Over the past month or so, I’ve been attending a great series of events on Morbid Anatomy, held at the fabulous Last Tuesday Society museum/shop in Hackney, and created by Brooklyn-based artist, curator, blogger, and graphic designer Joanna Ebenstein.
The series arose out of her fascination with death and its manifestations in different cultures and time periods. This fascination led her to make a “pilgrimage” around “the great medical museums of the western world”, then to her “Morbid Anatomy” blog (see link above), then to the creation of the Morbid Anatomy Library in Brooklyn, of which she is “Keeper”.
I’ve written about this series of events in general elsewhere, but here I want to focus on what I think is one very interesting aspect of them – what I call the the “getting up close and personal” dimension. Ebenstein has deliberately included a number of hands-on sessions in the series, including a “Wax Wound Workshop”, a session where you can make your own “Bat in Glass Dome”, and classes on the Victorian art of hair jewellery.
Getting close to bodily structures and their fragility as a way of “making sense of ourselves” is very popular today, says Vadim Kosmos, the manager of the Last Tuesday Society’s shop/musuem. I’d argue that this interest is currently very evident in both London, and also in New Orleans which, in the view of New York master jeweller Karen Bachmann who ran the hair jewellery classes, is “a death-obsessed city”.
This widepread interest, Kosmos thinks, is what’s behind the popularity of the society’s shop/museum, which is stuffed with a mixture of natural history specimens, mineral samples, religious iconography and ethnographic items. “It’s so compact and crowded – you’re literally nose to nose with something in there,” he says. That “something” could be a piece of antique taxidermy, a shrunken head, or a “Fiji mermaid” (in reality a mixture of monkey, fish and papier mâché).
And the Morbid Anatomy workshops allow participants to get closer still. In the hair jewellery classes, for example, they were encouraged to bring in their own hair, or the hair of a loved one to work with. That’s hair from the head, by the way, though Bachmann did reveal that she’s been asked to make jewellery incorporating pubic hair for clients in the past.
Bachmann used to work at Tiffany’s, famous as a purveyor of neat heart lockets and icy engagement rings for Manhattan princesses, but she’s long had an interest in more earthy Morbid Anatomy-type decorative objects. She has, she says, always collected “dead shit” – “bugs, bones, freeze-dried animals”, and has been building a personal collection of hair jewellery for over fifteen years. She bought her first piece – a brooch made out of Whitby jet – in Harvey Nichols in London, and her collection also includes items found in New Orleans.
Is there something unhealthy about the appeal of handling these kinds of objects, in contrast, perhaps, to relishing the vanilla sparkle of a standard Tiffany bauble? No, says Ebenstein, who took part in one of Karen’s London classes. For her, the process of being able to turn an anatomical relic like hair into a cultural object has a profitable philosophical resonance.
“In workshops like these,” she says, “you think about what the pieces mean, how it’s really about the thought of the deceased, and you realise how painstaking and slow [the work] is. You get it on a different level: it’s like meditation. Someone could have explained that [in a lecture], but I don’t think you really get it until you try to do it yourself.”
Ebenstein sees using these kinds of experiences to promote thoughtfulness about death – and life – as central to the Morbid Anatomy mission. “I think if you believe as I do that our time on earth is it,” she says “you want to do the best you can, and reminding ourselves of our mortality is a really good way to stay on track.”