Grimes interviewed by Medb Ruane (Irish Times) from 'Still Life' catalogue.
Ruane: Tell me about the first time you saw these dead babies.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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 ?
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.
So the library of libraries becomes the laboratory of laboratories ?
KG: 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.
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
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.
Ruane is a writer and critic with The Irish Times
'Still Life' catalogue. © 1999.
Marion McKeone, THE SUNDAY BUSINESS POST, March 29, 1998
Armstrong, James. 'Still Life'. Source, Vol # 4, p.34. 1998
Margrit .'Touching the Monster: Encounters with the Vulnerable Self'.
Sage. London. 2001