There was a time when our physical bodies were more relevant than our digital forms. The current exhibit at the Esker Foundation in Inglewood invites us to gaze upon artifacts of that bygone era and re-attune with our flesh and bones.
Jude and Brendan Griebel have curated an exbibit of objects both social and scientific, from their collection at the Museum of Fear and Wonder in Bergen, Alberta.
Esker describes the museum as a collaborative project that “houses and illuminates the Griebels’ collection of historical craftworks that possess uneasy emotional or psychological resonance.”
Jude Griebel says they believe the subject of this exhibit is important because “the objects speak to the body and physicality at a time when many of our identities are increasingly shifting online and into the digital realm.”
Brendan works as an Arctic Anthropologist, curator, and researcher of museology and material culture. Jude is a Canadian visual artist and the co-director of the Museum of Fear and Wonder.
In conversation, Jude tells us that the “the collection functions as a research base for both of our work and interests in material culture and the body.”
The Griebels explore curatorial practice, the acts of collecting, caring, and presenting these unusual objects, gathered from around the world, as an art practice and a way to foster conversation.
Following their lead, I dove into the complicated histories that set the stage for four of the objects on display at the Esker, considering their original purposes and various ways they might be interpreted today.
1. Crash test dummy, Alderson Research Labs, Inc USA, c. 1960. metal, rubber. 56cm D x 79cm W x 180cm H.
In 1960s America, legal and military programs began to address the need for improved vehicle safety. Early tests employed animals, cadavers and volunteers. Animal rights groups objected to the inhumane treatment of test animals, while religious organizations took issue with the use of cadavers.
A famous example of a volunteer was Colonel John Stapp, an American physician and flight surgeon who tested his own ability to withstand acceleration and deceleration in 1954 when he was propelled in a rocket sled at over 1,000 km/h and decelerated in 1.4 seconds.
Stapp said, “I felt a sensation in the eyes, somewhat like the extraction of a molar without anesthetic.”
Samuel W. Alderson, an American medical engineer, is credited with the development of the crash test dummy, and this example comes from his lab. Until recently, progression of crash test dummies considered only the male form. The first anatomical model
of the female body was “developed specifically for low severity rear impact” in 2022, with study notes that cited differences between males and females in joint stiffness and geometry.
2. Anatomical model of the human nervous system, Clay-Adams, detail Japan, c. 1930. papier-mâché, metal, lacquer. 13cm D x 30.5cm W x 137cm H.
Before the discovery of x-rays in 1895, the only methods to observe our internal organs were operation or dissection. Early pressed paper medical models were made better by a French anatomist and naturalist, Louis Thomas Jerôme Auzoux, who found it difficult to study anatomy when human cadavers deteriorated, and wax models were unavailable.
Auzoux improved papier-mâché models, with high-detail and dissectible parts. He opened one of the earliest factories for manufacture of human, botanical and veterinary models.
When Auzoux passed in 1880, his anatomical models were recognized internationally, as the Clay-Adams models.
The Clay-Adams Company was a manufacturer and importer of laboratory, surgical and medical supplies, founded in New York, also manufacturing in Japan.
The company’s 1950 catalogue offered a “DURABLE” LIFE SIZE FEMALE TORSO MODEL,” made from pressed and coloured paper that was resilient enough to be cleaned with soap and water. The model torso had over 500 organs, each labeled and numbered.
As modeling technology improved with plastics and computer-based systems, the Clay-Adams model use was retired to collectors’ closets and film sets.
3. Painter’s manikin Italy, c. 1835. Textiles, horse hair, metal, wood. 21cm D x 48cm W x 140cm H. From the estate of Francesco Gai.
Artists have used articulated human figures made from wax or wood for hundreds of years. The esteemed Italian painter who once owned this mannequin, Francesco Gai, was a renowned portraitist and painter of religious scenes. He was gifted a gold medal from Pope Pious X in recognition of his contributions to the restoration of the Sistine Chapel.
Propriety of the time made it difficult to access women as models, so the mannequin was essential. Over the centuries, other artists were known to engage prostitutes as models.
The life-size mannequin on display has a striking similarity to “Perfect Mannequins” crafted by French maker Paul Huot around 1816. These female mannequins were highly desirable and sold for small fortunes in their day. They often passed from artists to their descendants.
4. Passe-boule ball toss game France, c. 1900 painted wood. 20cm D x 30cm W x 54cm H.
The surface of the object appears to have once been a floorboard. It is cut in the shape of a red/brown handed figure, posed somewhere between surprise and surrender. Painted-on black curls are all but worn off.
The game of boules, or ball toss, has a long history. This version originated in France but implies cultural influence from events in turn-of-the century America where fairground games of skill, strength and chance were in vogue, popularized by the success of the Chicago World Fair in 1893.
The figure’s shape suggests parallels between the innocent game of boules, and a dangerous midway game played (in America), called by many names, the least offensive being “African Dodger.” The target of this American midway game was a real person of colour. There are documented instances of the brutal game causing serious harm, even death.
As social progress turned against violent practices, humiliation became favorued. The game was transformed into one where an African-American (employee) would be dropped in a vat of water when a target was hit. Now you know a dark history of the dunk tank.
The face of this tabletop passe-boule game is marred from past projectiles. Given the history of the game, a red smear suggests a stain of blood.
Jude says that much of the exhibit “speaks to bodies that were historically crafted as surrogates and as teaching tools.”
If other crafted stand-ins for bodies in the exhibition represent advances in fields of medicine and art, what can this artifact teach us about our cultural history?
This exhibition is especially relevant, as bodily experience is being redefined by the internet and AI.
Jude Griebel muses, “initiating this conversation at a time when we are rethinking and redefining the body in regard to technology, might help provide more interesting and diverse models for the future.”
Care and Wear: Bodies Crafted for Harm and Healing runs Sept. 23 – to Dec. 17 at the Esker Foundation, 4th Floor, 1011 9 Ave. S.E. Hours: Wednesday to Friday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday 12 to 5 p.m. For more information please go to eskerfoundation.art or fearandwonder.ca.