German anatomist Gunther von Hagens is famous for (among other things, including the first public autopsy in the UK for 170 years and generally being All-Round Absolutely Terrifying) the preservation and display of human bodies via a process he invented called ‘plastination’. One of the more harrowing exhibits in his global blockbuster show, ‘Body Worlds’, is a sort of coat-rail along which are hung several ‘body slices’ – wafer-thin, full-length cross-sections of a human cadaver. “In body slices”, (that’s how the actual caption in the exhibition begins, which should set all kinds of alarm bells ringing), bone and tissue form an exacting and colourful collage of the human anatomy, with a fixity and assemblage that’s oddly but deeply satisfying, and a playful refraction of different kinds of light that is (almost reluctantly) beautiful. They look like photo-negatives hung in a dark-room, slowly exposing, but they’re actually the real, guttural, tissued thing.
It’s a similar process of incremental anatomisation that is tracked and re-created in Anna Barham’s film, Sick Ardour. As curator George Vasey explains, the body of a cicada is rendered via “reverse-3D-printing”, the insect’s actual body being minutely and multiply sliced, and re-scanned with each new incision. Barham’s film delights in the glitches and slippages that occur somewhere in the ether as organic matter is translated into digital matter. Television-static patterns and data-disintegrations ruffle and fizz over the screen as the frame roves across the surface of the insect’s body, before plunging through the skin and exploring the chambers and ante-chambers within. A large vacuole of space outlined by strange light morphs, occludes, and clusters – it’s a while before you realise that this, too, is a cross-section of the animal’s body, ‘head-on’. Like von Hagens, Barham is after a literalised dramatization of the concept of ‘insight’.
Barham is an anatomist of language, too, as the wordplay of the title (sick ardour/cicada) suggests. The film’s visuals and its phonic relationship to its curatorial space are an enactment of this kind of hiccup between sound and meaning. What we are sure we experience in a concrete sense is in fact shaky, probably even erroneous. The scratchy sounds and rhythms of the film’s soundtrack, edited by Barham and spatially curated by Vasey in meticulous detail, communicate this. At one point a rhythmic, periodical ‘beep’ increases in frequency until it sounds like a solid, continuous note. Experience of even the most sure-seeming stimuli has an unsettling relationship with division and deconstruction. We’re a dividing and divisible myriad of cells and atoms, after all.
According to Greek myth, the first cicada was formed by a processing-error. Eos, the Goddess of Dawn, fell in love with Tithonus. Distraught that her lover was human and therefore would die, she begged Zeus to make him immortal. Zeus agreed, but Eos had forgotten to ask that Tithonus stay young. He remained organic, though immortal, and aged to such a shrivelled and diminutive extent that he became the first cicada. It’s a strange tragedy, to be doomed by a technicality, a semantic glitch. But perhaps it shouldn’t seem so strange. Barham’s work shows us that our entire perceptual experience exists in one accidental, wafer-thin slice of potentiality and possibility. We exist within and because of some glitch in the impossible matrix of the universe, and our endeavours (in art, in life) all try to move beyond our allotted place.
Perhaps all art, whether through film-cells or plastination, is interested in embodying the infinite, interested in the Organics of Immortality. Though Sick Ardour itself is both damaged and ardent, though it could easily get under your skin and drive you as mad as von Hagens if you were over-exposed, it’s got truth and (almost reluctantly) beauty on a cellular level. Though full of flinches, it never looks away. It’s larval, umbilical, positioned unerringly on that strange consciousness-boundary between bodied human existence and ‘the soul’. It’s the real/reel thing.
Sick Ardour, Ex Libris Gallery Newcastle University, Newcastle upon Tyne, 25 January – 10 March 2018.
Adam Heardman is a poet and writer based in Newcastle upon Tyne.