted this legend is a type of fern, the Cibotium barometz. The root of the fern was often collected as “evidence” of the existence of the so-called vegetable lamb. The Museum of Garden history has one of these vegetable lamb roots, their particular specimen preserved under glass around the middle of the 19th century (see postcard photo below).

Linnaeus was here

We made our way to the Chelsea Physic Garden yesterday. This so-called ‘secret garden’ was founded in 1673, and is one of the oldest and most interesting gardens in the UK. They recently opened up a section dedicated to the work and life of Linnaeus. Apparently ol’Linnaeus was once a visitor to the gardens and this is marked with a big, red sign that says “Linnaeus was here.” The sign even has an arrow pointing to the ground, indicating the spot where he might have stood. For some reason this totally cracked me up!

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And in other celebrity place-related news, the Chelsea Physic Garden is right around the corner from Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant. For some reason I love Gordon Ramsay — he comes across as rather gruff in his shows, he has nothing good to say about vegetarians and just this week he made the news in the UK for telling a television presenter that she had bad breath on air, yet still I still like the guy. So, I took a tourist snapshot of the front of his restaurant. I didn’t immediately realize the connections between this image and the “Linnaeus was here” sign, but I think these two photographs fit quite perfectly together!

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We also went to the Tate yesterday and saw the most amazing photography exhibit called “How We Are: Photographing Britain“. That makes one more exhibition catalogue I have to find room for in my suitcase…

Marathon on Exhibition Road

I had a whirlwind day and managed to get to the V&A, the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum all before 5pm. I’m totally wiped out, but had a great day! The one thing that I was a little disappointed about was that the ‘wildlife garden’ at the Natural History Museum was closed because it was raining — that was, in fact, one of the things that I really did need to visit on this research trip so I’ll have to try and get back there before we fly home next week. The silver lining was that since I couldn’t poke around the wildlife garden I had time to check out Mark Dion’s exhibition, systema metropolis – very cool! Of course I had to buy the catalogue. I’ve been on a book-buying spree and have no idea how I’ll get them all home! Another highlight of the day was enjoying a pint in the ‘Green Dining Room’ designed by Morris & Co. at the V&A. Yay!