still life

Collection, Florence, Italy


Karl Grimes interviewed by Medb Ruane (Irish Times) from 'Still Life' catalogue.

Medb Ruane: Tell me about the first time you saw these dead babies.
Karl Grimes:
I was documenting surgical procedures in an Italian hospital, and discovered by chance that the hospital had a collection of what used to be called anomalous bodies. Monsters. They were hidden away in a back room down in the basement, stuffed into jars that were crammed on shelves. The room was like a dungeon, dark, the shutters closed. I knew immediately I wanted to work with them.

MR: The babies gaze back as if they're frozen in time. Was or is there an element of voyeurism in how people look at them ?
KG: There's always been a fascination with the anomalous body, perhaps an element of voyeurism too, but for me, it's more than that. I'm interested in looking at the boundaries of the human, and seeing how my received cultural definitions match with reality. That dungeon is a kind of embarrassed basement of modern medicine, of modern life and how we define ourselves. Historically, in the absence of the monstrous body, we have no definition for our own humanity. Their very nature is crucial to how we recognise ourselves.

MR: What did you want to achieve ?
KG: My wish was to witness them in the most tender possible way - to imbue them with dignity, to open up their original context, to give them a visual life. So I made portraits in which they could become individual subjects. Conceptually, that meant re-examining corporeal reality and how it is or can be represented, an issue many artists have engaged with over the last 15 years. But I wanted to do it without that mesh of distance, I wanted to make a reflective space which didn't need a poetic.

MR: What poetic was at issue ?
KG: That poetic where art feels it must abstract from the real, or theatricalise it, or be a simulacrum - for me, that doesn't directly confront reality, and its conventions can be just as restrictive as were traditional means. By 'reality', I also mean my own views, the conventions which shape my practice, and creating an interpretative directness about history and science too, as well as art making.

MR: The collections with which you've worked were assembled in Victorian times, when science and its cultural belief in the perfectibility of the universe had never been stronger. What kind of authority or canons brought such collections into being ?
KG: Any system of classification functions on exclusion. Once science took over these beings, they were excluded from our humanity, and we could become safer in that knowledge. We classified each other. Before these anomalous bodies became part of medicine's professional domain, they belonged to the spheres of myth, religion, superstition. They were interpreted as omens, later as curiosities. Often, they were seen as portents of good or evil, very often evil, and signs of cultural indiscretion and punishment. The science of monsters was called teratology, and it's as old as all our cultures. Aristotle and Galen studied them. Even stone age peoples were fascinated by them; 22 tablets illustrating various kinds of abnormality survive from the ancient Assyrian city of Ninevah. Much later they were assembled in so-called cabinets of curiosity, and that was when they began to move into science's domain.

MR: Did that sanitise their meaning, and make them less fearful ?
KG: Science's system of neutralising facts resulted in us distancing ourselves from any entering into their existence. It made the anomalous body something apart from us, and gave us a vocabulary to define them pathologically. It also gave us a justification for not confronting our own humanity.

MR: These babies were sometimes stillborn, but often they lived for a few days, or even weeks. Babies are part of the future, even in Victorian times when there was such a high infant mortality rate. Do we know anything about them as individuals, about their parents, or their place of birth?
KG: Nothing. They're defined only by their abnormality. My initial research interest was to find out about the parents. Doctors tell me that the births were probably very hazardous for the mothers. Some must have died, others needed a caesarian delivery, at a time when there were few anaesthetics, and when the risk of infection after surgery, let alone after childbirth, was very high. Traditionally, parents didn't see the child. It was negated, taken away, and most parents weren't given a choice about it. My research indicates most mothers wouldn't have known that their child was to be collected and preserved as a sample.

MR: So they are named for their abnormality. A very primary rite of passage has been disrupted, hope becoming horror, mother and child separated, and rituals of grief and mourning completely ignored. Is that a consequence of the value free fact, that distancing you call neutralising ?
KG: Science did reduce the cultural myths which made some women believe they were being punished, but it never addressed those issues of loss and parenthood. It assumed ownership for itself, and interpreted them only within its own systems of classification.

MR: So the library of libraries becomes the laboratory of laboratories ?
: Yes. Having such a collection was a sign of the hospital's status, just as having the latest technology would be today. They traded these dead babies. The more extensive the collection, the higher the hospital's reputation, and the more students it attracted.

MR: Contemporary biotechnology resonates for me looking at these images. Is that our version of Victorian perfectibility, that we can make the body even better than 'normal', that through genetic engineering and cloning, we can achieve a bodily aesthetic almost like that of the ancient Greeks ?
KG: These collections were part of the continuum which leads us to biotechnology. They shared that objective of perfecting the human body. Our sense of foreboding is different from the Victorian era - our fear becomes more so the more we focus on the perfection of the human form.

Medb Ruane is a writer and critic with The Irish Times
Reproduced from
'Still Life' catalogue. © 1999.

Marion McKeone, THE SUNDAY BUSINESS POST, March 29, 1998

Armstrong, James. 'Still Life'. Source, Vol # 4, p.34. 1998

Schildrick, Margrit .'Touching the Monster: Encounters with the Vulnerable Self'. Sage. London. 2001

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