Written to accompany Face Down: Amy Petra Woodward
Amy Petra Woodward
The skin is tougher than you’d expect. Grainy and oddly elastic to the touch, it takes an insistent pushing to get the point of the tool through. Even once an incision is made, the edge has to be pulled towards you, tugging at the rest of the body with a rubbery persistence that seems clingy, unresigned.
Its skin seems to offer the resistance that has been otherwise abandoned, the stiff frog splayed beneath you in a star jump, each limb pinned into the dark wax pool that sits on the bottom of what can only be described as a baking tray. Pulling back layers of its underbelly, releasing the flat, scent- stealing pinch of formalin, each cut exposes a succession from pale white to darker, murky masses.
The innards, it is revealed, are a muddle of dulled drab organs, one slightly more silted and glazed than the next. The implication in this exercise, of course, is reflective: we are dissecting this creature as a gesture towards the impossibility of physically exploring our own insides, our own, as it turns out, grimly grey and damp insides.
Poking around, displacing the intestines, peeking out amongst and behind this clutch of viscera, though, are lines – shocks of bright blue and an almost pink red. Intertwined at the heart and fanning out from there, running in lines up and down the cavity, imagine the surprise to a gullible twelve year old like myself to find that the vivid science book illustrations were true to life, veins are clearly blue and arteries actually are red. Imagine, then, attempting to hide both that surprise and subsequent embarrassment when a moment later the luminous vessels turned out on further prodding to be stuffed, filled with coloured plastic.
Classroom dissections—worms, mice, frogs—are commonplace teaching tools, still, whether consciously or not, holding to 17th century English physician William Harvey’s lecturing guideline to ‘illustrate man by the structure of animals.’ That the coloured injections in the animal’s vessels makes them easily found and readily identifiable is apparent. But few students today, while going through the miniature traumas of evaluated dismemberment of their rubberised amphibian, might be thinking of the origins of such an educational tool.
Dissection in the name of knowledge, for most of its dark history, was considered either simply wrong or seen as a fate worse than death. For long periods, from the Romans to the 14th century, humans were forbidden from being dissected; even afterwards, aspiring anatomists had to make do with those unable to protest otherwise. Which is to say, our knowledge of anatomy has come predominately from the cadavers of animals, criminals and the undocumented poor.
Harvey had in 1628 published his research on the circulatory system, and it was with the spread of this understanding of the body that anatomical injections truly took off. It was at this time that the branch of philosophy becoming known as “the sciences” was establishing itself, determinedly rationalistic and peculiarly optimistic, and we might understand these injections as a curious and poignant embodiment of the nascent Enlightenment values of visibility and knowledge.
At first, milk, ink, or wine was used, coloured liquids that could show the course of the vessels running through us. Later anatomists used fluids that could then solidify, allowing the creation and preservation of specimens for both research and teaching; Frederick Ruysch used coloured wax and cinnabar to create posed figures with a ‘lifelike appearance’. Honoré Fragonard, cousin to the Rococo painter, would inject his dramatic display bodies with mutton tallow, pine resin and essential oil, then paint the vessels for heightened visibility, painting the arteries in red, veins in blue, nerves in white, and covering the entire specimen in vermillion-tinted varnish. The colour-coding of such injections was subjective and arbitrary, emphasising visibility and beauty more than anything else.
Thomas Pole’s 1813 manual The Anatomical Instructor was the go-to guide of its time – with the subtitle, ‘An Illustration of the Modern and Most Approved Methods of Preparing and Preserving the Different Parts of the Human Body, and of Quadrupeds, by Injection, Corrosion, Maceration, Distention, Articulation, Modelling, etc, with A Variety of Copper-Plates’ – describing injection recipes using bees wax, resin and turpentine. Pole advises ‘the arteries and veins are to be injected with different colours; for the former, red is usually employed, and for the latter, yellow,’ but to use ‘any two colours which afford a good contrast.’ He later suggests injecting the head with red, ‘as to give it a natural and healthy complexion.’
We might follow the vermillion and azure lines, tracing them to modern-day practitioners such as Gunther Van Hagen, whose plastic-infused corpses on display play sports, have sex, or, as in 2012, form the backdrop for a Lady Gaga concert stage set. What we might find is a slowly but constantly shifting spectacle, where improvised conventions and experiments are presented as knowledge, a performance that glosses over the complicated pact of what enables visibility.
Amy Petra Woodward, Display Enhancer 4 (Red), Optical film, pigment, steel 35 x 19.5cm, 2014
It is this pact that sits at the centre of the thwarted glances and slippery surfaces of Amy Petra Woodward’s work. While apparently photographic, her images are filtered through a range of recognisable, hyper-modern materials: printed on to super black and retroreflective cloth, or the layers of plastics used to create computer and smart phone monitors. Colour here depends on where you stand, the eye becoming a roving spotlight that cuts across the scene. The reflective dark silver cloth turns its images into negative, the figures dissolving into almost white when you come up close.
Woodward’s Display Enhancers swipe from mute tin shades, to seemingly clear, one turning suddenly a pale red. Face-on, all you can see is a small smudge of pigment stuck to the screen’s dust magnet. You’re tempted to try and wipe it off, as you might polish your own smudged computer screen. A ghostly, blurred reflection simply looks back. Screens, reflectors, the materials that are meant to remain invisible while allowing something else to be seen, become the thing being looked at.
In Face Down, the act of making visible resurfaces, tracing the same red and blue lines using the contemporary syntax of our own current displays of science. At a time of relentless technological innovation, the rhetoric of Enlightenment transparency has returned in force: “illumination” and “progress” translated instead as “connectivity” and “productivity”. And as in anatomy, there is always a tacit partnership - spectators and students for whom the dissection is performed.
Here, bouncing between Woodward’s presentations of visibility, we are both the anatomist and the student, perhaps given the chance to re-assess the moment when the performance of spectacle becomes the certainty of codified knowledge. Woodward highlights the mechanisms of our own involvement in the new enlightenment; the question then becomes what we do with that moment.
Chris Fite-Wassilak is a writer, critic, and curator based in London. He is a regular contributor to Art Monthly, Art Papers, Art Review, and frieze. Recent publications include Curating Research (eds. Mick Wilson and Paul O'Neill, Open Editions), and the forthcoming Public Art (Now) (ed. Claire Doherty, Art/Books and Situations).