The museum of pieces of people

12 Apr
Artwork by Todt at Mütter Museum, Philadelphia

Artwork by Todt at Mütter Museum, Philadelphia

The distinction between two different types of space couldn’t be clearer. You pass from a dark, wood-lined space where objects sit safely behind glass, into a brightly-lit gallery with china-white walls and three-dimensional artworks that could easily (if unforgivably) be touched. One space is redolent of age and obscurity; the other is of the moment. It’s hard to understand how the two spaces can exist in the same institution, let alone be directly adjacent.

What’s on the walls, however, is much more intimately related. The dark space is the object galleries of Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum, a display originally attached to a surgical college, rather like London’s Hunterian, where anatomical knowledge is channelled through the by-products of the surgeon’s knife, dried and bottled, and where the monstrous is illustrative. The skeleton of a giant, a colon that held forty pounds; a plaster cast of conjoined twins; swallowed objects retrieved and typologically arranged.

The white space plays host to an exhibition of the ‘whimsical artwork of local artists collective TODT‘. Their whimsical subject is the monster aesthetic of the Mütter itself. A row of plush toys spill their complicated wax guts, the face of one teddy half-transformed by rictus into a vanitas. Featureless plastic heads levitate, tongues penetrating each other. Transparent men harbour brightly-coloured intestinal organs. A sea of flesh is clamped and stabbed by needles. Microscopes are mounted with pistol butts.

So we pass from the dark into the light and we understand what we’re seeing. From the monstrous to the ironic: TODT rework the imagery of medicine, emphasise the eeriness, mock the simplicity of anatomical understanding, highlight the violence inherent in the anatomical eye. They’re artists. This is what they’re here to do.

Then we are supposed to step into the gift shop (where they sell ‘fetus soap’ and multiple cartoon images of conjoined twins) but what if we retraced our steps to the dark place and looked at the monsters again? Having witnessed the artists’ irony in action, are we forced to see irony everywhere, even in the merely tragic? Do we understand bottled babies differently once we’ve seen dolls playing their parts? Has something here been overwhelmed by aesthetic interplay, by the relation of art to object?

This is the subject of investigation.


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