“I beheld the wretch — the miserable monster whom I had created.” This poignant moment, realized by Mary Shelley’s notorious Dr. Victor Frankenstein, represents the literary crux of science and medicine. Almost every physician at some stage in their education remembers the moral dilemma Dr. Frankenstein faces in the story, which would very likely not be IRB approved today. However, Daniel Gordon’s project, Still Lifes, Portraits & Parts, allows the experimentation of Dr. Frankenstein without the philosophical guilt.
Gordon’s work was recently solo exhibited at the Wallspace Gallery in New York City. The portraiture of this exhibit is mimetic to Dr. Frankenstein’s creation of the “wretch.” Body parts from a smorgasbord of unknown donors have been dissected and pasted together creating some semblance of a subject posing for the artist. A common tendency in viewing this work is to visually recreate the original subject’s physical appearance and expression from which each feature was removed; discolored skin stretches the imagination into the realm of science fiction. Interestingly, while the portrait provides distinct cues to either a male or female subject, the viewer is left spellbound as to whether the individual parts, i.e. the nose and ears, originate from the same gender as the final subject. The overall effect is pleasant yet eerie, engaging the viewer in similar ways to Synthetic Cubism, developed by Picasso and Braque about a century ago.
As a medical student currently in the trenches of the anatomy lab, these images are warmly welcomed. Learning anatomy is mostly an androgynous task, except in some cases, like the urogenital system, and these portraits remind me of that very fact. A cadaver’s brachioradialis may be tagged during a practicum, without the student needing to know the gender. Dr. Frankenstein’s “wretch,” like many medical students, soon becomes concerned with the questions of “What did this mean? Who was I? What was I? Whence did I come? What was my destination?” After each lesson, I always find myself asking these questions, enjoyably analyzing the underlying anatomical mechanism of mundane actions or injuries.
Looking at one of Gordon’s portraits, reflecting on the “wretch’s” enduring questions, is quite a lively intellectual break from lifeless cadavers. The full collection can be found at this link.
Image: Daniel Gordon, Portrait with a Yellow Window (2011)
Michael Chorney is a medical student at NJMS.