Reflections on “Art, Anatomy and the Body: Vesalius 500”

Our “Art, Anatomy, and the Body: Vesalius 500″ festival guest curator, artist and anatomist Riva Lehrer, reflects on the event.

Riva Lehrer, left, with Lisa O'Sullivan, director of the Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health. Photo by Charles Manley.

Riva Lehrer, left, with Lisa O’Sullivan, director of the Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health. Photo by Charles Manley.

My approach as co-curator of “Art, Anatomy and the Body: Vesalius 500” was to ask how we use anatomy today to understand what it means to be human. Throughout history, we’ve used metaphor to organize our concepts of the body. We’ve imagined it as a vessel full of roiling humors, as an elaborate clock, as a regulated factory, as a robot and a computer, to name just a few. Even anatomical study is affected by metaphor and symbolism, and often guides what we see.

As science creates new perspectives on human (and non-human) anatomy, society responds by re-imagining new possibilities. When we internalize these visions we live differently in our bodies. “Art, Anatomy and the Body: Vesalius 500” brought together artists, writers, and scholars to discuss about how we see ourselves now and how we construct ourselves as public bodies.

As emcee, I had the pleasure of introducing Ann Fox, Sandie Yi, Dan Garrison, Sander Gilman, Nuha Nazy, Dima Elissa, Bill Hayes, Steven Assael and Alice Dreger, who were among the more than 25 festival participants.

Chun-Shan “Sandie” Yi. Photo by Charles Manley

Chun-Shan “Sandie” Yi. Photo by Charles Manley

Curator Ann Fox and artist Chun-Shan “Sandie” Yi started the day with an overview of contemporary artists who explore identity through medical and anatomical imagery, including artists who tackle our continuing discomfort with HIV/AIDS, a disease that from the very first raised issues of identity and ostracism. Sander Gilman furthered our thoughts about unacceptable bodies by discussing how teaching posture in schools has been used to control and regulate bodies, and make them socially predictable.

Dan Garrison brought us back to the core of the festival via the origin of Vesalius’ Fabrica. He posited some very intriguing ideas around who Vesalius may have been; he may have had a variant body (possibly dwarfism), and this may have contributed to how he created his great work.

Dan Garrison. Photo by Charles Manley.

Dan Garrison. Photo by Charles Manley.

Identity is always a struggle between the specifics of individuality and alliance with group affiliation. This echoes the direction of modern medicine; treatments are becoming increasingly targeted to individual bodies, whether through genetics, prosthetics, or adapted drug regimens. We glimpsed this future during the ProofX presentation, with Nuha Nazy and Dima Elissa. ProofX uses 3D printing to produce extremely precise implants, surgical models, and adaptive devices for a wide range of conditions. It’s anatomical interface at an unprecedented level.

ProofX's 3D-printing demonstration.

ProofX’s 3D-printing demonstration. Photo by Charles Manley.

Bill Hayes engages medical history in order to understand his own biography. His research blends with memoir and hands-on experience, as witnessed by The Anatomist, the remarkable story of Henry Gray, author of Gray’s Anatomy. Hayes steps across the boundary between modern identity and historical precedent, here discussing the history of exercise, in order to show us how we arrived at our present state.

Anatomy and poetics also wove together in the work of Steven Assael. His paintings and drawings are highly (and gracefully) accurate, yet manage to be astute and nuanced examinations of his subjects’ personalities. He transfixed the audience by the lushness of his technique and the drama of his compositions.

Alice Dreger. Photo by Charles Manley.

Alice Dreger. Photo by Charles Manley.

Our excellent final event was a talk by bioethicist Alice Dreger. She traced the origins of contemporary medical photography as well as taking a fresh look at traditional anatomical illustration. Dreger has thought deeply about how we signal our identity through bodily choice. She raised questions about what caused doctors to lose touch with the vulnerability of people in medical settings, and to describe variant bodies in dehumanizing ways. She also pointed out that doctors often can’t admit the taboo pleasure of viewing physical anomalies, and how that covert pleasure affects their relationships with patients.

The human body has its secret, unspoken existence and its public presentation, meant to be decoded by other human beings. Anatomy would seem to be an objective bridge between the two, yet can be just as complicated and interpretive as any form of art. Our festival let us perceive the dialogue between poetics and science, and between inner and outer realities of the body.

For more images of the festival, visit our Facebook page.
Read a summary of the festival by presenter Kriota Willberg: Part 1 and Part 2
Click here for a blog from Hyperallergic.
Read “Seeing is Believing: New York Academy of Medicine’s Vesalius 500th Year Celebrations,” an article by presenter Brandy Schillace, PhD.

1 thought on “Reflections on “Art, Anatomy and the Body: Vesalius 500”

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