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Performing Medicine: The Anatomy Season | reviews, news & interviews

Performing Medicine: The Anatomy Season

Performing Medicine: The Anatomy Season

A brilliantly innovative programme which aims to explore medicine through the arts

'Prosology of the Dead', 2004, by Eleanor Crook

Do you think you could identify the range of facial expressions worn by Eleanor Crook’s strangely animated wax figure models? A glimmer of a woozy, lopsided grin, perhaps? The suggestion of a drunken leer? Possibly not, for the repertoire of facial expressions she gives her subjects – which are, in fact, the products of painstaking observation – are not, she explains, found amongst the living, but are unique to the dead.

Working in wax and other life-like media, Crook has made anatomical and pathological sculptures for the Science Museum, The Royal College of Surgeons and the Gordon Museum of Pathology at Guy’s Hospital. She is also a fine artist who works creatively with the figure – sometimes veering into wonderfully weirdy Gothic territory. But in all her work she has been guided by the close study of anatomy. And she insists that even in death character is deeply etched in the face. "You can't really avoid that," she says. "Character is always invariably there."

Crook is a modern-day Joseph Towne, the quietly celebrated 19th-century anatomical waxwork artist who worked for some 50 years at Guy’s and who produced hundreds of exact and remarkable models of the diseased and dissected head and body (indeed, both Crook and Towne were included in the Wellcome Collection’s fascinating 2009 exhibition Exquisite Bodies). 

Watch Eleanor Crook at work in How to Make a Wax Model

But these days it appears to be women, as both fine artists working with the body and modellers working in a purely medical or forensic capacity, who appear to dominate the field. Among these are 1997 Turner Prize-nominated artist Christine Borland, who produced forensic body casts for one of her most recent exhibitions, and Susan Aldworth, whose prints (pictured below: Birth of a Thought, 2007) and films explore ideas of consciousness and Cartesian dualism.

Birth of a Thought, by Susan AldworthThe three artists were in conversation this weekend at the Whitechapel Gallery as part of Performing Medicine’s Anatomy Season. This brilliantly innovative programme, which is supported by the Wellcome Trust and is presented by Clod Ensemble, aims to offer a fresh slant on medicine and the body through a series of arts and performance events. And the talk at the Whitechapel offered a fascinating insight into how three very different artists are inspired by anatomical research and close forensic contact with the body.

This year’s programme is already in full swing. In addition to talks, there are performances, seminars and workshops across a range of London venues. Forthcoming highlights include Sand Table at Sadler’s Wells, in which two dancers manipulate the image of a body projected onto a table of shifting sand; Through the Weeping Glass: On the Consolations of Life Everlasting, in which anatomical objects are bought to life in a visually compelling display by the Quay Brothers; and a visit, after hours, to the Hunterian Museum’s anatomical display to view the collection from both a scientific and artistic point of view.

Although you won’t be able to have a go at dissecting anything once living yourself, the season ends quite fittingly with Professor Kneebones’ Incredible Inflatable Pop Up Anatomy Lesson at the Wellcome Collection – inflatable surgery for the squeamish, or the unsteady of hand.

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