When the oak tree falls, how does the ivy survive? Curated by art historian and lecturer Dominic Paterson, Strange Foreign Bodies at the Hunterian Art Gallery was conceived as a supplementary response to William Hunter and the Anatomy of the Modern Museum, a lavish, fascinating exhibition celebrating the tercentenary of anatomist and collector William Hunter (1718 – 1783). Housed in the museum that bears his name, William Hunter celebrated the intellectual and material culture of the Enlightenment era: paintings by Allan Ramsay and Joshua Reynolds, books by David Hume and Adam Smith, and sundry scientific drawings, engravings, plaster models, and dissected bits of gut and bone preserved for study in glass jars. But while all of this has now been shipped to Yale Center for British Art, back in Glasgow, Strange Foreign Bodies remains, and has in fact been extended by a month. To put the opening question another way, if Strange Foreign Bodies is a kind of parasite, is it obligate or facultative? Can it survive separation from its host?
In fact, Strange Foreign Bodies is not simply parasitical; the exhibition enjoys an ambivalent status between guest and host. It plays host to work by seven contemporary artists, each of whom explore how the body is represented and reproduced. Alex Impey’s ‘[…slave intuitions on dorsal face…]’ (2014) brackets vertebrae-like forms in aluminium around the gallery walls; ‘Nashat’s New Fit for the Old Guard’ (2013) by Shahryar Nashat obscures all but the knees and elbows of classical statuary; Christine Borland’s video ‘SimWoman’ (2010) lingers over an animatronic medical mannequin modelled on the artist herself. The rhythms of the mechanical breathing apparatus fade through the gallery. And Manthia Diawara’s ‘One World in Relation’ (2009) is a series of razor-sharp interviews with philosopher Édouard Glissant. It may be the first time the Hunterian has ever shown work by a living African artist. But in playing host to such works, Strange Foreign Bodies is at the same time a troublesome guest—one that asks difficult questions of its own host, the Hunterian (and, by extension, the University of Glasgow). In particular, where the curators of William Hunter take a broadly celebratory tone, Paterson has gathered works that pointedly critique the gendered, anthropocentric and colonialist underpinnings of much Enlightenment thought and its legacy today.
This ambivalence between guest and host has been much played upon by French philosophers, especially Michel Serres in The Parasite (1980). The French word hôte means both guest and host. Jean-Luc Nancy treads this terrain in Philip Warnell’s film Outlandish: Strange Foreign Bodies (2009), from which the exhibition parasitically purloins its title. Nancy speaks of his personal experience of a heart transplant and subsequent cancer diagnosis: the malign tumour he describes as a “hostile guest” (un hôte hostile). From this conceptual starting point, Nancy unpicks the idea of the body as a material possession that houses (hosts) the soul or individual identity. The skin is not a border between inside and outside. The body is not a possession that could be given away. It is me not mine. “The world is strangeness unpreceded by any familiarity.”
Apart from filming Nancy performing the role of philosopher from his book-lined study, Warnell has introduced two elements that elaborate on the words of the philosopher: there is footage of a heart transplant operation and, more strangely, an octopus, temporarily taken from the sea and placed inside a fish tank on an apparently unmanned boat on the Mediterranean Sea. As the waves throw the boat, the octopus is repeatedly dashed against the glass. Pain is a recurring presence in Strange Foreign Bodies (in works by Impey and Sarah Browne especially) but here the likely pain of the unconsenting octopus seems largely overlooked. Conceptually, this section of the film multiplies Nancy’s ideas into the realm of the non-human (the networked consciousness of the octopus already functions as a critique of Cartesian dualism); ethically, I’m not so sure. An animal should not serve only as an example of an animal.
Specially commissioned for Strange Foreign Bodies is a group of sculptures and prints by Claire Barclay. These works respond directly to William Hunter’s gravid uteri—a series of casts of a cut-open uterus in different stages of pregnancy. Drawings of these casts were first produced by Jan van Rymsdyk, from which plates were made to illustrate Hunter’s The Anatomy of the Gravid Uterus Exhibited in Figures (1774). These were all on display in William Hunter and provided an uncomfortably direct insight into science’s prying objectifications—even of the living body of a pregnant mother. Viewing Barclay’s response is a less visceral experience; her work takes a cerebral approach to material translation and abstraction. There are screenprints on paper and vellum and assemblages of laser-cut leather or red ochre and machined brass hanging from powder-coated steel hooks. Here the violence of bodily dissection is aestheticised according to a different iteration of modernity: concealed and distant, cold and industrial.
The killer blow in Strange Foreign Bodies is Sarah Browne’s ‘Report to an Academy’ (2016). Like Warnell’s, this strange film also includes footage of an octopus, this time housed inside an aquarium and inside a fiction. The film inverts Kafka’s story of the same title (in which an ape must become human in order to escape from captivity); here, the narrator, a university lecturer, becomes an octopus in order to squirm free from the bureaucratic strictures of institutional academia. Close-ups of the human body—threads of greying hair; a writhing tongue leaving flecks of spittle on the camera lens—give way to the elegance of the octopus.
‘Report to an Academy’ roots the exhibition in its institutional locale. There is a sense in Browne’s film that the students and staff are treated as parasites within the body of the university. “Speech itself can cause harm and the academy always wants to limit damage to itself,” says the narrator in the gently uncanny Scottish accent of Apple’s ‘Fiona’ voice simulator. A colleague diagnosed with cancer is viewed as “a challenge”. Like Bill Readings’ book University in Ruins (1996), Browne’s university is a corporatised, market-driven non-place of press releases and spreadsheets, debt and jargon. It is a generalised institution in which students are charged to visit the doctor, in which cleaners suddenly lose their jobs, and lecturers are told to report students “vulnerable to radicalisation”. Just around the corner from the Hunterian, the University of Glasgow is spending £1 billion on capital projects that are already transforming the fabric of the city in which the institution exists. This is why the ethics of hospitality are so complex and so important. The university may like to think of itself as generous host but it is also, at the same time, a guest—and not always one that is universally welcome. Oak and ivy. So too, in the end, is every body.
Tom Jeffreys is a writer based in Edinburgh. He is the author of Signal Failure: London to Birmingham, HS2 on Foot (Influx Press, 2017) and editor of The Learned Pig