Friday, 23 November 2012

'The diagram of her bones...'

Skull from the HPS Museum
I have a confession. I’m a serial volunteer. At one stage, I even suspected I might be on the path to becoming a professional volunteer but the need for paid work won out in the end... One of my latest volunteer incarnations is as a taskforce member of the Museum of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, at the University of Leeds. For the past few weeks, every time I've been down to their collections store, I’ve become distracted by animal skeletons from the biology collection. I struggle to explain why I’m drawn to these old, flaking bones but there’s something about the receding surfaces and porous textures that puts me in mind of a set of ruined vessels (which I suppose, in a sense, they are). The skulls, with their decayed, uneven teeth, are like alien forms, eerie and other-worldly, yet incredibly tactile. In truth, I think part of the appeal of these bones lies in the fact that I can touch and handle them. I find myself completely absorbed, and wonder if I’m experiencing something of what J.G. Ballard calls ‘the spinal landscape’ in ‘The Coming of the Unconscious’, an essay on surrealism. Of The Eye of Silence by Max Ernst he writes:
This spinal landscape, with its frenzied rocks towering into the air above the silent swamp, has attained an organic life more real than that of the solitary nymph sitting in the foreground. These rocks have the luminosity of organs freshly exposed to the light. The real landscapes of our world are seen for what they are -- the palaces of flesh and bone that are the living facades enclosing our own subliminal consciousness.
Heavily influenced by the surrealists, Ballard’s writing frequently alludes to internal landscapes and bodily geographies. An episode from his 1970 novel The Atrocity Exhibition called ‘The Geometry of Her Face’ focuses on the character’s attempt to make sense of himself and his surroundings, which is resolved at last in the structure of a woman’s face: ‘the diagram of her bones formed a key to his own postures and musculature’. Although I’ve compared them to alien forms, I can also relate to this dull, instinctive sense of recognition through my encounter with the animal bones.
Rhino skull from the HPS Museum
The juxtaposition of the strange and the familiar has been explored by the artist William Cobbing, who cites Ballard as an influence. On a recent visit to the Wellcome Collection, I saw his work, Palindrome, a modified artificial human skeleton, with a skull for a pelvis and a pelvis for a skull. Cobbing was inspired to create the piece by a section from The Atrocity Exhibition, in which the character imagines that ‘the bones of the pelvis may constitute the remains of a lost sacral skull’. Something resonates about this anatomical reconfiguration. In viewing Palindrome, quite apart from the fact I couldn’t decide where to look, I was confronted with a superficially alien anatomy that was also irreducibly human.
So, from the University’s biology collection to the Wellcome Collection (via a few detours), those bones have got a lot to answer for...
Visit the Wellcome Collection’s blog, where Palindrome was featured as object of the month.

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