Art – ‘The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power’.
After attending a recent conference at University College London (UCL), entitled, ‘Bodily Matters: Human Biomatter in Art’ I was left contemplating the intriguing question of what constitutes ‘Art’. From saintly busts containing religious blood and bone relics, to Marc Quinn’s blood head, constructed from ten pints of the artists’ own frozen blood, to Teresa Margolles’ art installation, where a space was mopped continuously with water used to wash bodies from a Mexico morgue.
As a medical photographer I was particularly interested in a presentation by Dr Elinor Cleghorn, which explored Angela Strassheim’s photographic series ‘Evidence’. The ethereal black and white images, taken in homes where murders had once been perpetrated, demonstrate what remains, properties of life clinging on after death (figures 1 and 2 above). The luminance depicted throughout these haunting images is caused by traces of human biomatter, in this case blood; the residual DNA proteins are once again made visual by Strassheim’s use of forensic techniques and the blood-visualizing agent ‘Blue Star’. Strassheim approached 140 homes throughout America where murders had once occurred, some still occupied by the bereaved relatives, 18 homes allowed her entry. Here, in darkened rooms, she would administer the luminal agent and wait, often for many hours, for the elusive spillages of light to appear, reaching across walls, creeping up door frames and spilling over floor boards. As spectators of these images we are compelled to bear witness to the traces left behind, evidence from crime scenes, many long forgotten, that had all been cleaned away.
Another notable talk, by Dr Maria Haynes, presented fascinating photographic work. 12:31 is body of work portraying medical photographs of the spliced cadaver of executed Texas murderer, Joseph Paul Jernigan. Executed by lethal injection at 12:31 am Jernigan had previously agreed to donate his body for medical research; although he was unaware he would become the subject of the ‘Visible Human Project’ and the subsequent ‘12:31’ photographic project. His cadaver was frozen in a gelatin and water mixture in order to stabilize the specimen for cutting. 1,871 cross-sectional slices were then taken at 1-millimeter intervals and photographed, resulting in more than 65 gigabytes of data. These images were then taken by art director Croix Gagnon and photographer Frank Schott and re-animated. This animation was played on a computer screen which was moved around in the darkness and using long exposures to capture the movement, the 1,871 slides were projected as whole; the segmented remains were reassembled. Eerie light- trails depict the outline of the corpse appearing to float, celestial-like in the night sky (figures 3 and 4 below).
It’s clear that the human form has played a starring role in many artists work throughout the ages, but this conference demonstrated that there are many artists using human remains and biomatter as a material, a substance to be manipulated. From contemporary art such as Bharti Parmar’s shagpile carpet, a 5ft square rug woven from human hair, to 19th century Japanese art by Hananuma Masakichi; a self portrait wooden statue, incorporating the artists’ own pulled hair, fingernails and teeth.
Many artists have also explored the concept of photographing the human form, particularly posthumously, in order to create unnerving and often abstract art that challenges usual aesthetic qualities. Notably, Mat Collishaw’s work for the exhibition ‘Freeze’- an enlarged segmented photograph of a wound to the scalp entitled ‘bullet hole’. Similarly in 1981 a sixteen year old Damien Hirst posed for a selfie with a disembodied head at Leeds Anatomy School during an art trip. Over a decade later this image entitled, With Dead Head, was exhibited by the artist, Hirst credits this photograph with the beginning of his career. Contemporary artists seeking to access medical collections and anatomical dissections have met with controversy and their work often raises ethical questions over the display and use of human remains, but clearly anatomical dissection and artistic practice have gone hand-in-hand for centuries.
Perhaps it is no wonder the conference left me questioning, more than ever, whether the clinical images medical photographers create could be appreciated by a wider audience and accepted as inspiring works of art.
Could our photo-microscopy images be interpreted as abstract expressionism? Do the patient portraits, so carefully lit in clinical studios, count as contemporary art pieces? I suppose this is the beauty of such a subjective subject.
All images reproduced with artists permissions and all rights reserved by the creators.
Figures 1 & 2: Angela Strassheim