Wunderkammer Reborn – Part II

(Second and last part – you can find the first one here.)

In the Nineteenth Century, wunderkammern disappeared.
The collections ended up disassembled, sold to private citizens or integrated in the newly born modern museums. Scientists, whose discipline was already defined, lost interest for the ancient kind of baroque wonder, perhaps deemed child-like in respect to the more serious postitivism.
This type of collecting continued in sporadic and marginal ways during the first decades of the Twetieth Century. Some rare antique dealer, especially in Belgium, the Netherlands or Paris, still sold some occasional mirabilia, but the golden age of the trade was long gone.
Of the few collectors of this first half of the century the most famous is André Breton, whose cabinet of curiosities is now on permanent exhibit at the Centre Pompidou.

The interest of wunderkammern began to reawaken during the Eighties from two distinct fronts: academics and artists.
On one hand, museology scholars began to recognize the role of wunderkammern as precursors of today’s museal collections; on the other, some artists fell in love with the concept of the chamber of wonders and started using it in their work as a metaphor of Man’s relationship with objects.
But the real upswing came with the internet. The neo-wunderkammer “movement” developed via the web, which opened new possibilities not only for sharing the knowledge but also to revitalize the commerce of curiosities.

Let’s take a look, as we did for the classical collections, to some conceptual elements of neo-wunderkammern.

A Democratic Wunderkammer

The first macroscopic difference with the past is that collecting curiosities is no more an exclusive of wealthy billionaires. Sure, a very-high-profile market exists, one that the majority of enthusiasts will never access; but the good news is that today, anybody who can afford an internet conection already has the means to begin a little collection. Thanks to the web, even a teenager can create his/her own shelf of wonders. All that’s needed is good will and a little patience to comb through the many natural history collectibles websites or online auctions for some real bargain.

There are now children’s books, school activities and specific courses encouraging kids to start this form of exploration of natural wonders.

The result of all this is a more democratic wunderkammer, within the reach of almost any wallet.

Reinventing Exotica

We talked about the classic category of exotica, those objects that arrived from distant colonies and from mysterious cultures.
But today, what is really exotic – etymologically, “coming from the outside, from far away”? After all we live in a world where distances don’t matter any more, and we can travel without even moving: in a bunch of seconds and a few clicks, we can virtually explore any place, from a mule track on the Andes to the jungles of Borneo.

This is a fundamental issue for the collectors, because globalization runs the risk of annihilating an important part of the very concept of wonder. Their strategies, conscious or not, are numerous.
Some collectors have turned their eyes towards the only real “external space” that is left — the cosmos; they started looking for memorabilia from the heroic times of the Space Race. Spacesuits, gear and instruments from various space missions, and even fragments of the Moon.

Others push in the opposite direction, towards the most distant past; consequently the demand for dinosaur fossils is in constant growth.

But there are other kinds of new exotica that are closer to us – indeed, they pertain directly to our own society.
Internal exoticism: not really an oxymoron, if we consider that anthropologists have long turned the instruments of ethnology towards the modern Western worold (take for instance Marc Augé). To seek what is exotic within our own cultre is to investigate liminal zones, fringe realities of our time or of the recent past.

Thus we find a recent fascination for some “taboo” areas, related for example to crime (murder weapons, investigative items, serial killer memorabilia) or death (funerary objecs and Victorian mourning apparel); the medicalia sub-category of quack remedies, as for example electric shock terapies or radioactive pharamecutical products.

Jessika M. collection – photo Brian Powell, from Morbid Curiosities (courtesy P. Gambino)

Funerary collectibles.

Violet wand kit; its low-voltage electric shock was marketed as the cure for everything.

Even curiosa, vintage or ancient erotic objects, are an example of exotica coming from a recent past which is now transfigured.

A Dialogue Between The Objects

Building a wunderkammer today is an eminently artistic endeavour. The scientific or anthropological interest, no matter how relevant, cannot help but be strictly connected to aesthetics.
There is a greater general attention to the interplay between the objects than in the past. A painting can interact with an object placed in front of it; a tribal mask can be made to “dialogue” with an other similar item from a completely different tradition. There is undoubtedly a certain dose of postmodern irreverence in this approach; for when pop culture collectibles are allowed entrance to the wunderkammer, ending up exhibited along with precious and refined antiques, the self-righteous art critic is bound to shudder (see for instance Victor Wynd‘s peculiar iconoclasm).

An example I find paradigmatic of this search for a deeper interaction are the “adventurous” juxtapositions experimented by friend Luca Cableri (the man who brought to Moon to Italy); you can read the interview he gave me if you wish to know more about him.

Wearing A Wunderkammer

Fashion is always aware of new trends, and it intercepted some aspects of the world of wunerkammern. Thanks mainly to the goth and dark subcultures, one can find jewelry and necklaces made from naturalistic specimens: on Etsy, eBay or Craigslist, countless shops specialize in hand-crafted brooches, hair clips or other fashion accessories sporting skulls, small wearable taxidermies and so on.

Conceptual Art and Rogue Taxidermists

As we said, the renewed interest also came from the art world, which found in wunderkammern an effective theoretical frame to reflect about modernity.
The first name that comes to mind is of course Damien Hirst, who took advantage of the concept both in his iconic fluid-preserved animals and in his kaleidoscopic compositions of lepidoptera and butterflies; but even his For The Love of God, the well-known skull covered in diamonds, is an excessively precious curiosity that would not have been out of place in a Sixteenth Century treasure chamber.

Hirst is not the only artist taking inspiration from the wunderkammer aesthetics. Mark Dion, for instance, creates proper cabinets of wonders for the modern era: in his work, it’s not natural specimens that are put under formaldeyde, but rather their plastic replicas or even everyday objects, from push brooms to rubber dildos. Dion builds a sort of museum of consumerism in which – yet again – Nature and Culture collide and even at times fuse together, giving us no hope of telling them apart.

In 2013 Rosamund Purcell’s installation recreated a 3D version of the Seventeenth Century Ole Worm Museum: reinvention/replica, postmodern doppelgänger and hyperreal simulachrum which allows the public to step into one of the most famous etchings in the history of wunderkammern.

Besides the “high” art world – auction houses and prestigious galleries – we are also witnessing a rejuvenation of more artisanal sectors.
This is the case with the art of taxidermy, which is enjoying a new youth: today taxidermy courses and workshops are multiplying.

Remember that in the first post I talked about taxidermy as a domestication of the scariest aspects of Nature? Well, according to the participants, these workshops offer a way to exorcise their fear of death on a comfortably small scale, through direct contact and a creative activity. (We shall return on this tactile element.)
A further push towards innovation has come from yet another digital movement, called Rogue Taxidermy.

Artistic, non-traditional taxidermy has always existed, from fake mirabilia and gaffs such as mummified sirens and Jenny Hanivers to Walter Potter‘s antropomorphic dioramas. But rogue taxidermists bring all this to a whole new level.

Initially born as a consortium of three artists – Sarina Brewer, Scott Bibus e Robert Marbury – who were interested in taxidermy in the broadest sense (Marbury does not even use real animals for his creations, but plush toys), rogue taxidermy quickly became an international movement thanks to the web.

The fantastic chimeras produced by these artists are actually meta-taxidermies: by exhibiting their medium in such a manifest way, they seem to question our own relationship with animals. A relationship that has undergone profound changes and is now moving towards a greater respect and care for the environment. One of the tenets of rogue taxidermy is in fact the use of ethically sourced materials, and the animals used in preparations all died of natural causes. (Here’s a great book tracing the evolution and work of major rogue taxidermy artists.)

Wunderkammer Reborn

So we are left with the fundamental question: why are wunderkammern enjoying such a huge success right now, after five centuries? Is it just a retro, nostalgic trend, a vintage frivolous fashion like we find in many subcultures (yes I’m looking at you, my dear hipster friends) or does its attractiveness lie in deeper urgencies?

It is perhaps too soon to put forward a hypothesis, but I shall go out on a limb anyway: it is my belief that the rebirth of wunderkammern is to be sought in a dual necessity. On one hand the need to rethink death, and on the other the need to rethink art and narratives.

Rethinking Death
(And While We’re At It, Why Not Domesticate It)

Swiss anthropologist Bernard Crettaz was among the first to voice the ever more widespread need to break the “tyrannical secrecy” regarding death, typical of the Twentieth Century: in 2004 he organized in Neuchâtel the first Café mortel, a free event in which participants could talk about grief, and discuss their fears but also their curiosities on the subject. Inspired by Crettaz’s works and ideas, Jon Underwood launched the first British Death Café in 2011. His model received an enthusiastic response, and today almost 5000 events have been held in 50 countries across the world.

Meanwhile, in the US, a real Death-Positive Movement was born.
Originated from the will to drastically change the American funeral industry, criticized by founder Caitlin Doughty, the movement aims at lifting the taboo regarding the subject of death, and promotes an open reflection on related topics and end-of-life issues. (You probably know my personal engagement in the project, to which I contributed now and then: you can read my interview to Caitlin and my report from the Death Salon in Philadelphia).

What has the taboo of death got to do with collecting wonders?
Over the years, I have had the opportunity of talking to many a collector. Almost all of them recall, “as if it were yesterday“, the emotion they felt while holding in their hands the first piece of their collection, that one piece that gave way to their obsession. And for the large majority of them it was a naturalistic specimen – an animal skeleton, a taxidermy, etc.: as a friend collector says, “you never forget your first skull“.

The tactile element is as essential today as it was in classical wunderkammern, where the public was invited to study, examine, touch the specimens firsthand.

Owning an animal skull (or even a human one) is a safe and harmless way to become familiar with the concreteness of death. This might be the reason why the macabre element of wunderkammern, which was marginal centuries ago, often becomes a prevalent aspect today.

Ryan Matthew Cohn collection – photo Dan Howell & Steve Prue, from Morbid Curiosities (courtesy P. Gambino)

Rethinking Art: The Aesthetics Of Wonder

After the decline of figurative arts, after the industrial reproducibility of pop art, after the advent of ready-made art, conceptual art reached its outer limit, giving a coup the grace to meaning.  Many contemporary artists have de facto released art not just from manual skill, from artistry, but also from the old-fashioned idea that art should always deliver a message.
Pure form, pure signifier, the new conceptual artworks are problematic because they aspire to put a full stop to art history as we know it. They look impossible to understand, precisely because they are designed to escape any discourse.
It is therefore hard to imagine in what way artistic research will overcome this emptiness made of cold appearance, polished brilliance but mere surface nonetheless; hard to tell what new horizon might open up, beyond multi-million auctions, artistars and financial hikes planned beforehand by mega-dealers and mega-collectors.

To me, it seems that the passion for wunderkammern might be a way to go back to narratives, to meaning. An antidote to the overwhelming surface. Because an object is worth its place inside a chamber of marvels only by virtue of the story it tells, the awe it arises, the vertigo it entails.
I believe I recognize in this genre of collecting a profound desire to give back reality to its lost enchantment.
Lost? No, reality never ceased to be wonderous, it is our gaze that needs to be reeducated.

From Cabinets de Curiosités (2011) – photo C. Fleurant

Eventually, a  wunderkammer is just a collection of objects, and we already live submerged in an ocean of objects.
But it is also an instrument (as it once was, as it has always been) – a magnifying glass to inspect the world and ourselves. In these bizarre and strange items, the collector seeks a magical-narrative dimension against the homologation and seriality of mass production. Whether he knows it or not, by being sensitive to the stories concealed within the objects, the emotions they convey, their unicity, the wunderkammer collector is carrying out an act of resistence: because placing value in the exception, in the exotic, is a way to seek new perspectives in spite of the Unanimous Vision.

Da Cabinets de Curiosités (2011) – foto C. Fleurant

La Morgue, yesterday and today

Regarding the Western taboo about death, much has been written on how its “social removal” happened approximately in conjunction with WWI and the institution of great modern hospitals; still it would be more correct to talk about a removal and medicalization of the corpse. The subject of death, in fact, has been widely addressed throughout the Twentieth Century: a century which was heavily imbued with funereal meditations, on the account of its history of unprecedented violence. What has vanished from our daily lives is rather the presence of the dead bodies and, most of all, putrefaction.

Up until the end of Nineteenth Century, the relationship with human remains was inevitable and accepted as a natural part of existence, not just in respect to the preparation of a body at home, but also in the actual experience of so-called unnatural deaths.
One of the most striking examples of this familiarity with decomposition is the infamous Morgue in Paris.

Established in 1804, to replace the depository for dead bodies which during the previous centuries was found in the prison of Grand Châtelet, the Morgue stood in the heart of the capital, on the île de la Cité. In 1864 it was moved to a larger building on the point of the island, right behind Notre Dame. The word had been used since the Fifteenth Century to designate the cell where criminals were identified; in jails, prisoners were put “at the morgue” to be recognized. Since the Sixteenth Century, the word began to refer exclusively to the place where identification of corpses was carried out.

Due to the vast number of violent deaths and of bodies pulled out of the Seine, this mortuary was constantly filled with new “guests”, and soon transcended its original function. The majority of visitors, in fact, had no missing relatives to recognize.
The first ones to have different reasons to come and observe the bodies, which were laid out on a dozen black marble tables behind a glass window, were of course medical students and anatomists.

This receptacle for the unknown dead found in Paris and the faubourgs of the city, contributes not a little to the forwarding of the medical sciences, by the vast number of bodies it furnishes, which, on an average, amount to about two hundred annually. The process of decomposition in the human body may be seen at La Morgue, throughout every stage to solution, by those whose taste, or pursuit of science, leads them to that melancholy exhibition. Medical men frequently visit the place, not out of mere curiosity, but for the purpose of medical observation, for wounds, fracturs, and injuries of every description occasionally present themselves, as the effect of accident or murder. Scarcely a day passes without the arrival of fresh bodies, chiefly found in the Seine, and very probably murdered, by being flung either out of the windows which overhang the Seine river, or off the bridges, or out of the wine and wood-barges, by which the men who sell the cargoes generally return with money in their pockets […]. The clothes of the dead bodies brought into this establishment are hung up, and the corpse is exposed in a public room for inspection of those who visit the place for the purpose of searching for a lost friend or relative. Should it not be recognised in four days, it is publicly dissected, and then buried.

(R. Sears, Scenes and sketches in continental Europe, 1847)

This descripton is, however, much too “clean”. Despite the precautions taken to keep the bodies at low temperature, and to bathe them in chloride of lime, the smell was far from pleasant:

For most of the XIX Century, and even from an earlier time, the smell of cadavers was part of the routine in the Morgue. Because of its purpose and mode of operation, the Morgue was the privileged place for cadaveric stench in Paris […]. In fact, the bodies that had stayed in the water constituted the ordinary reality at the Morgue. Their putrefaction was especially spectacular.

(B. Bertherat, Le miasme sans la jonquille, l’odeur du cadavre à la Morgue de Paris au XIXe siècle,
in Imaginaire et sensibilités au XIXe siècle, Créaphis, 2005)

What is curious (and quite incomprehensible) for us today is how the Morgue could soon become one of the trendiest Parisian attractions.
A true theatre of death, a public exhibition of horror, each day it was visited by dozens of people of all backgrounds, as it certainly offered the thrill of a unique sight. It was a must for tourists visiting the capital, as proven by the diaries of the time:

We left the Louvre and went to the Morgue where three dead bodies lay waiting identification. They were a horrible sight. In a glass case one child that had been murdered, its face pounded fearfully.

(Adelia “Addie” Sturtevant‘s diary, September 17, 1889)

The most enlightening description comes from the wonderful and terrible pages devoted to the mortuary by Émile Zola. His words evoke a perfect image of the Morgue experience in XIX Century:

In the meantime Laurent imposed on himself the task of passing each morning by the Morgue, on the way to his office. […]When he entered the place an unsavoury odour, an odour of freshly washed flesh, disgusted him and a chill ran over his skin: the dampness of the walls seemed to add weight to his clothing, which hung more heavily on his shoulders. He went straight to the glass separating the spectators from the corpses, and with his pale face against it, looked. Facing him appeared rows of grey slabs, and upon them, here and there, the naked bodies formed green and yellow, white and red patches. While some retained their natural condition in the rigidity of death, others seemed like lumps of bleeding and decaying meat. At the back, against the wall, hung some lamentable rags, petticoats and trousers, puckered against the bare plaster. […] Frequently, the flesh on the faces had gone away by strips, the bones had burst through the mellow skins, the visages were like lumps of boned, boiled beef. […] One morning, he was seized with real terror. For some moments, he had been looking at a corpse, taken from the water, that was small in build and atrociously disfigured. The flesh of this drowned person was so soft and broken-up that the running water washing it, carried it away bit by bit. The jet falling on the face, bored a hole to the left of the nose. And, abruptly, the nose became flat, the lips were detached, showing the white teeth. The head of the drowned man burst out laughing.

Zola further explores the ill-conealed erotic tension such a show could provoke in visitors, both men and women. A liminal zone — the boundaries between Eros and Thanatos — which for our modern sensibility is even more “dangerous”.

This sight amused him, particularly when there were women there displaying their bare bosoms. These nudities, brutally exposed, bloodstained, and in places bored with holes, attracted and detained him. Once he saw a young woman of twenty there, a child of the people, broad and strong, who seemed asleep on the stone. Her fresh, plump, white form displayed the most delicate softness of tint. She was half smiling, with her head slightly inclined on one side. Around her neck she had a black band, which gave her a sort of necklet of shadow. She was a girl who had hanged herself in a fit of love madness. […] On a certain occasion Laurent noticed one of the [well-dressed ladies] standing at a few paces from the glass, and pressing her cambric handkerchief to her nostrils. She wore a delicious grey silk skirt with a large black lace mantle; her face was covered by a veil, and her gloved hands seemed quite small and delicate. Around her hung a gentle perfume of violet. She stood scrutinising a corpse. On a slab a few paces away, was stretched the body of a great, big fellow, a mason who had recently killed himself on the spot by falling from a scaffolding. He had a broad chest, large short muscles, and a white, well-nourished body; death had made a marble statue of him. The lady examined him, turned him round and weighed him, so to say, with her eyes. For a time, she seemed quite absorbed in the contemplation of this man. She raised a corner of her veil for one last look. Then she withdrew.

Finally, the Morgue was also an ironically democratic attraction, just like death itself:

The morgue is a sight within reach of everybody, and one to which passers-by, rich and poor alike, treat themselves. The door stands open, and all are free to enter. There are admirers of the scene who go out of their way so as not to miss one of these performances of death. If the slabs have nothing on them, visitors leave the building disappointed, feeling as if they had been cheated, and murmuring between their teeth; but when they are fairly well occupied, people crowd in front of them and treat themselves to cheap emotions; they express horror, they joke, they applaud or whistle, as at the theatre, and withdraw satisfied, declaring the Morgue a success on that particular day.
Laurent soon got to know the public frequenting the place, that mixed and dissimilar public who pity and sneer in common. Workmen looked in on their way to their work, with a loaf of bread and tools under their arms. They considered death droll. Among them were comical companions of the workshops who elicited a smile from the onlookers by making witty remarks about the faces of each corpse. They styled those who had beenburnt to death, coalmen; the hanged, the murdered, the drowned, the bodies that had been stabbed or crushed, excited their jeering vivacity, and their voices, which slightly trembled, stammered out comical sentences amid the shuddering silence of the hall.

(É. Zola, Thérèse Raquin, 1867)

In the course of its activity, the Morgue was only sporadically criticized, and only for its position, deemed too central. The curiosity in seeing the bodies was evidently not perceived as morbid, or at least it was not considered particularly improper: articles on the famous mortuary and its dead residents made regular appearance on newspapers, which gladly devoted some space to the most mysterious cases.
On March 15, 1907 the Morgue was definitively closed to the public, for reasons of “moral hygiene”. Times were already changing: in just a few years Europe was bound to know such a saturation of dead bodies that they could no longer be seen as an entertainment.

And yet, the desire and impulse to observe the signs of death on the human body never really disappeared. Today they survive in the virtual morgues of internet websites offering pictures and videos of accidents and violence. Distanced by a computer screen, rather than the ancient glass wall, contemporary visitors wander through these hyperrealistic mortuaries where bodily frailness is articulated in all its possible variations, witnesses to death’s boundless imagination.
The most striking thing, when surfing these bulletin boards where the obscene is displayed as in a shop window, is seeing how users react. In this extreme underground scene (which would make an interesting object for a study in social psychology) a wide array of people can be found, from the more or less casual visitor in search of a thrill, up to the expert “gorehounds”, who seem to collect these images like trading cards and who, with every new posted video, act smart and discuss its technical and aesthetic quality.
Perhaps in an attempt to exorcise the disgust, another constant is the recourse to an unpleasant and out-of-place humor; and it is impossible to read these jokes, which might appear indecent and disrespectful, without thinking of those “comical companions” described by Zola, who jested before the horror.

Aggregators of brutal images might entail a discussion on freedom of information, on the ethics and licitness of exhibiting human remains, and we could ask ourselves if they really serve an “educational” purpose or should be rather viewed as morbid, abnormal, pathological deviations.
Yet such fascinations are all but unheard of: it seems to me that this kind of curiosity is, in a way, intrinsic to the human species, as I have argued in the past.
On closer inspection, this is the same autoptic instinct, the same will to “see with one’s own eyes” that not so long ago (in our great-great-grandfathers’ time) turned the Paris Morgue into a sortie en vogue, a popular and trendy excursion.

The new virtual morgues constitute a niche and, when compared to the crowds lining up to see the swollen bodies of drowning victims, our attitude is certainly more complex. As we’ve said in the beginning, there is an element of taboo which was much less present at the time.
To our eyes the corpse still remains an uneasy, scandalous reality, sometimes even too painful to acknowledge. And yet, consciously or not, we keep going back to fixing our eyes on it, as if it held a mysterious secret.

 

The Alternative Limb Project

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Sophie de Oliveira Barata è un’artista diplomatasi alla London Arts University, e che in seguito si è specializzata in effetti speciali per il cinema e la TV. Ma negli otto anni successivi agli studi, ha trovato impiego nel settore delle protesi mediche; modellando dita, piedi, parti di mani o di braccia per chi li aveva perduti, piano piano nella sua mente ha cominciato a prendere forma un’idea. Perché non rendere quelle protesi realistiche qualcosa di più di un semplice “mascheramento” della disabilità?

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È così che Sophie si è messa in proprio, e ha fondato l’Alternative Limb Project. Il suo servizio è rivolto a tutte quelle persone che hanno subìto amputazioni, ma che invece di fingere la normalità vogliono trasformare la mancanza dell’arto in un’opportunità: quello che Sophie realizza, a partire dall’idea del cliente, è a tutti gli effetti un’opera d’arte unica.

Sophie prende inizialmente un calco dell’arto sano, oppure di un volontario nel caso che il cliente sia un amputato bilaterale. Con il cliente discute della direzione da prendere, i colori, le varie idee possibili; con il medico curante, Sophie lavora a stretto contatto per assicurarsi che la protesi sia confortevole e correttamente indossabile. Le decisioni sul design sono prese passo passo assieme al cliente, finché entrambe le parti non sono soddisfatte.

I risultati del lavoro di Sophie sono davvero straordinari. Si spazia dagli arti ultratecnologici d’alta moda, come quello creato per la cantante e performer Viktoria M. Moskalova (che confessa: “la prima volta che ho indossato un arto che era cosi ovviamente BIONICO, mi ha dato un senso totale di unicità, e di essere una mutante, nel migliore dei sensi“) a un’elegante e deliziosa gamba floreale, fino ad un braccio multiuso che sarebbe tornato utile a James Bond o all’Ispettore Gadget.

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Che si tratti di una gamba ispirata agli elaborati e fini ricami degli avori orientali, oppure di un modello anatomico con muscoli estraibili, o ancora di un braccio con tanto di serpenti avvinghiati in una morsa sensuale, queste protesi hanno in comune la volontà di reclamare la propria individualità senza cercare a tutti i costi di conformarsi alla “normalità”.
Per chi è costretto a subire l’operazione, la perdita di un arto ha un impatto incalcolabile sulla vita di ogni giorno, ma anche e soprattutto sulla sicurezza e la stima di sé: accettare il proprio corpo è difficile, e il sentimento di essere differenti spesso tutt’altro che piacevole. Sophie spera che il suo lavoro aiuti le persone a infrangere qualche barriera, e a modificare, nel proprio piccolo, il modo in cui si guarda alla disabilità.

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E, a leggere i pareri dei clienti soddisfatti, un arto “alternativo” come quelli creati da Sophie può davvero cambiare la vita e ricostruire la fiducia in se stessi. Come dice Kiera, la felice proprietaria della gamba floreale, “ho avuto un incredibile numero di risposte positive, da altri amputati e da persone senza disabilità. Vorrei solo avere più opportunità per indossarla. Devo andare a più feste!

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Ecco il sito ufficiale dell’Alternative Limb Project.

Kegadoru, gli idoli feriti

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Il quartiere Harajuku di Tokyo è famoso in tutto il mondo per le sue Harajuku girls, ragazze dai vestiti stravaganti, multicolori e inevitabilmente kawaii, sempre pronte a capitalizzare qualsiasi cosa faccia tendenza al momento. In questa fucina di mode alternative potete vedere sfilare sui marciapiedi decine di gothic lolita, oppure adolescenti vestite con abiti tradizionali mischiati con capi di marca, o ancora giovani agghindati come se fossero ad un festival di cosplay.

Una moda degli ultimi anni è quella dei kegadoru, ossia gli “idoli feriti”, cioè giovani donne che mostrano segni di traumi fisici, bendaggi e garze oftalmiche o di primo soccorso.

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Forse stanno soltanto cercando di attirare l’attenzione dei maschi orientali. Ma in realtà ricoprirsi di bende o fasciarsi un arto come se si fosse appena usciti dall’ospedale è un modo di strizzare l’occhio ad uno dei feticismi sessuali più in voga in Giappone: il medical fetish ha infatti sempre occupato una nicchia piuttosto apprezzata nell’Olimpo delle fantasie nipponiche, e non soltanto.

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In effetti esistono riviste erotiche specializzate sul tema, in cui belle e procaci modelle sfoggiano fasciature mediche, tutori ed altri apparecchi terapeutici o protesici. Cosa affascina il pubblico maschile in queste fotografie?

A prima vista sembrerebbe controintuitivo: gli evoluzionisti ci hanno sempre insegnato (vedi ad esempio questo articolo) che, seppur inconsciamente, scegliamo i nostri partner per la loro prestanza e salute fisica – segnali di maggiori chance che la procreazione vada a buon fine.
Ma in questo particolare caso diversi fattori entrano in gioco.

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Innanzitutto, le bende. Le fasciature che costringono il corpo, nell’ambito feticistico, rimandano al bondage e alle sue corde, ma con tutta la portata simbolica del contesto clinico. E tutti conosciamo bene il potere di un camice bianco sulla fantasia erotica: il mondo della medicina, in virtù del suo focalizzarsi sul corpo, è entrato prepotentemente nel comune immaginario sessuale, dall’infantile “gioco del dottore”, all’icona pop dell’infermiera sexy, fino ai feticismi che trasformano alcuni strumenti medici in oggetti di desiderio (speculum, clisteri, ecc.).

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In secondo luogo, il concetto di kegadoru fa leva sull’istinto di protezione. In questo senso, è un tipo di roleplay simile a quello che esiste, in ambito BDSM, nel cosiddetto rapporto Daddy/Little, dove il maschio è figura paterna e premurosa (ma anche severa durante le necessarie “punizioni”) e la femmina diviene una bambina, viziosa e incorreggibile ma oltremodo bisognosa di cure e attenzioni. Qui invece, la ragazza occulta parte del suo viso e del suo corpo sotto le bende, e questa sua “imperfezione”, oltre ad esaltarne la bellezza (attraverso il classico effetto “vedo – non vedo”), domanda premura e tenerezza.

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Infine, i kegadoru hanno anche una chiara connotazione masochistica. La donna, in questo gioco, è molto più che indifesa – è addirittura ferita; non può quindi opporre alcuna resistenza. Eppure nel suo esibire le proprie fasciature in pose maliziose, come fossero un tipo particolare di intimo o una divisa fetish, sta evidentemente accettando e scegliendo il suo ruolo.

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Tutto questo contribuisce al complesso fascino degli injured idols, che ha ossessionato almeno due grandi artisti: Trevor Brown (di cui abbiamo parlato in questo articolo) e Romain Slocombe, fotografo, regista, pittore e scrittore parigino che ha fatto delle ragazze “ferite” le sue muse ispiratrici. Ecco alcune delle sue migliori foto.

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R.I.P. HR Giger

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Si è spento ieri il grande H. R. Giger, in seguito alle ferite riportate durante una caduta nella sua casa di Zurigo. Aveva 74 anni.

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Giger aveva cominciato la sua carriera negli anni ’70, e verso la metà del decennio venne reclutato da Alejandro Jodorowsky come designer e scenografo per l’adattamento cinematografico di Dune: il progetto purtroppo non vide mai la luce, ma Giger, ormai fattosi notare ad Hollywood, fu scelto per disegnare i set e il look della creatura di Alien (1979). L’Oscar vinto grazie al film di Ridley Scott gli diede fama internazionale.

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Da quel momento, stabilitosi a Zurigo in pianta stabile, Giger continuò a dipingere, scolpire e progettare arredamenti d’interni e oggetti di design; i suoi quadri comparvero sulle copertine di diversi album musicali; nel 1998 aprì i battenti il Museum H. R. Giger, nel castello di St. Germain a Gruyères.

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I suoi inconfondibili e surreali dipinti, realizzati all’aerografo, aprono una finestra su un futuro oscuro e distopico: panorami plumbei, in cui l’organico e il meccanico si fondono e si confondono, dando vita ad enormi ed enigmatici amplessi di carne e metallo. Se l’idea dell’ibridazione fisica fra l’uomo e la macchina risulta oggi forse un po’  datata, l’elemento ancora disturbante dei dipinti di Giger è proprio questa sensualità morbosa e perversa, una sorta di sessualità post-umana e post-apocalittica.

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La sua opera, al tempo stesso viscerale ed elegante, è capace di mescolare desiderio e orrore, tragicità e mistero. La sfrenata fantasia di H. R. Giger, e le sue visioni infernali e aliene, hanno influenzato l’immaginario di un’intera generazione: dallo sviluppo dell’estetica cyberpunk ai design ultramoderni, dalla musica rock ai film horror e sci-fi, dal mondo dei tattoo all’alta moda.

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Ecco il link all’ HR Giger Museum.

Tassidermia e vegetarianismo

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La tassidermia sembra conoscere, in questi ultimi anni, una sorta di nuova vita. Alimentata dall’interesse per l’epoca vittoriana e dal diffondersi dell’iconografia e l’estetica della sottocultura goth, l’antica arte tassidermica sta velocemente diventando addirittura una moda: innumerevoli sono gli artisti che hanno cominciato ad integrare parti autentiche di animali nei loro gioielli e accessori, come vi confermerà un giro su Etsy, la più grande piattaforma di e-commerce per prodotti artigianali.

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A Londra e a New York conoscono un crescente successo i workshop che insegnano, nel giro di una giornata o due, i rudimenti del mestiere. Un tassidermista esperto guida i partecipanti passo passo nella preparazione del loro primo esemplare, normalmente un topolino acquistato in un negozio di animali e destinato all’alimentazione dei rettili; molti alunni portano addirittura con sé dei minuscoli abiti, per vestire il proprio topolino alla maniera di Walter Potter.

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Su Bizzarro Bazar abbiamo regolarmente parlato di tassidermia, e sappiamo per esperienza che l’argomento è sensibile: alcuni dei nostri articoli (rimbalzati senza controllo da un social all’altro) hanno scatenato le ire di animalisti e vegetariani, dando vita ad appassionati flame. Ci sembra quindi particolarmente interessante un articolo apparso da poco sull’Huffington Post a cura di Margot Magpie, sui rapporti fra tassidermia e vegetarianesimo.

Margot Magpie è istruttrice tassidermica proprio a Londra, e sostiene che una gran parte dei suoi alunni sia costituita da vegetariani o vegani. Ma come si concilia questa scelta di rispetto per gli animali con l’arte di impagliarli?

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Ovviamente, tagliare e preparare il corpo di un animale non implica certo mangiarne la carne. E una gran parte degli artisti, vegetariani e non, che operano oggi nel settore ci tengono a precisare che i loro esemplari non vengono uccisi con lo scopo di creare l’opera tassidermica, ma sono già morti di cause naturali oppure – come nel caso dei topolini – allevati per un motivo più accettabile. (Certo, anche sul commercio dei rettili come animali da compagnia si potrebbe discutere, ma questo esula dal nostro tema). Si tratta in definitiva di materiale biologico che andrebbe sprecato e distrutto, quindi perché non usarlo?

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Ma preparare un animale comporta comunque il superamento di un fattore di disgusto che sembrerebbe incompatibile con il vegetarianismo: significa entrare in contatto diretto con la carne e il sangue, sventrare, spellare, raschiare e via dicendo. A quanto dice Margot, però, i suoi allievi vegetariani colgono una differenza fondamentale fra l’allevamento degli animali a fini alimentari – con tutti i problemi etici che l’industrializzazione del mercato della carne porta con sé – e la tassidermia, che è vista invece come un rispettoso atto d’amore per l’animale stesso. “La tassidermia per me significa essere stupiti dall’anatomia e dalla biologia delle creature, e aiutarle a continuare a vivere anche dopo la morte, in modo che noi possiamo vederle ed apprezzarle”, dice un suo studente.

La passione per la tecnica tassidermica proviene spesso dall’interesse per la storia naturale. Visitare un museo e ammirare splendidi animali esotici (che normalmente non potremmo vedere) perfettamente conservati, può far nascere la curiosità sui processi utilizzati per prepararli. E questo amore per gli animali, dice Margot, è una costante riconoscibile in tutti i suoi alunni.

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“Combatto con questo dilemma da un po’. – racconta un’altra artista vegetariana – La gente mi dice che ‘non dovrebbe piacermi’, ma ci sono piccole cose nella vita che ci danno gioia, e non possiamo farne a meno. Mi sembra che sia come donare all’animale una vita interamente nuova, permettergli di vivere per sempre in un nuovo mondo d’amore, per essere attentamente rimesso in sesto, posizionato e decorato, ed è un’impresa premurosa e amorevole”.

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L’altro problema è che non tutti i lavori tassidermici sono “naturalistici”, cioè mirati a riprodurre esattamente l’animale nelle pose e negli atteggiamenti che aveva in vita. Non a caso facevamo l’esempio della tassidermia antropomorfica, in cui l’animale viene vestito e fissato in pose umane, talvolta inserito in contesti e diorami di fantasia, oppure integrato come parte di un accessorio di vestiario, un pendaglio, un anello. Si tratta di una tassidermia più personale, che riflette il gusto creativo dell’artista. Per alcuni questa pratica è irrispettosa dell’animale, ma non tutti la pensano così: secondo Margot e alcuni dei suoi studenti la cosa non crea alcun conflitto, fintanto che il corpo proviene da ambiti controllati.

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“Credo che utilizzare animali provenienti da fonti etiche per la tassidermia sia positivo e, per questo motivo, posso continuare felicemente con il vegetarianismo e con il mio interesse di lunga data per la tassidermia. Sento di molti tassidermisti moderni che usano esclusivamente animali morti per cause naturali o in incidenti, quindi credo che ci troviamo in una nuova era di tassidermia etica. Sono felice di farne parte”.

C’è chi invece il problema l’ha aggirato del tutto. L’artista americana Aimée Baldwin ha creato quella che chiama “tassidermia vegana”: i suoi uccelli sono in realtà sculture costruite con carta crespa. Il lavoro certosino e la conoscenza del materiale, con cui sperimenta da anni, le permettono di ottenere un risultato incredibilmente realistico.

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Ecco il link all’articolo di Margot Magpie. Gran parte delle fotografie nell’articolo provengono da questo articolo su un workshop tassidermico newyorkese. Ecco infine il sito ufficiale di Aimée Baldwin.

Pinar Yolaçan

Pinar Yolaçan è un’artista turca, nata nel 1981 e residente a New York.

Le sue serie di fotografie, Perishables (2005-2007), Maria (2008-2010) e Mother Goddess (2011-2012) sono complesse indagini sulla figura della donna, straordinarie per più di un motivo.

In Perishables, Pinar Yolaçan fotografa alcune matrone inglesi su sfondo bianco. I loro volti severi, arcigni e orgogliosi sono diretti discendenti del colonialismo, della grandezza dell’Impero. Ma, in contrasto con queste facce talvolta dure e altezzose, ecco che l’artista opera un’inversione scioccante: le anziane signore sono infatti vestite di carne animale.

Viscere, budella, nervi, trippe, organi interni sono stati aperti, ripuliti e cuciti in fogge sontuose, abbinati ai velluti e alle sete, per ricreare nella commistione di organico e tessile lo stile barocco della moda femminile coloniale.

In questo modo si opera l’inversione di cui parlavamo: così come gli antropologi dell’800 scattavano fotografie ai “primitivi” delle colonie, ecco che ora sono proprio queste anziane e nobili signore, reliquie di un Impero in rovina, ad essere sottomesse al freddo occhio della macchina fotografica; così esposte, grazie alla carne che le ricopre, sembrano al tempo stesso vestite e nude, e tutta la loro affettata finezza scompare nella brutale realtà del corpo e del cibo. Qualsiasi sia la cultura che prendiamo ad alibi, pare dire Yolaçan, siamo e restiamo primitivi, e le vesti dietro cui nascondiamo la nostra nudità sono destinate a deperire, marcire, passare (da cui il titolo della serie).

Nella serie Maria, Yolaçan continua questo discorso, mostrando però l’altra faccia della medaglia: ancora una volta rivestite di interiora animali, le sue modelle sono ora donne afro-brasiliane che vivono nell’isola di Itaparica, uno dei porti tristemente famosi per il commercio di schiavi in epoca coloniale.

Yolaçan crea gli abiti su misura, prestando particolare attenzione alla fisionomia della sua modella, e integrando in maniera talvolta quasi impercettibile i tessuti del vestito con la placenta e gli altri organi animali acquistati al mercato.

Questa serie, a marcare la specularità e complementarietà con la precedente, mostra i soggetti su sfondo nero: ancora una volta, negli occhi delle donne ritratte, traspaiono tutta la forza e l’orgoglio di un’appartenenza culturale.

Quello che è davvero sensazionale è il modo in cui i vestiti di carne di Pinar Yolaçan sembrano smascherare la finzione in un verso e nell’altro: in Perishables riuscivano a far crollare la maschera della “cultura”; in Maria è il contrario – la cultura emerge attraverso gli strati di polpa cruda. Le fotografie ci mostrano l’umanità di un popolo storicamente sfruttato e mercificato, trattato quindi come carne da mercato.

Nella sua ultima serie di fotografie, intitolata Mother Goddess, Yolaçan è tornata nella sua Anatolia, culla di una moltitudine di civiltà, per cercare le radici della figura femminile. Così, battendo la campagna turca, ha trovato e scritturato come modelle diverse contadine dalle forme giunoniche.

Confezionando dei fantasiosi abiti per i soggetti delle sue fotografie (ma questa volta senza carne cruda!), o anche tramite un elaborato body paint, Yolaçan esplora in questa serie le forme voluttuose delle dèe ancestrali immortalate nelle sculture neolitiche della Mesopotamia.

In virtù dell’assenza di volti, qui sempre coperti o lasciati fuori campo, le foto assumono un tono sospeso, mitico, stemperato però dai colori pop e sgargianti degli sfondi.