Saturday, August 31, 2013

'Eleanor Crook: Necroplasty or, Sculpting with Human Biomatter' at Barts Pathology Museum, 30th August 2013

My Heart is a Strange Cabin (2008) - Eleanor Crook 
Eleanor Crook brings the dead to life.  She's a great fit for Barts Pathology Museum: a cathedral of science literally full to the rafters with formaldehyde reliquaries, the organs and bones of the long dead floating in pickled serenity.  A sculptor, she works primarily in wax, the human anatomy, both in rude health and various states of distress and dismemberment. By way of an example, her companion throughout the lecture was an incomplete wax sculpture of a disfigured soldier.  Half his face a mangled mess, the other handsome, soft and androgynous, one intact eye mournfully staring off into the middle distance.

Eleanor Crook
Though unfinished, everybody immediately began referring to this model as 'he' rather than an 'it' - the pale, matte wax already having an spark of life that resists easy classification. This indefinable quality - 'life in death' - fascinates Crook, and to explain this fixation we were taken on a whirlwind ethnographic tour of how cultures around the world work with human tissue both living and dead.

The body of David Morales Colon
The first example was dramatic.  In 2010 David Morales Colon, a 22 year old Puerto Rican was murdered.  Prior to his untimely death he'd told his family that he didn't want a traditional casket.  In life his passion was motorcycles, and so it was to be in death: his body embalmed, dressed in blue jeans, riding jacket, sunglasses and baseball cap, placed on a his Honda CBR600 and put on pride of display in the middle of the wake.  The effect is morbidly fascination; rooted in (as Eleanor puts it) "something alive that isn't".  

Something in the mind instinctively recoils when presented with life where it shouldn't be. Crooke references the dead child of Stephen King's Pet Sematery "who came back wrong".  I was reminded of the idea of the 'uncanny valley', that idea that the closer we get to creating realistic substitutes for human beings the more we're creeped out by the subtle things 'lacking'.  

Eleanor then shows us the remarkably diverse ways in which humans around the world and throughout time have created false people.  She shows us Greek statues that the rich would use as stand-ins in temples - they'd conveniently worship on your behalf while you got on with more interesting things.  She shows us Danish bog god fetishes, extremely abstract yet obviously imbued with a dynamic energy.   Kicking things up a notch is a Melanesian Korwar. When a relative died, the skull would be removed, given new stone eyes and mounted atop a diminutive wood figurine.  The oversize, staring skull and the small, almost childlike body are a strange contrast, especially as they've taken the trouble to add tiny wooden ears to the side of the statue's head.  Displaying the remains of the dead like this feels alien to Western ears, but thinking of this as primitive behaviour is deeply unfair.  Dig just a bit deeper and you'll realise we act on much the same instincts.

Écorché cavalier - Honoré Fragonard
In St Barts, a simple glance upwards from Eleanor and I saw the dead all around me. Admittedly this is in the name of medical education, yet there's an irresistible sense of veneration and morbid entertainment in the way some of these specimens are exhibited. This combination of education and theatricality is common in anatomical history - Eleanor gives us a potted biography of the 16th century French anatomist Honoré Fragonard. Fragonard was famous for his écorchés - anatomical models made from preserved human tissue, every sinew and vein detailed atop the tough-looking oaky flesh.  Again there's that flash of life in the model's eyes: as he sits atop his horse his anatomy is transmuted into Samurai armour; his vulnerability becoming his protection.

Eleanor explains that when you work with human corpses you find something of their personality lingering on after death.  Not in a spiritual sense, but life leaves fingerprints upon a body - be it something as straightforward as tattoos, or more indefinable - a kindness or dignity that refuses to be erased by the evacuation of life.  She explains how the person doing the dissecting has the relationship of the student to a master.  A donated cadaver is someone that wanted to teach others in death, the impossibly intimate anatomical exploration being a sort of lecture from the dead, a lesson on how they are put together.

Death Teaches Us to Sweat Ice (2007) - Eleanor Crook
This way of looking at cadavers donated for dissection surprised me.  I'd thought that the natural reaction would be to render the body as free of its past as possible, to treat it like a piece of depersonalised meat rather than as an ex-person.  But Eleanor's method feels more tender and much more human.

The next subject we move onto is necroplasty of living tissue, with a focus on early plastic surgery.  Warfare and medicine have evolved in parallel over the last 150 years; methods of killing people becoming more efficient as medical science gets better at keeping the injured alive.  But on the battlefield saving someone's life is only the first part of the equation - if you leave someone so disfigured they can barely be considered a face at all they're not going to have much quality of life.

Fortunately, doctors like Harold Gillies developed techniques to give these men back their faces, treating them with tenderness and compassion.  This tenderness is a bit paradoxical when you see the methods used.  Tubed pedicles, used to ensure blood supply to new tissue, involve removing a flap of skin with vein intact from the upper chest or head and connecting t elsewhere on the head.  When the new flesh has attached sufficiently to reach a local blood supply the connection is removed.  

Wax model - Eleanor Crook
Eleanor shows us a wax model she made to demonstrate these techniques.  At first glance it's a horror movie nightmare, you half expect it to lurch forward and take a bite out of a screaming virgin.  But in a closer look you see the eagerness to teach that she earlier explained she saw in cadavers for dissection.  The model is opening himself up, allowing us to inspect and understand what has happened to him.  After the initial shock subsides we notice details like a flap of skin coming from the scalp to the chin - allowing the patient the kindness of  to hide his disfigurement with a beard.

The defining feature of Eleanor's work is the search for a spark, the moment when she realises the sculpture has come to life under her hands.  This is the art of bringing the dead back to life, communicating with skulls and deciphering the hidden messages encoded on the human body.   Fixations like this might initially feel a bit morbid, but Eleanor is such an enthusiastic and passionate speaker that any doubts quickly fade.  Walking out of the lecture I felt more conscious of my body as a complex precision instrument - rather than fixating me on death, Eleanor's lecture made me more appreciative of life. A brilliant start to The Congress for Curious People, and a great evening.

Many thanks to Eleanor (check out her website), and especially to Carla Valentine of Barts Pathology Museum for inviting me to the lecture.

The Congress for Curious People runs until the 8th - a list of further events here.

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2 Responses to “'Eleanor Crook: Necroplasty or, Sculpting with Human Biomatter' at Barts Pathology Museum, 30th August 2013”

glenn harcourt said...
September 1, 2013 at 1:53 AM

Absolutely mind-blowing; ELEANOR IS THE BOMB! Seriously, her intelligence, skill, dedication, and wry good humor (necessary for work in this environment) are nonpareil. An ACE.

londoncitynights said...
September 1, 2013 at 10:34 AM

Agree completely. In doing some research for this article after the lecture I can't find anyone that even comes close to what she's doing. It's art with rigorous scientific exactitude, and science with a humanistic, sympathetic eye. Love it!

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