Curiosities

Publication: 
The New York Times Book Review/ Holiday Books (December 3, 2010)
Author: 
Kathryn Harrison

Published: December 3, 2010

Bullfighting. Flamenco. Religious pilgrimage. On the face of it, little in Lena Herzog’s earlier monographs prepares her audience for LOST SOULS (de.MO ­design, $54), photographs taken in “cabinets of curiosities,” collections of anatomical specimens dating back to the 17th century. But if the denial of death inspires the making of a photograph, fixing a moment so that it never ends and freeing its subject from the annihilation of time, preserving a fetus in a bottle answers a similar impulse.

Restored to an indefinite amniotic bath of chemicals — at a time when microcephaly, conjoined twins, cyclopia and other congenital anomalies presented as many physical as spiritual questions — Herzog’s lost souls are those belonging to infants we call “unviable.” Never buried or laid to rest, they are lost in space as well as time, citizens neither of the underworld nor of our own, not dead but arrested on the cusp of living. They are imminent and never arriving, both mortal and immortal, barred, Herzog says, from “heaven, hell or limbo.”

If her theme is macabre, Herzog’s vision is vigorously redemptive, reanimating flesh with light, surrounding faces with incandescent auras. Even as it exposes them, light seems to emanate from some of the specimens, as if a transubstantiation had occurred; Herzog exalts what Christian church authorities once condemned as an unholy practice, conveying something close to ecstasy. While she cannot pose her subjects, she casts them in blatant religious iconography. Light refracted through liquid splashes halos on faces, and captures one in the attitude of supplication. In these photographs illumination is so pure and radiant it recalls the paintings of Caravaggio, velvety blacks and glowing whites joined in dramatic chiaroscuro.

The meticulous care with which early anatomists displayed and Herzog reveals specimens is no less reverent than that of 19th-century memorial photography, but “Lost Souls” has none of the sentimentality characterizing, and limiting, that genre. These images are not so much memento mori as visions of nirvana, their subjects freed from mortal cares and desire, suspended in a sacred silence. One fetus’s unformed face appears extraterrestrial and strangely wise; others’ features communicate emotions, including love, they never felt. The solitude of the single specimen is countered by the intimate, womb-like crowding of conjoined twins, limbs stayed in a graceful embrace, blind eyes bound in mutual fascination, lips forever on the verge of whispering in a deaf ear.

Not all the photographs are solemn. Some, like the skeletons of twins hanging face to face, jaws open in what looks like laughter, are intentionally funny. A series of photographs of an orchestra of mouse skeletons gripping minute instruments delivers us to the antic mood of a Día de los Muertos tableau. The skill and patience to pose bones of such delicacy is matched by the loving attention required by the undertaking. Each tiny tail is held straight up, infusing its owner’s posture with an added jolt of the discipline and gravitas conveyed by skulls cocked in seeming concentration, eye sockets peering at music displayed on minuscule stands. It’s a gentle carpe diem humor, playful and even reassuring. Time passes, the living die, but art survives, the best of it, like “Lost Souls,” not preserving but creating humanity where it never existed. The emotion in these photographs is, like their beauty, in the eye of the beholder, first the anatomist’s, then Herzog’s, and finally ours. As described by a contemporary of Frederick Ruysch, whose specimens were the original inspiration for “Lost Souls,” his is an art, like Herzog’s, of which “even death itself is afraid.”