November 2015

The Medicine

The art of the body

By Karen Hitchcock
In the gallery, human remains are preserved, refashioned and elevated

When I started medical school, the hospital library had a collection of jars and perspex boxes containing preserved fleshy anomalies: gigantic bulbous kidneys, a lung with a galaxy of rot, an ovary fat with tumour. The jars lined the topmost shelves and I would wander the aisles, fascinated. One jar contained a tiny foetus all scrunched up like a purple and white fist, a chaos of teeth, skin and hair sprouting in the wrong places. At first, I would avert my eyes as I passed. After I read about fetiform teratomas – apparently the little thing was a tumour, not a baby – I’d take it down for a closer look, hardly believing that I had a right to stare.

I felt the same thing in the wet lab, a steel-lined room where pre-dissected body parts swam in enormous vats of formaldehyde. We’d drag out an arm, a leg, a torso-with-neck – all dripping and grey – and sling them onto steel trolleys. We’d prod and pull tendons to learn the names and attachments of the muscles, follow the great vessels, run our fingers along the vasculature of a heart still clinging to its aorta.

Our lecturer in anatomical pathology was a short-tempered, scary man who was usually boiling with disgust at the degree of our ignorance. I remember only one of his lectures. He was standing beneath a massive projection of a microscope slice of sick kidney, pointing out the anomalous cells, when he turned to us and, with a kind of desperation, said, “Isn’t that just the most beautiful thing? I wanted to study art but did medicine and now this.” He raised his arms towards the kidney. “This is my job. I spend each day gazing at and interpreting aesthetically pleasing images. It’s virtually the same thing.”

I felt glad for him that he’d found a way to come to terms with his life choices. And the dots and lace of pink, purple and blue were pretty. But I was quite sure this mishap of human physiology, sliced and set and stained to protocol, all for the purpose of diagnosis, was not art.

I thought of him during a recent presentation on immunological disorders of the skin. The doctor showed slides stained with immunofluorescent markers, lit and magnified hundreds of times. The abnormal cells glowed green and the rest remained pitch black, the particular pattern of green determining the diagnosis. They looked like photos of the northern lights. Throughout medical training you get good at recognising which information you definitely need to memorise, or vaguely retain, or let gently go. The light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more, wrote Beckett. I sat there wondering if I’d ever see the northern lights, and the disease classifications drifted by.

I had actually studied art history for a few years, inoculating myself against the pathologist’s kind of regret by discovering I wasn’t any good at it. I could never fully erase the aesthetic forged during my youth in an Arkley-esque suburb where the highest forms of art were $12 Chinese landscapes, hand-painted in front of your eyes at Sunshine Plaza, and the animals Dad shot, stuffed and then hung on our walls.

Animals were originally preserved for science, to classify and order, by men like Darwin and Banks. Later they became signifiers of wealth and power for aristocrats, then the bourgeoisie, then those in the classes below. In the past few decades, galleries have embraced the form: animals, as well as the closest things to human taxidermy outside of hospitals and wet labs. In the gallery, human remains are preserved, refashioned and elevated. Our bodies are spun into dreams; animals are stuffed with ideas. Every five years British artist Marc Quinn uses 9 pints of his own frozen blood to sculpt a self-portrait bust. Damien Hirst’s shark is suspended in a gigantic tank of formaldehyde and titled The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. Melbourne artist Julia deVille’s baby goat, encrusted with pearls, graces a silver platter. We are chaotically, painfully alive, and we are dying.

Hobart’s MONA is full to bursting with lived and imagined bodies, and last month I took my young daughters. There were two exhibits I particularly wanted to show them: the poo machine (Wim Delvoye’s Cloaca Professional) and the wall of 151 porcelain vaginas (Greg Taylor’s Cunts … and Other Conversations). These two works say more than any textbook could about our bodies. I wanted them to see that it takes a gigantic, stinking machine to perform the most rudimentary part of a task your body carries out within your tiny abdomen. And that what we insist they hide and wash and don’t touch too much is neither uniform nor hideous nor disgusting.

There are certain undeniable facts about the anatomy and physiology of bodies you dutifully memorise in medical school. And then there is the lived body, the imagined body, where those facts verge on irrelevancy. A beautiful girl on my ward considers food in her stomach an invasion. A football player faints at the prick of a needle. One of the most effective treatments for pain in a phantom limb is to set up a mirror that reflects the intact limb in the place of the one lost. Living – too fleetingly – with, through, in your imagined body: science doesn’t tell this story.

I have an old box that contains a slowly disintegrating skeleton, bequeathed to me years ago by a retired doctor who thought medical students still had to memorise each nook and cranny of the 206 bones that reinforce our sack of skin. I took the box down, wondering if I should display them. I could string them together so they hang like a ghoul. One of my daughters asked in horror, “Is that a real person?” I stared at the tangle of brittle yellow sticks. Yes. And no.

Karen Hitchcock

Karen Hitchcock is a doctor and writer. She is the author of a collection of short fiction, Little White Slips, and the Quarterly Essay Dear Life: On Caring for the Elderly.

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