Links, Curiosities & Mixed Wonders – 28

Here is a new collection of trivia and oddities to start the year off right; enjoy!

  • Let’s begin with an extraordinary case reported in September 1988 in the British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology:

The patient was a 15-year-old girl employed in a local bar. She was admitted to hospital after a knife fight involving her, a former lover and a new boyfriend. Who exactly stabbed whom was not quite clear but all three participants in the small war were admitted with knife injuries. The girl had some minor lacerations of the left hand and a single stab-wound in the upper abdomen.

The laparotomy revealed two holes in her stomach, resulting from a single stab wound; the stomach was empty and no gastric fluid spillage was noted in the abdomen, so the doctors sutured the wound and the young patient fully recovered within 10 days.
The bad story seemed to be resolved when, precisely 278 days later, the girl came back to the hospital with sharp pains in her abdomen, and as soon as they saw her the doctors immediately understood that the young woman was pregnant and about to give birth. On closer examination, however, there came a surprise: although the uterus was contracting normally and the cervix was almost fully dilated, the patient had no vagina. Between the labia minora, below the urethral meatus, there was only a shallow skin dimple. The baby, a perfectly healthy male, was delivered by cesarean section, but at that point

curiosity could not be contained any longer and the patient was interviewd with the help of a sympathetic nursing sister. The whole story did not become completely clear during that day but, with some subsequent inquiries, the whole saga emerged.
The patient was well aware of the fact that she had no vagina and she had started oral experiments after disappointing attempts at conventional intercourse. Just before she was stabbed in the abdomen she had practised fellatio with her new boyfriend and was caught in the act by her former lover. The fight with knives ensued. [Subsequently] she had been worried about the increase in her abdominal size but could not believe she was pregnant although it had crossed her mind more often as her girth increased and as people around her suggested that she was pregnant. […] The young mother, her family, and the likely father adapted themselves rapidly to the new situation and some cattle changed hands to prove that there were no hard feelings. […] A plausible explanation for this pregnancy is that spermatozoa gained access to the reproductive organs via the injured gastrointestinal tract. It is known that spermatozoa do not survive long in an environment with a low pH, but it is also known that saliva has a high pH and that a starved person does not produce acid under normal circumstances. […] The fact that the son resembled the father excludes an even more miraculous conception.

  • Katharina Detzel (above) was committed to a mental hospital in 1907 for performing abortions and sabotaging a railroad line in political protest. While confined in the asylum, she constructed a life-size doll with male features, using straw from her mattress. The doll provided her with venting and comfort: she punched it when she was angry and danced with it when she felt happy.
  • In Atlantic City until the 1970s there was a show, dangerous and cruel, that was all the rage: diving into the sea from 18 meters high with horses. (Thanks, Roberto!)
  • Flash news: we have two noses.

  • The facial expression these young ladies are making is called ahegao, and many of you may know that it derives from Japanese hentai in which upturned/crossed eyes, stuck-out tongue and flushing cheeks are used to represent the height of sexual arousal. This pose, which is allusive while not being explicitly pornographic, moved from comic books to the Internet in a short time, becoming a widespread phenomenon on social media. Interestingly, tracing the history of the ahegao face reveals that it owes all its fortune to Japanese censorship.
  • Let’s stay in the Land of the Rising Sun: in 1803 some strange, UFO-like vessel ran aground on the shores of Japan. Inside was a beautiful red-haired teenager, dressed in strange clothes and unable to speak Japanese. The inhabitants, convinced that she might be a princess from a distant country, and wanting to avoid trouble with the local authorities, decided… to throw her back into the sea. Truth or legend?
  • An incredible resource for all artists, and more: J.G. Heck’s Iconographic Encyclopedia, published between 1849 and 1851, has been digitized in a new interactive form that includes more than 13,000 spectacular illustrations. (In each section, the “Plates only” button at the top allows you to exclude the text.)

  • Above is one of the small robots appearing in the science fiction film Silent Running (1972), capable of moving in a funny, almost human-like manner. A very thorough article reveals their “secret”: they were basically costumes operated by legless actors. Director Douglas Trumbull, who at the time was accused of being insensitive about employing disabled people, recalls in interviews that the four actors actually had a great time and were handsomely paid for their job.
  • Speaking of cinema, here is some utter genius at work. Starting in the 1930s, director Melton Barker made the same film, The Kidnappers Foil, more than 130 times, using the same script and largely the same shots. The subject was basic: a little girl named Betty Davis is kidnapped on her birthday; the town’s children, attracted by the reward put up by the missing girl’s father, organize several search parties; they finally succeed in rescuing her, and in the finale a big party erupts in which the children perform dances and musical numbers.
    What, then, was Barker’s gimmick? The film was played exclusively by the children residing in the town where he was staying at the time. Parents gladly paid a small fee for their children to be immortalized on film; within a few weeks of the filming being finished, the movie was ready to be shown in local movie theaters, to the delight of all the residents.
    In this way, moving from town to town across the United States, Melton Barker was able to sustain himself for 40 years. In 2012 the few surviving prints of The Kidnappers Foil were added to the National Film Registry for preservation as historically significant; you can see some versions of the film on this website.
  • In Lviv, during the Nazi occupation, many Polish intellectuals managed to avoid concentration camps and receive additional food rations by undertaking a singular job: louse-feeder. (Thanks, Roberto!)

  • The story of the leg of Santa Anna — a Mexican politician, general, dictator, and president — is almost as adventurous as that of its owner. The Generalisimo had been wounded in 1838 by cannon fire during a battle against the French, and had suffered an amputation below his left knee. He had initially buried the leg on his property in Vera Cruz. Once he became president of Mexico again in 1842, he had his leg exhumed and taken, in a luxurious ornate carriage, to Mexico City; there he had prepared an elaborate state funeral for his amputated limb, burying it in a small glass coffin. Two years later, the Santa Anna government was overthrown and a mob of rioters, in addition to destroying the president’s statues, dug up his leg and dragged it through the streets until there was nothing left of it.
    After regaining power, during the Battle of Cerro Gordo in 1847, Santa Anna was attacked by surprise while he was having lunch. Fleeing in a hurry, he left behind his wooden leg: it was collected as a trophy by U.S. infantry soldiers. That is why the prosthesis pictured above is still in the Illinois State Military Museum today.
  • And let’s talk about animals: in Brazil, in the small seaside town of Laguna, residents and dolphins have been joining forces to fish for 140 years. Only there is some doubt that it is the dolphins who have trained the humans.
  • News from last year but which for some reason I find touching: some archaeologists are hunting for the grave of Nancy, an elephantess who escaped from a traveling circus in 1891.
  • And finally, here is a spider doing a cartwheel (via Bestiale):

That’s all, see you next time!

Living Machines: Automata Between Nature and Artifice

Article by Laura Tradii
University of Oxford,
MSc History of Science, Medicine and Technology

In a rather unknown operetta morale, the great Leopardi imagines an award competition organised by the fictitious Academy of Syllographers. Being the 19th Century the “Age of Machines”, and despairing of the possibility of improving mankind, the Academy will reward the inventors of three automata, described in a paroxysm of bitter irony: the first will have to be a machine able to act like a trusted friend, ready to assist his acquaintances in the moment of need, and refraining from speaking behind their back; the second machine will be a “steam-powered artificial man” programmed to accomplish virtuous deeds, while the third will be a faithful woman. Considering the great variety of automata built in his century, Leopardi points out, such achievements should not be considered impossible.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth century, automata (from the Greek, “self moving” or “acting of itself”) had become a real craze in Europe, above all in aristocratic circles. Already a few centuries earlier, hydraulic automata had often been installed in the gardens of palaces to amuse the visitors. Jessica Riskin, author of several works on automata and their history, describes thus the machines which could be found, in the fourteenth and fifteenth century, in the French castle of Hesdin:

“3 personnages that spout water and wet people at will”; a “machine for wetting ladies when they step on it”; an “engien [sic] which, when its knobs are touched, strikes in the face those who are underneath and covers them with black or white [flour or coal dust]”.1

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In the fifteenth century, always according to Riskin, Boxley Abbey in Kent displayed a mechanical Jesus which could be moved by pulling some strings. The Jesus muttered, blinked, moved his hands and feet, nodded, and he could smile and frown. In this period, the fact that automata required a human to operate them, instead of moving of their own accord as suggested by the etymology, was not seen as cheating, but rather as a necessity.2

In the eighteenth century, instead, mechanics and engineers attempted to create automata which could move of their own accord once loaded, and this change could be contextualised in a time in which mechanistic theories of nature had been put forward. According to such theories, nature could be understood in fundamentally mechanical terms, like a great clockwork whose dynamics and processes were not much different from the ones of a machine. According to Descartes, for example, a single mechanical philosophy could explain the actions of both living beings and natural phenomena.3
Inventors attempted therefore to understand and artificially recreate the movements of animals and human beings, and the mechanical duck built by Vaucanson is a perfect example of such attempts.

With this automaton, Vaucanson purposed to replicate the physical process of digestion: the duck would eat seeds, digest them, and defecate. In truth, the automaton simply simulated these processes, and the faeces were prepared in advance. The silver swan built by John Joseph Merlin (1735-1803), instead, imitated with an astonishing realism the movements of the animal, which moved (and still moves) his neck with surprising flexibility. Through thin glass tubes, Merlin even managed to recreate the reflection of the water on which the swan seemed to float.

 

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Vaucanson’s Flute Player, instead, played a real flute, blowing air into the instruments thanks to mechanical lungs, and moving his fingers. On a similar vein, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, a little model of Napoleon was displayed in the United Kingdom: the puppet breathed, and it was covered in a material which imitated the texture of skin.  The advertisement for its exhibition at the Dublin’s Royal Arcade described it as a ‘splendid Work of Art’, ‘produc[ing] a striking imitation of human nature, in its Form, Color, and Texture, animated with the act of Respiration, Flexibility of the Limbs, and Elasticity of Flesh, as to induce a belief that this pleasing and really wonderful Figure is a living subject, ready to get up and speak’.4

The attempt to artificially recreate natural processes included other functions beyond movement. In 1779, the Academy of Sciences of Saint Petersburg opened a competition to mechanise the most human of all faculties, language, rewarding who would have succeeded in building a machine capable of pronouncing vowels. A decade later, Kempelen, the inventor of the famous Chess-Playing Turk, built a machine which could pronounce 19 consonants (at least according to Kempelen himself).5

In virtue of their uncanny nature, automata embody the tension between artifice and nature which for centuries has animated Western thought. The quest not only for the manipulation, but for the perfecting of the natural order, typical of the Wunderkammer or the alchemical laboratory, finds expression in the automaton, and it is this presumption that Leopardi comments with sarcasm. For Leopardi, like for some of his contemporaries, the idea that human beings could enhance what Nature already created perfect is a pernicious misconception. The traditional narrative of progress, according to which the lives of humans can be improved through technology, which separates mankind from the cruel state of nature, is challenged by Leopardi through his satire of automata. With his proverbial optimism, the author believes that all that distances humans from Nature can only be the cause of suffering, and that no improvement in the human condition shall be achieved through mechanisation and modernisation.

This criticism is substantiated by the fear that humans may become victims of their own creation, a discourse which was widespread during the Industrial Revolution. Romantic writer Jean Paul (1763-1825), for example, uses automata to satirise the society of the late eighteenth century, imagining a dystopic world in which machines are used to control the citizens and to carry out even the most trivial tasks: to chew food, to play music, and even to pray.6

The mechanical metaphors which were often used in the seventeenth century to describe the functioning of the State, conceptualised as a machine formed of different cogs or institutions, acquire here a dystopic connotation, becoming the manifestation of a bureaucratic, mechanical, and therefore dehumanising order. It is interesting to see how observations of this kind recur today in debates over Artificial Intelligence, and how, quoting Leopardi, a future is envisioned in which “the uses of machines [will come to] include not only material things, but also spiritual ones”.

A closer future than we may think, since technology modifies in entirely new directions our way of life, our understanding of ourselves, and our position in the natural order.

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[1]  Jessica Riskin, Frolicsome Engines: The Long Prehistory of Artificial Intelligence.
[2]  Grafton, The Devil as Automaton: Giovanni Fontana and the Meanings of a Fifteenth-Century Machine, p.56.
[3]  Grafton, p.58.
[4]  Jennifer Walls, Captivating Respiration: the “Breathing Napoleon”.
[5]  John P. Cater, Electronically Speaking: Computer Speech Generation, Howard M. Sams & Co., 1983, pp. 72-74.
[6]  Jean Paul, 1789. Discusso in Sublime Dreams of Living Machines: the Automaton in the European Imagination di Minsoo Kang.

Tari Nakagawa

Le macabre e malinconiche necro-ninfe dell’artista giapponese Tari Nakagawa sono davvero il lato oscuro delle Barbie, tristi e scheletriche bambole anatomiche ormai perdute.

Fragili, eteree, malate e spesso in decomposizione: queste bambole create dallo scultore giapponese hanno qualcosa di indicibilmente triste e al tempo stesso poetico.

Nonostante i loro sguardi persi e drammatici, ormai irrimediabilmente segnati da una fine imminente, le bambole sembrano sospese in una dimensione di dolore e di nostalgia, come se si aggrappassero agli ultimi brandelli di vita che rimangono nei loro corpi sofferenti.

Le sensazioni e le emozioni che suscitano sono molteplici. Il loro stesso status di bambole rimanda all’infanzia, ai giochi spensierati e innocenti, eppure queste sculture conoscono il tempo, il disfacimento, la morte, e non ne fanno segreto. Sono bambole “adulte”, che sembrano avere davvero un’anima.

Il blog di Tari Nakagawa (in giapponese, diverse immagini).

L’isola delle bambole

Una piccola isola messicana sul lago Teshuil, fra Xochimilco e Città del Messico, è chiamata Isla de las munecas, l’Isola delle bambole. Al centro di una affascinante leggenda, è divenuta nel tempo una curiosa e suggestiva meta turistica.

Quando il visitatore sbarca sull’isola, lo accoglie un’atmosfera sospesa: migliaia e migliaia di bambole sono appese agli alberi e penzolano in ogni dove, come piccoli impiccati senz’anima.

Eppure un’anima ce l’hanno, ed è quella della leggenda. Qui, si narra, proprio nel canale che passa di fianco all’isola, tre fanciulle stavano giocando quando una di esse annegò nelle acque scure della laguna. Molti anni dopo, un recluso e solitario uomo chiamato Don Julian Santana, si istallò sull’isola. Memore del passato oscuro del luogo, decise di costruire un santuario per lo spirito della povera bambina annegata. Cominciò ad appendere alcune bambole per cercare di placare l’anima della piccola, per donarle qualcosa con cui giocare.

Nelle terre vicine, Julian appariva soltanto per rovistare tra i bidoni della spazzatura alla ricerca di nuove bambole, o per acquistarne di antiche per pochi soldi. A poco a poco, fu la gente limitrofa che cominciò a rendere visita al solitario personaggio: gli abitanti del luogo portavano le bambole che avevano in casa per barattarle con i frutti e gli ortaggi che Julian coltivava sull’isola.

Con il passare del tempo, la collezione di bambolotti divenne enorme. L’intero isolotto fu popolato da questi giocattoli talvolta semidistrutti, rotti, esposti alle intemperie. Eppure questo tributo che Julian (e, assieme a lui, gli altri abitanti di quelle zone) offrivano allo spirito della ragazzina è la testimonianza della concezione, tutta messicana, della morte e della transitorietà.

Come il Giorno dei Morti ( di cui abbiamo già parlato) è un momento di riflessione sulla nostra caducità che si riverbera nella tradizione popolare, così anche l’Isola delle Bambole altro non è se non un luogo di meditazione sulla morte e sull’impermanenza.

Quello che è comunque notevole è l’aspetto surreale, macabro e grottesco ma al tempo stesso magico che il luogo conserva: inizialmente impressionato, il visitatore  coglie pian piano il senso di grande pietà e di raccoglimento dell’isola. La magia di queste bambole semidistrutte che ondeggiano nella brezza diviene un simbolo della nostra esistenza, e dell’amore che può legare persone che nemmeno si conoscono. Una bambina annegata, e un enorme santuario dedicato alla sua felicità, affinché possa giocare per sempre.

How sweet to be remembered that way! Wouldn’t you like to come up and see my wunderkammer? ;)Teshuilo

Trevor Brown

L’artista inglese Trevor Brown è celebre per le sue opere estreme e macabre, che spesso affrontano temi difficili e spinosi. Trasferitosi in Giappone all’inizio degli anni ’90, ha goduto di una fama sempre maggiore mano a mano che le sue pubblicazioni raggiungevano un’ampia diffusione, e che le sue immagini venivano utilizzate per adornare copertine di album di vario genere, e pubblicate sulle prime pagine di diverse riviste famose.

I dipinti di Brown sono ispirati dagli scritti di Sade e di Georges Bataille sull’erotismo, ma ciò che li rende davvero unici è la commistione di innocenza e violenza con la cultura pop giapponese. Trevor Brown esplora diversi territori ritenuti tabù: la pedofilia, la tortura, il medical fetish (di cui è pioniere riconosciuto), il BDSM e altre parafilie.

Protagoniste dei suoi disegni sono quasi esclusivamente bambine sottoposte a vari generi di stress, torture o costrizioni. Eppure, grazie appunto alla forza con la quale l’artista riesce a fondere la sua sensibilità con la cultura giapponese, queste immagini crude e forti emanano un’aria di innocenza e di infantilismo che contrasta con gli aspetti più macabri. I colori pop estremamente accesi, i grandi occhi in puro stile manga, la limpida pulizia dell’immagine rendono i suoi dipinti delle specie di teatrini astratti, pure icone di repulsione e desiderio.

Alcune delle sue immagini più celebri esplorano il cosiddetto medical fetish, vale a dire il feticismo ospedaliero per le bende, le siringhe, gli strumenti chirurgici e ginecologici. L’ispirazione principale (dichiarata) per questo tipo di feticismo restano i romanzi di uno dei maggiori scrittori inglesi del dopoguerra, James G. Ballard (Crash e La mostra delle atrocità sopra a tutti).


Trevor Brown è anche affascinato dalle bambole create da sua moglie: da un certo momento in poi comincia quindi a inserirle anche all’interno dei suoi lavori. La bambola è un altro stratagemma efficace per creare quel senso di disagio e spaesamento che l’artista ricerca: simbolo ludico e infantile per eccellenza, viene qui posto in situazioni invariabilmente adulte, crudeli o morbose.

Eppure, per quanto macabri ed estremi, i suoi dipinti hanno sempre qualcosa di indefinitamente positivo. Le ferite, gli ematomi, le garze oftalmiche divengono quasi un gioco sensuale, perdono il loro alone di semplice sofferenza: rappresentati come oggetto feticistico, sembrano divenire orpelli quasi desiderabili. Sembra cioè che le stesse bambole se ne rendano conto, e si compiacciano ingenuamente che la loro bellezza venga esaltata da questi strani ornamenti.

L’apparente semplicità dei disegni di Trevor Brown nasconde una cura maniacale per il dettaglio, e un senso della composizione non comune. Grazie all’ibridazione fra l’immaginario infantile e quello feticistico, Brown riesce a interrogarci sulla natura sadica del desiderio, mettendoci a disagio con pochi, precisi elementi.

Il sito ufficiale di Trevor Brown.

Reborn Dolls

Nata all’inizio degli anni ’90, e presto divenuta di vaste proporzioni, la “moda” delle Reborn Dolls si è da tempo affermata anche da noi. Si tratta di bambole modificate a mano, attraverso un lungo processo artistico, per renderle il più realistiche possibili.

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Il processo di modificazione, chiamato reborning, consta in varie fasi in cui la pelle viene dipinta in successivi strati, per simulare la presenza delle vene e donare la giusta texture alla cute della bambola; i capelli e le sopracciglia vengono inserite una alla volta mediante un apposito ago, e le narici vengono lasciate aperte per permettere al bambolotto di “respirare”. Alcuni reborners (gli artisti di questa pratica) arrivano ad aggiungere all’interno della bambola un simulatore di battito cardiaco.

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Il reborning, nato come forma d’arte di nicchia, è divenuto col tempo sempre più popolare, tanto che diverse industrie di settore hanno cominciato a produrre dei kit di bambole da assemblare e modificare.

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Queste bambole iperrealistiche sono trattate come dei veri e propri bambini. La maggioranza dei collezionisti di Reborn Dolls infatti è costituita da donne, spesso anziane, che hanno perso un figlio, non ne possono avere, o hanno subito il trauma dell’aborto. Le Reborn Dolls sono quindi accudite, coccolate, messe a letto, nutrite, perfino portate in giro in carrozzina, come se fossero vive e reali. Anche l’acquisto online è usualmente proposto come un’adozione, più che una mera compravendita, e le bambole sono spesso corredate da finti certificati di nascita.

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Nella polemica che inevitabilmente è sorta, molti psicologi hanno sottolineato l’importanza terapeutica che potrebbero rivestire queste bambole nell’elaborazione del lutto: altri sostengono che sostituire il figlio morto con una bambola non sia di alcuna utilità per chi deve venire a patti con una triste realtà. Accudirle, infatti, potrebbe addirittura favorire la produzione di ossitocina, proprio come un bambino vero, causando così nella “madre” un forte attaccamento.

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Che sia una dolce illusione, o una fissazione maniacale, sembra proprio che delle reborn dolls si avvertisse il bisogno: le vendite su internet sono in costante crescita, nonostante il prezzo di certo non popolare (si va dai 300 alle diverse migliaia di dollari).

P.S. Se vi pare che queste bambole abbiano qualcosa di sinistro e inquietante, niente paura. Questo effetto è chiamato uncanny valley: secondo questa teoria, gli oggetti inanimati che raffigurano esseri viventi susciterebbero la nostra simpatia solo fino ad una determinata soglia di realismo, oltre la quale sarebbero percepiti come “troppo reali” e innaturali, e provocherebbero repulsione.