Friday, July 11, 2014

Exploring the Variant Body

Da Vinci's Vitruvian Man, the Canon of Proportions, shows the ideal symmetrical balance of the human body. Art students know this. However, of course, a strict rehashing of canonically proportioned human bodies would leave the art world a boring, nonrepresentational place.

Riva Lehrer, artist and anatomy professor, brings together—wait for it—art and anatomy to explore diversity in human forms, the “variant body”.

In medical museums, subjects of abnormal anatomical study are found in jars, preserved in formaldehyde, and labeled with only a diagnosis. They are useful, and Riva Lehrer, anatomy professor, knows this. But Riva Lehrer, artist, also wants to connect the actual humans with their disabilities and diagnoses. She wants to bring out the narratives that are stripped away from bodies on display.

“I'm not interested in shutting down these museum displays,” she says. “I'm interested in pulling people into as deep an understanding of body variance as possible.”

Part of Lehrer's interest stems from her own experience. During a visit to the Mütter Museum, walking through rows of anatomical specimens, she found herself facing a shelf full of spina bifida examples—a shelf full of her own body.

“I realized I was looking at the slipstream of my own alternate history,” says Lehrer, also noting that had she been born earlier or elsewhere, she, too, could have ended up as a teaching tool.

It's easy to look at a body part in a jar as a specimen of study, but Lehrer stresses the importance of keeping biography with the body, which is something she thinks having art in medical museums would do.

“It matters to doctors deciding what to do. It matters when a genetics counselor talks to prospective parents. It matters when a politician makes a law. Above all, it matters to that disabled person, standing in from of a glass case full of jars.”

Check out Lehrer's website for more pictures and information about her various projects. They're rad!

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