Impossible Pathologies: re-fragmenting the archives

Impossible pathologies: re-fragmenting the archive was the outcome of my time as inaugural Larose Osler library artist in residence at the medical school in McGill University. I was there from October to late November in winter 2016 and then returned in Autumn 2017.

The work developed and made for this exhibition was inspired by original illustrations made by the English physician and medical writer, Robert Hooper (1773–1835). His illustrations are contained within 6 boxes housed within the archives of the Osler Library.

Along with the hundreds of images Hooper painted on rectangular paper with italic titles and labels, some dozen or so were cut out carefully following the contour of the specimen depicted. Whilst arranging these precious pathological illustrations to photograph them, it was realised the cut out ones overlapped over other illustrations to create fantastic collaged composites, like an analogue version of Photoshop. Several days were spent looking for perfect permutations and photographing them.

If the archive is seen to be a collection made up of fragments brought together, and pathology is the fractured, broken, diseased, deformed fragment of the human body, Impossible pathologies: re-fragmenting the archive is the further fracturing, breaking and then re assembling of parts, reconfigured into impossible but seemingly recognisable, plausible fragments.

Once each composite became redrawn as one harmonious image, they became somehow real despite being impossible. Each of the nine composites drawn was reproduced as a giclée print on heavy duty, archival quality, water colour paper. Each of these in turn was carefully cut out, in the same way Hooper’s illustrations had been cut out. The painstaking process of cutting out these pathological composites took days to complete.

Placed together, these composite drawings took on another life. Connecting with each other, they appear to ebb and flow, spilling across vintrines and cabinets, paralleling Hooper’s process of observing and rendering detail, cutting out, re-arranging and re-fragmenting.

The process of collecting together fragments and rearranging them continued within the 425 cm long concertina book of pen drawings. The objects ‘collected’ together here came form Hooper’s illustrations and the specimens from the pathology collection at the Maude Abbott Museum. Objects that have never been placed together in reality became visually joined to stretch across time and space in a reimagined shelf of objects.

The inspiration provided by Hooper’s process of drawing close detailed fragments and cutting out continued. After creating impossible composites from his drawings, the method was applied to real specimens in the Maude Abbott Museum. Different view points of the same specimen and details from another were added to drawings and further impossible specimens created. Stitches from one specimen became part of another and the threads that held the suspended specimens in their jars of formaldehyde were repeated and visually act to hold pathology specimens that cannot possibly exist.

The theme of the fragment becoming more fragmented and then joining together through drawing and stitching runs through all the work. The fragments of the archive, the body fragment and the fragmented specimen, all become intertwined through processes of drawing, repetition and stitch.