Timeless by Thomas Macho
The one who looks for the vanishing twin, the strange reflected image, will somewhen enter an in- between-world, a mysterious zone, systematically built of desire of origin and vicinity of death. Anita Gratzer’s photographs carry the contemplating eye off into this zone – into the dominion of the beauties who are nothing else than the beginning of the terrible. The zone is mysterious. Not only is it mysterious, because it gathers preserved corpses and unborn children. Not only is it mysterious, because it was established at sinister mostly publicly inaccessible places: in the panoptically arranged rooms of the former “Wiener Narrenturm” (former lunatic asylum in Vienna), in the basement of the Berlin Charite, in the rooms of the “theatrum anatomicum” of Cracow. This zone is also mysterious, mainly because it lies in the passage between two cultures and eras: in the no- man’s land between a miraculous chamber and an art museum, between an alchemist’s kitchen and a laboratory, between ethetical-sensuous complexity and logical abstraction, between obsessive enthusiasm for the exceptions and hardly less obsessive enthusiasm for the rules.
Anita Gratzer’s photographs are literally monstrous: they show what is not be shown. Therein they testify a break – the break between pre-modern experience of miraculous signs and the contemporary experience of sensations. According to ubiquitous view we live in the shadow of a monster millennium: but exactly in the shadow of this millennium, in the sign of a matchless renaissance of horror-esthetics, a ban has been asserted: the ban on singular deviation as well as epiphanic appearance without pretext. Only the artificial, iterative monster – the copy of a legendary creature – is permitted. Like its distant relative, the white shark, Leviathan is only accepted in plural; and even dinosaurs may only enter the stage of collective imagination as artificially cloned creatures. Aliens succeed as heroes of serials; Frankenstein’s creature has been featured hundredfold. Against the background of the postulate of the technical reproducibility of all creatures Anita Gratzer’s photographs seem close to shocking: like fetishes of a pornographic passion for the unrepeatable unique. What they perceive does not correspond to the encyclopaedic order of the wax-figure cabinet; what they try to grasp contradicts to the fun in perfect masks and special effects as profoundly as to the ideals of a pathological documentation.
These pictures do not side with form, but with matter, not with the metaphorical language of thrill, but with the remains of a body, which withdraws itself imperceptibly from imitation by means of latex or silicon graphics. At the object of a preparation – result of the hopeless attempt to give the withering flesh, the shrinking skin, and the fragile bones a continuous present – the traces of an effort become visible, which can not be reduced to the instrumental routine of clinical skills. The preparations have an effect of anachronism: if only because of its strong formalin smell, they can not be exhibited or used as teaching material without causing inconvenience; they are highly delicate, not optionally transportable, and difficult to photograph (we will have to go into that later on). Stubbornly they resist all stategies of impartiality; as if they were, according to Heidegger, no ‘tangible material’, but simply real things which do not subordinate to a certain purpose. Anita Gratzer’s photographs syphathize with the efforts of – often long dead – restorers and preservation technicians who were at least sometimes able to combine their clinical interest with a downright artistic care and delicacy, with a moving love towards a seemingly useless detail.
During several millenniums preparations were not only made as technical, but also predominantly as sacral operations. Already the specialists for mummifying in the Old Egypt not only wanted to protect the king’s corpse against its decay, but to create good conditions for his life to come; therefore they not only mummified the pharaohs and their relations, but also sacred animals such as the cat, the ibis or the crocodile. At the mummifying procedure the priests first took the inner organs of the dead; then the corpse was drained in a sodium solution up to seventy days. The thus created hollows were filled with fragrant herbs, whereas the skin was wrapped with many layers of resin-soaked bandages. For this purpose sometimes could be used several hundreds of meters of cloth. Subsequently the mummy was given a valuable mask; the mummy was lain into a sarcophagus and leaned – mostly upright – against the wall of the tomb. The mummy was regarded as a living dead. This belief in a bodily life after death also motivated the South American pre-Columbian cultures to drain, to wrap in cloth, to tie up in an embryonic crouching position and to mark their dead with a mask made of wood or metal.
The preparation functioned as an object of worship, as a sacral, magic thing: Not in vain it was still claimed in the 18th century that ground parts of a mummy could be used as pharmaceutically effective ingredients of medicine; it could be that this conviction – also passed on by Paracelsus or Athanasius Kircher – gave the medieval worship of relics its enlightening frame. The relics – and even more a preserved corpse – articulated the Christian hope of resurrection not only of the spirit alone, but also of the flesh. But when in 1485 a sarcophagus was discovered along the Via Appia, which contained under thick layers of ointment the nearly unchanged body of a Roman girl, about twenty thousand people visited the ‘exhibited preparation’ in a single day, whereas Pope Innozenz VIII hastily ordered to bury the not at all welcome pagan hurriedly in the vicinity of the Porta Pincia. Since then the church stayed sceptical against the premature resurrection of the flesh; even the hardly decayed corpse of the later canonized Bernadette of Soubirous was examined repeatedly by a church commission. The official suspicion, however, could not reduce the fascination radiated by the discovery of undecayed corpses. A famous example for this fascination is the story from the Falun mines, which Johann Peter Hebel told impressively simple: as a report about an unexpected reunion. A few days before his wedding, the bridegroom, a young miner, does not return home. Many years later, the girl has meanwhile become an old woman, the corpse of the young man, preserved in iron vitriol, is found; shaken the old woman faces the young corpse and has it buried with the words, “Sleep well, one day or ten in the cool wedding bed, and do not get bored. I have only little more to do, and soon there is going to be a new day. – What the earth has given once, the earth will not keep a second time”.
The preparation is a time machine: it seizes the moment. But it seizes the moment, without betraying it, without solving the enigma, without illuminating the darkness. The prepared moment remains so near, so to say, that it can not be dissociated and read: as if its time were only frozen, but not petrified. No preparation resembles a monument. Even the most wretched mummies, the decaying parts of skin, the blurring faces in a formalin container, criticize the massive Apotheoses of the transitory in metal and granite, this triumphant rescue of the body for the sake of its complete transubstantiation. Preparations are no monuments and photographs are no paintings. They testify a proportion to time, which does not hastily count on eternity, but rather on the delicate desire for an ‘unexpected reunion’. Human Time Anatomy: Schopenhauer’s question about the time before birth, the time after death does not enforce a mystery theology of immortality or the transmigration of souls. Along these lines preparations and photographs have a special relation to time: as media of disappearance which they seem to stop by doubling and not by finishing it As everybody knows preparations and photographs owe their effectiveness to the inherent chemistry of liquids: a hardly depictable form of time which gives the darkroom itself, la chambre claire according to Roland Barthes, the character of a container filled with formalin.
The artistic photography of preparations is difficult. The first, in some way most ostensible, difficulty results from the temptation to drag the strategic similarity of photograph and preparation to the surface, so to say to exaggerate reflexively. “Look, I am a preparation, showing you a preparation!” This logic soon produces boredom; it prevents subtle alliances with the object. How such alliances can be made is demonstrated by Anita Gratzer’s work: it refuses any clinical objectivism, the technically sharpened look, that tempts ever too quickly to mix up the shining surface of the containers and display cases with their purpose and contents. It is true that the photographs do not refuse this objective access by means of doubtful blurring techniques and retouches: also the frightening is not erased. Anita Gratzer succeeds in shining a light into the preparations in such a way that they become visible from within. Therefore her photographs are clear and exact without ever reminding of the precision of pathological charts; and they establish impressively intimate contact with their objects without ever giving reason for voyeurismical necrophilia or mawkish sentimentalism. The photographic look, of which the Human Time Anatomy originates, is a Medusian one, which does not freeze the living faces, but animates the frozen creatures: by motherly support of the matter, of the decaying lines of a hand, of the still wonderful structures of a brain, of a umbilical cord or a placenta, of the although decaying but shining eyes, which have never ever seen anything.
A further difficulty, which Anita Gratzer mastered virtuously, is to be seen in the recent history of artistic photography. Since the 1960s, when the successful fashion photographer Diane Arbus started not only to get interested in Tod Browning’s movie “Freaks” of 1932, but also to portrait dwarfs, giants, mutilated or mentally handicapped people by herself, dead or deformed people, peculiar personalities and tableaux, preparations of animals, embryos or plants have advanced to popular subjects of photography: I refer to the works of Joel Peter-Witkin (e.g. “The Kiss” of 1982), to Arnulf Rainer’s “Totengesichter” (1979), to Andres Serrano’s “Morgue-cycles” (1992), presented at the Biennale 1995, or to Jeffrey Silverthorne (1997 – 74), to Hans Danuser’s “In Vivo” (1984 – 89), or to “Animal” by Bettina Rheims (1994). It is remarkable, how brilliant the Human Time Anatomy is able to stand beside these examples, without denying them, but without imitating them, or even without quoting them. This Brilliance comes from an original power, which can not be solely derived from perfect camera techniques; it corresponds with an attitude of individual frankness, the implicit concession, that no monstrous exceptional cases are exhibited, which, so to speak, can not be adopted, – defined in an exaggerated way: no monsters, but always “the own children”, elements of the inner self of the artist.
Certain photographs of Anita Gratzer have impressed me deeply, since I saw them first: the ‘Siamese Twins’, the ‘Stonechild’, the ageless, abysmally absorbed faces of some unborn. Despite
all the beauty, which also distinguishes the structures of decayed and dissected organs and skins, I was mainly impressed by faces and gestures: a sitting child, a Buddha, whom the preparator wanted to fold the hands for prayer; a silently crying, bent small head; the sleeping face of a child, who had lost one foot during delivery. Often enough, Anita Gratzer has put the photograph of a fern or of an animal next to the shocking photographs of the unborn: a swan, a cat, a monkey, which only turn out to be preparations at second look. The change to morphological comparison soothes the
weltschmerz, which is likely to arise when confronting life before being alive. Boris Groya emphasizes correctly that it is neither tragic nor shocking, but soothing, “that we are so monstrous, that we are infinitely little separated from death and that we infinitely little lose by death”. He concludes, “We cease worrying at once”.