Ancient Lives, New Discoveries (British Museum)

Mummy undergoing CT scan at Royal Brompton Hospital (c)Trustees of the British Museum

Mummy undergoing CT scan at Royal Brompton Hospital (c)Trustees of the British Museum

This new exhibition gives visitors an insight into the latest scientific research methods in the field of physical and cultural anthropology. But at the same time, the exhibition is also of interest for art historians since it changes our understanding of the human body. Ever since we have been capable of drawing and painting, we have visually recreated our own faces, body postures and body movements; and the emergence of new media, such as photography and technical animation has simply expanded our physical possibilities. Hence, the current high-tech exhibition at the British Museum juxtaposes the standard representation of the human body as it raises awareness to the decaying process of a human body instead of highlighting its genesis and the artistic recreation process of human faces and bodies – what art historians usually do. It is outstanding as it draws a compelling link between technology and mortality, and conveys the idea that a mummy is little but the residue of a human being preserved over several centuries.

Technology: CT scan 3D visualisation of the residue of Tamut (©Trustees of the British Museum)

Technology: CT scan 3D visualisation of the residue of Tamut (©Trustees of the British Museum)

While anthropologists have long studied the conditions of mummies’ teeth to determine the age at which the person died as well as to shed light on their diet and social class, this exhibition is unique that it provides more information about the general physical the condition of the human bodies. Anthropologists and art historians have more in common than you might think: both study the object itself before drawing on its visual representation to explain the reasoning of their thesis to others. For example, the penetration of the mummies with invisible light in CT has resulted in several x-ray images, in which invisible light appears white since the heavy materials of the bones have absorbed it. They are joined together to a cohesive image on a computer screen, and are used to create short 3-D animations to make the decaying process of the skeletons more easily accessible for non-experts.

The CT scan of the mummy of an adult male (name unknown). © Trustees of the British Museum

The CT scan of the mummy of an adult male (name unknown). © Trustees of the British Museum

Studying the physical anthropology of mummies may give us some time to rethink how we use and fuel our own mental and physical machine. Hence, the exhibition’s memento mori effect demonstrates that the Deleuzian “body without organs” is only a skeleton, coated with muscles to uphold our upright standing position, covered with a layer of vulnerable flesh. Without keeping our organic engine running our body is not very different to the skeleton of a mummy since our “coating” depends on it. The same observation, but the other way around, can be made when studying the artistic renditions of bodies. At first artists need to study the anatomy of a human body, and at the same time understand the possibilities and limitations of the media they are using to visualise it, just as in science. In light of this, the British Museum exhibition is highly significant for anthropologists and art historians as it promotes the closure of the gap between social science and the field of art history by strengthen cross-disciplinary approaches.

 

Lisa Moravec is a Graduate Diploma student at the Courtauld.

Ancient lives, New discoveries is at the British Museum til the 30th November 2014.

How to draw the wind …

Frank Davies Memorial Lecture Series, Art and Vision Science

Double Echo: Exploring the Resonance Between Art and Science, Chris Drury, Tuesday 3 December 2013

Trace the flight of an Albatross circling the Antarctic over a period of eighteen months and use this to frame an ice-blue knot of continental wind patterns registered on one day;  rake a spiralling trail based on Native American weave patterns in the Nevada desert only to see it blown away again overnight. These are some of the ways in which artist Chris Drury maps the complex patterns that govern landscapes and climate, and repeat in the rhythms of the human organism. ‘Double Echo’ was the title for a discussion of drawings and sculptural works which respond to scientific studies with an embodied experience of place as well as a conceptual concern with the language applied to the conjunction of imagination and understanding: the repeated phrase ‘everything and nothing’ captures an overwhelming encounter with the vastness of the Antarctic; and perhaps the difficulty we all have in connecting our own lives to the big picture.

Chris Drury, Mushroom Cloud, 2010. Installation at Malga Costa - Arte Sella Italy – of over 3000 suspended dried mushroom pieces. © Chris Drury

Chris Drury, Mushroom Cloud, 2010. Installation at Malga Costa – Arte Sella Italy – of over 3000 suspended dried mushroom pieces. © Chris Drury

Introducing his talk with a suitably big event, Drury described how the landscape formed by a meteorite landing billions of years ago triggered a fascination with life’s patterns of destruction and regeneration that has inspired work on all scales from the geophysical to the thumb-sized. In this context, a study of the tenacious processes of bacterial and fungal growth that can both spell death and survive a nuclear wipe-out have resulted in fragile mushroom clouds that hang in an interior space, and glass etchings that trace patterns left by a drop of deadly spores. A related video work reflects on the shattering effect of the explosions at Nevada’s nuclear test site. Registering the vibrations of a column of smoke when hit by force of sound, the silent film also memorialises the spiritual-cleansing rituals of Indigenous practice based on the burning of desert sage brush. And a technological encounter with climate-change monitoring resulted in a series of layered drawings which combine physics with an individual’s physiology. Hearing the pilot of the survey plane describing the wave-like echogram of a cross-section of Antarctic ice-sheet as being like ‘taking the heart-beat of the earth’, Drury introduced him to cardiographers working at a London hospital, in order then to combine images of the blood flow in this man’s own heart with those pulses registered in the iced-over mountain range.

Drury’s works demonstrate a political engagement with climate change grounded in scientific research that already challenges comprehension when it extends into limits of particle physics and chaos theory. Exploring the aesthetics of such complexity, the art responds imaginatively to fragile habitats while also playing with contrasts of scale which -as pointed out during the question session – evoke a metaphysical fascination with the microcosm and the macrocosm. The key to this appeal lies in a delicate balance between immersion in an environment and the objective study of universal patterns. The result is an image of a whole which complements the research scientists’ atomized view of detail. And this rounds up the series rather neatly by bringing us back to the first Frank Davis lecture on perception and visual wholes, and yet also leaves plenty of complex paths still untrod.