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Exhibiting the Body


  • Credit value: 30 credits at Level 7
  • Convenor: Suzannah Biernoff
  • Assessment: a 5000-word essay (100%)

Module description

Medical images capture the human body at its most intricate, but also its most vulnerable, flawed and ultimately mortal. From the beginning, the anatomist’s art has served far more than medical ends: held up as a mirror of the divine (and later, as a mirror of society), medical representations of the body have answered to the ancient exhortation to ‘know thyself.’

During the nineteenth century, the realistic representation of pathology gradually displaced the idealised - and often exquisitely crafted - anatomical models, drawings and engravings that had been made since the Renaissance. Modern artists as diverse as Edgar Degas, Egon Schiele, Otto Dix and Francis Bacon explored the poetic potential of these pathological or otherwise ‘deviant’ bodies. More recently, medical themes and images have reappeared in the performance and ‘abject art’ of the 1980s and 90s (Orlan being the iconic example) and, closer to home, in the work of many of the YBAs including Christine Borland, John Isaacs, Marc Quinn and Damien Hirst.

Exhibiting the Body will provide a historical and cultural framework for these artistic developments. We will consider the changing role of images in western medicine since the eighteenth century, and the place of medical representations within the visual arts and popular culture. Students will be encouraged to reflect on the ethical and political implications of these cultural exchanges through an investigation of specific artworks, exhibitions and visual media (including television and digital culture). Some of this work will be collaborative, taking the form of seminar discussions and fieldtrips to museums and archives. Students will be able to pursue individual research interests in the option essay and might address (for example): artists’ uses - or misuses - of medical subject matter; the politics of exhibiting bodies and the ethics of spectatorship; the display of human remains; the contemporary permutations of the freak show; biomedical futures and the idea of the post-human; the aesthetics of public health; or the dynamics of art-science collaborations.

The module is structured thematically and makes use of London-based exhibitions and collections. Although we will be looking at these museums, exhibitions and archives in their twenty-first-century incarnations - through websites, exhibitions, catalogues and artist commissions, for example - their origins and histories will be considered as well. Case study weeks will focus on specific exhibitions: the Hayward Gallery’s blockbuster Spectacular Bodies show (2000), The Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons; and the exhibitions at the Wellcome Collection. The final case study is Channel 4’s long-running Bodyshock strand, which we will discuss in relation to the history of the freak show. These sessions will be interspersed with seminars exploring the changing relationship between art, photography and medicine: from Henry Tonks’ delicate portraits of injured WWI soldiers to the visual culture of AIDS and the use and interpretation of historical medical photographs.