Livid and the dead

April 18, 1997

Strong reactions greeted the arrest of Anthony-Noel Kelly, whose art involves the use of cadavers. Jonathan Sawday reflects on the issues involved

Who owns the dead? What happens when the artist and the scientist struggle for possession of the same body parts? The arrest of artist Anthony-Noel Kelly, who lectures part-time at the Prince of Wales's Institute of Architecture, made headline news last week. Kelly's art involves the use of rubber, glass-fibre and cadavers whose source is still unclear, although an unnamed former employee of the Royal College of Surgeons has also been arrested.

He fashions casts of areas of the human body which are then sprayed with silver and gold gilt. No body part forms any part of the finished object, though the manipulation of corpses is integral to the process by which the work is produced. Does an artist have the right to turn the dead into aesthetic objects of contemplation?

Among the most vociferous critics of Kelly's art have been medical professionals. Michael Hobbs, of Charing Cross Medical School, said: "We are extremely concerned this will deter people from donating their bodies. We don't want anyone getting the wrong idea."

What, exactly, is the "wrong idea"? Kelly was arrested following the intervention of Laurence Martin, Her Majesty's Inspector of Anatomy. Dr Martin's interest in Kelly's work appears to have been aroused following a controversial exhibition at the London Contemporary Art Fair, in January 1997, which included a gilded cast of a dead man's head priced at Pounds 4,500. Martin's objection was, presumably, not to the object itself, but to the technique used in creating the object.

The 1984 Anatomy Act is the statutory instrument controlling "the use of bodies of deceased persons, and parts of such bodies ... authorised to be used for anatomical examination". Under the Act, it is the task of the Inspector of Anatomy to examine applications for licences to conduct anatomical investigations. Only a licence-holder may conduct such investigations, and only on premises which the inspector recommends as "suitable". Neither Kelly's refrigerated studio in Clapham nor Kelly himself appear to have been licensed.

Yet Kelly is working within what is claimed to be a distinguished artistic tradition in which the names of Mantegna, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Caravaggio and Rembrandt have been mentioned. But where the Renaissance artist studied morphology to give a convincing rendition of the exterior of the body, contemporary artists have turned their gaze inwards, passing beyond the body's surface into a world hitherto reserved for the physician, the surgeon and the undertaker.

And that, of course, is the challenge which Kelly has produced. To what extent do science and art conspire with one another? To what extent are they different activities? Are we so sure that science is disinterested, unemotional and objective? Has art no role to play in helping us understand our place in the natural order?

The histories of art and medicine are closely united. Artists and anatomists have stood beneath the same gallows, hoping to seize the same cadaver, and both the 17th-century artist Rembrandt and the 16th-century scientist Vesalius were notorious for haunting execution sites in pursuit of human remains.

Contemporary medical professionals, citing the legislative history which governs the study of anatomy in this country, and which includes the 1752 Murder Act and the Anatomy Acts of 1832, 1871 and 1984, are quick to condemn any latter-day manifestation of aesthetic questions surrounding the human corpse. What motivates them, ostensibly, is respect for the dead. Lurking behind their condemnation of such "improper" activity is their own history in which bodies have been begged, borrowed and stolen. Undoubtedly, they are also alert to the urban myths surrounding the supposed activities of medical students misappropriating bodies for ghoulish comic effect.

They are also on guard against an "unhealthy" interest in the corpse such as that in 1994 at the University of Copenhagen, where the police were called in when it was discovered that corpses had been exhibited to the paying public. The dead are vulnerable. They cannot speak for themselves, and so we should treat their remains with respect. And art, of course, has no respect. Art is not serious.

But as those medics quoted in the Kelly case have indicated, it is not so much the lack of "respect" on Kelly's part which is worrying as the possible impact of the artist's activities on hospitals' "supply" of corpses. Yet, in the quite recent past, it should be remembered, anatomists have gone to considerable and illegal lengths to secure bodies, particularly those exhibiting conditions thought worthy of further study.

In this respect, the sensitivity of the Royal College of Surgeons is particularly instructive. It was a distinguished former conservator of the RCS who, in the early part of this century, persuaded a poor East End family to sell the body of a relative exhibiting the symptoms of acromegaly. Payments of this kind are illegal.

To his credit, the chairman of the college museum committee "expressed alarm" at such activity, but gave his consent providing that payment was understood as a contribution towards funeral expenses. The conservator took casts of the face, hands and feet of his subject so that "a complete representation of all the lesions of acromegaly was obtained for the museum", where they presumably still repose. Though the means by which the casts were obtained were probably illegal, the ends for which they were obtained, insofar as they were "scientific", were acceptable.

Press photographs show Kelly posed beside his notorious cast head of an elderly man caught in the grimace of rigor mortis. The photographs suggest an identification of the artist with the subject, which Kelly himself has encouraged: "while I find beauty in death these are nevertheless rotting bodies. You look at them and remind yourself, this is how we all end up."

Certainly he has transgressed, but his transgression is not in crossing the border-line which separates the living from the dead. Rather, he has blurred the boundaries between art and science. If he is prosecuted, then that will be his crime whatever is written on the charge sheet.

Dr Jonathan Sawday is director of the school of research (arts) at the University of Southampton.

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