Sunday, February 11, 2018

Summary of Research

by Grace Tessein

Over the past nine months the 2017 Warren MacKenzie Advancement Award has enabled me to take multiple research trips to Philadelphia, New York City, and France. These experiences allowed me to further explore topics I was interested in as I transitioned into my final year at Louisiana State University. From these experiences, I have gathered sources that have played a major role in the content and imagery of the body of work I’m making for my thesis exhibition.

While in Philadelphia I visited the Mütter Museum for the first time. The museum is part of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia and its original purpose was for biomedical research. The collection is full of scientific anomalies, gruesome medical tools, and casts of curious body parts. Several displays captured my interest but in particular, Hyrtl’s wall of skulls and the plaster cast of Eng and Chang Bunker have stuck with me. The skulls are quite overwhelming when one first enter’s the first major gallery. The Mutter Museum describes it as follows:

Hyrtl Skull Collection, Mütter Museum, Source: Mütter Museum Website
"The Mütter Museum acquired this collection of 139 human skulls from Viennese anatomist Joseph Hyrtl (1810-1894) in 1874. His work was an attempt to counter the claims of phrenologists, who held that cranial features were evidence of intelligence and personality and that racial differences caused anatomical differences. Hyrtl’s aim in collecting and studying the skulls was to show that cranial anatomy varied widely in the Caucasian population of Europe.

Each skull is mounted on a stand, and many skulls are inscribed with comments about the person’s age, place of origin, and cause of death. " 

What I found most fascinating about this display was the information given on each skull. By giving the skulls a name, a place, and an event, felt emotionally invested in them. Without such information, their identity is lost and so is my compassion to see beyond the rows and rows of skulls. I think the catacombs in Rome or Paris lack this identity and connection to humanity that Hyrtl's achieve. 

The other piece that struck me as important was the plaster cast of Eng and Chang Bunker. They were conjoined twins that were attached at the torso. The plaster cast is from the hip up. The part that I found most compelling was the hair on their heads which was stuck in the plaster. This is what made the cast of the twins feel present; the small part of their bodies accidentally attached to the object in the glass case. The hairs gave them a real place in existence.   

At the Mütter I enjoyed the objects that revealed the identity of the person they belonged to. They are the pieces that connect the present object to the past. In my current body of work, I have been exploring how an object from the past grounds a memory for the present and future. Hair has become a key material in several sculptures I'm currently working on. My hair is the part of my body that will last a very long time after I die. It does not break down the way skin and flesh does; it often remains as true as it was in life. The hair of mummified humans still retains color and style thousands of years later. The Bunker twins' hair will remain in that cast for a very long time. My hair ties me to my past; it is part of my mother, my father, their mothers and fathers, and so on.
Dearest, artist's hair and cotton, 2018

Elements of funerary sculpture and objects from the 18th and 19th century are playing a larger role in the pieces I'm making. The large ceramic coffin I made in the summer while at Tyler School of Art is still being worked on post firing. The interior will be filled with flowers from my late grandmother's garden which will been seen through an opening in the face. They are the memento I keep to place her back in the garden which she no longer tends.
In progress picture of in ceramic coffin

The funerary sculptures and reliquaries I saw while in France are also changing the direction of my work. I have started to examine  presence of the monument as well as the fragment as a means of remembrance. I'm currently sculpting clay structures similar to those found marking tombs in Père Lachaise Cemetery. The structure pictured below will be the base to another sculpture with will act as a reliquary for a collection of objects from my mother.
In progress clay base in my LSU studio
Père Lachaise Cemetery

Over the next few months, I will be working toward my thesis exhibition, Dearest, which will be May 1 - 5th, 2018 at Glassell Gallery in Baton Rouge, LA. Thank you Northern Clay Center for making the Warren MacKenzie Advancement Award and so many other opportunities available to artists.

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