Ruth Hutchinson, M(eye)nd

Sutton Gallery, Melbourne
17 April - 17 May 2014

Ruth Hutchinson’s latest laboratory experiment is part alchemical cauldron, part Dr Moreau and Dr Frankenstein, and part Seth Brundle. It is science fiction meeting Gray’s Anatomy via the surrealistic penchant for the exquisite corpse.

Executed with exquisite skill and grace, Hutchinson’s cabinet of curiosities is presented as a tightly curated museum-style installation of reliquaries and vitrines containing or surrounded by voodoo-charms, text-book style illustrations and mysterious glass vessels, all haunted by the ghosts of Georges Bataille and Luis Buñuel’s classic Un Chien Andalou (1929). For it is the human eye that is Hutchinson’s recurring motif, disembodied, dissected and all too often desecrated.

In M(eye)ND Hutchinson seems to be on a mission to ‘remake’ the history of human anatomy, formulating a reconsideration of an anatomical museum. There are literal references to medical history; in Trephination tool (to create an escape hatch) (2014) she makes use of the archaic medical procedure, trephination, in which a hole was drilled into the human skull to allow malignant spirits trapped within to escape. However in Trephination tool (rescue attempts) (2014) she takes this macabre procedure further. In thirteen exquisite small drawings we can see these spirits—abstracted, perhaps malevolent, little creatures that could be spermatozoa, fingers, cells or pure ectoplasm squirming for release.

The scientist in Hutchinson relies largely on peculiar mechanics for her bodily investigations—heady tools constructed from timber and silk, brass and wax. Materiality is central to Hutchinson’s practice, yet almost inevitably in unexpected ways. Eye Control (2014) hangs from the ceiling, at first appearance an unwieldy abstract sculpture. But closer inspection reveals a device for boring into the retina. Meanwhile The Revolution of the Brainstem (2012) presents a mechanical, clock-like device tracking the morphing and deformations of the brain. Hutchinson’s is neuroscience via wax, felt and brass. Similarly, Them, us, me, those? (2014) tracks the evolution of the skull via a melding of animal/human morphology, each skull meticulously carved from timber and tagua nut.

Hutchinson’s fascination with physicality, whether it be almost obsessive graphite rendering of body parts, most particularly the eye, or the actual carving of her structures, is juxtaposed with an almost unstated sense of the uncanny. Nets or traps abound to capture unwary spirits. In The blood stops with me (2014) a voodoo-like charm dangles from the ceiling festooned with shrunken skulls, clearly designed to prevent rogue spirits from escaping the gallery chamber. In Feel free to emote (2013) a ghost-like human face, rendered from goatskin vellum, vomits ectoplasm.

The author and philosopher J.G. Ballard once described Gray’s Anatomy—arguably the classic book of anatomical and medical drawing—as the greatest novel of the 20th Century. One suspects that Hutchinson would be inclined to agree, judging not only by her fascination with the cool and clinical approach she takes to rendering the human body, but via such specific works as the extraordinary Anatomy flap book (getting under the skin) (2014). Here the flayed corpse is presented on sheets suspended via stainless steel wire, the pages afloat, allowing a voyeuristic glimpse of the body sans epidermis, the parchment aloft standing in for living flesh.

Although comprised of seven autonomous pieces, the masterpiece of M(eye)ND would have to be Receptacle for breathing new life into old bones (cabinet). Presented like cherished holy relics, these peculiarities suggest some secret code for a malformed immortality, arcane treatments and tools for obscure rituals. Like the ancient Egyptian embalming process, Hutchinson seems to have found the correct ‘tools’ for resuscitating aspects of the bodies of the dead. Amongst them is the corpus callosum—that part of the brain that allows communication between brain hemispheres, eye movement and the balance of arousal and attention. Hutchinson’s Corpus callosum (2011–12) is comprised of such materials as poplar, wax, pigment and cotton, leaving one to wonder how such materials would interact with the living body. But she has left little to chance; there is the mysterious Vessel to hold one’s breath, which contains, amongst other elements, a massive glass jar containing alcohol and a ‘found object', no doubt the receptacle of oxygen. The body is sorted; there is Irritation (2012), no doubt skin, Sphincter (2012), for obvious needs, and Beat (2012), comprising springs, brass and plastic tubing to allow heart resuscitation.

I am reminded here of a contemporary of Hutchinson’s, the American novelist Ben Marcus, author of such books as The Age of Wire and String, who utilises in his fictions, amongst other elements, ‘listening grease’, ‘noise shirts’, ‘sound abatement fabrics’, ‘speech-enabling grease’, ‘knitted vegetable bones’, ‘thought rags’, a ‘throat box’ and the ‘mouth harness’. Like Marcus, Hutchinson creates a world of visceral apparatuses via cool, clinical language. The body can be taken apart but the organs, and the study for their use, no matter how arcane, remain intact.

Slavoj Žižek makes use of the autonomous smile of Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat in his attempt to define Lacan’s ‘lamella’: ‘Lacan imagines lamella as a version of what Freud called “partial object”: a weird organ which is magically autonomised, surviving without a body whose organ it should have been, like a hand that wanders around alone in early Surrealist films, or like the smile in Alice in Wonderland that persists alone, even when the Cheshire cat’s body is no longer present: “All right”, said the Cat; and this time it vanished quite slowly, beginning with the end of the tail, and ending with the grin, which remained some time after the rest of it had gone. “Well! I’ve often seen a cat without a grin”, thought Alice; “but a grin without a cat! It’s the most curious thing I ever saw in my life!”’1

The cat is ‘the body’, the grin is the ‘organ’. The grin is apt here, as there is little doubting the sly humour at play in Hutchinson’s confrontational subject matter. But for her, the eye is the paramount organ. The eye here allows the M(eye)ND the ability to wander and wonder about the fallibilities of both the psychological and physiological potentialities of the human body.

 

Ruth Hutchinson, Anatomy flap book (getting under the skin), 2014. Detail. Graphite on paper, stainless steel wire, walnut base, 30 x 73 x 24cm.

Ruth Hutchinson, Receptacle for breathing new life into old bones (cabinet), 2012. Bronze, glass, tulip poplar, Italian poplar plywood, adhesives, pigment, bleached shellac, bleached beeswax, steel rod, aluminum tube, wool felt, 152.4 x 143 x 45.4cm.

Ruth Hutchinson, Them, us, me, those? (7 pieces), 2014. Various timbers, tagua nut, dimensions variable. Images courtesy the artist and Sutton Gallery, Melbourne. Photographs Andrew Curtis.

notes: 

1. Slavoj Žižek, Organs without Bodies: Deleuze and Consequences, Routledge, New York, 2003, p.26.