mildred pierce zine

‘I love mummified skin, it just feels so amazing’: Sally Mann v. Body Worlds

In Mildred Pierce #2 I wrote a diatribe on Body Worlds that was more a confused intensity than a logically sound critique. A recent visit to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts to see the Sally Mann retrospective upon the suggestion of friend/MP contributor Leeyanne Moore renewed for me certain questions raised by Body Worlds about the presentation of dead (human) bodies. It’s my hope that I am more articulate this time.

Gunther von Hagens’ Body Worlds — “The Original Exhibition of Real Human Bodies” — showcases human bodies that have been plastinated (this is von Hagens’ innovation, a new way of preserving bodies and bodily materials) and posed in curious and at times problematically gendered ways. The exhibit, which has been touring the world for several years now in various forms, is a spectacle on numerous levels, and, when I saw it in Philadelphia in 2006, its flashy presentation of “real” human bodies — in which bodily fluids had been replaced by “real” fluid plastics — grossed me out; and the wonder with which many museumgoers approached these bodies perplexed me. I’ve actually manipulated cadavers, so my response to the exhibit was a So What?: what’s astonishing about heavily manipulated ‘realness,’ where the stench and messiness of decomposing bodily materials is sterilized out of existence?

Body Worlds: unintentional camp?

Surely one of von Hagens’ plastinations will someday be displayed next to the soap lady in Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum. In contrast to the ostentatious Body Worlds, I find the Mütter’s crowded display of bodies and body parts, many of them wax replicas, deeply fascinating and educative — the giant colon is a perennial favorite. I guess I just prefer the Mütter’s privileging of anomaly to Body Worlds’ heteronormative, ableist presentation of human embodiment. And I guess I’m more interested in the history of medicine and its wacky mishaps and assumptions than in ogling a ‘real’ pregnant body in a weirdly sexualized reclining pose with its uterus sliced open for all to see. The kind of ogling invited at Body Worlds seems exploitive, the supposed authenticity of the exhibition masking the obvious editorializing being done. The Mütter is more humble, more fascinated with its contents, less invested in taking over the world and making a lot of money: look, we’ve got a wall of wax eyeball problems, come see.

eye maladies at the Mütter

Like the Mütter’s, Sally Mann’s presentation of human bodies seems to escape the kind of exploitation that Body Worlds invites – or maybe is just more self-aware about its own voyeurism. While Mann’s oeuvre is full of bodies, I’m referring in particular to her photographs of corpses, currently on display as part of The Flesh and the Spirit at the VMFA. The series is part of a larger selection of photos from her 2002 exhibit What Remains, originally exhibited at the Corcoran.

What Remains is a three-part series of photographs, the first grouping together gloomy landscapes of Civil War battlefields, all in low-contrast b&w. She used the same photographic techniques of the Civil War era, but didn’t try to perfect them as contemporary photographers did, her process resulting in a kind of scarring of the photographs — scratches, graininess, tears.  The landscapes appear both wounded and proud, overcast with pain, gapingly out of time.

"Untitled (Appomattox #4)"

The second part of the exhibit presents photographs taken at the University of Tennessee’s Forensic Anthropology Center (also known as the Body Farm), where unclaimed bodies are left outside, their open-air decomposition studied by forensic scientists. Mann’s photographs from the Body Farm show human bodies in various states of decomposition, some in b&w, a few in color. Tthe original exhibit also presented photos of Mann’s dead dog as it decomposed over time.)

"Untitled (2001)"

The third part is a series of large-scale, exuberantly close-up photos of Mann’s adult children’s faces — a celebration of vitality through monstrous intimacy.

The second group of photos interests me most, due to my own fascination with bodies and the rarity of seeing them decomposing outside, vulnerable to insects and buzzards, the elements. Mann’s photographs capture various shades and textures of decay: one body is fully decomposed from the torso down while still retaining the flesh on one hand; one appears to vomit maggots from its neck.

"Untitled (2001)"

Later, my friend and I discussed our reactions: she said she was initially put off by what she felt was a disrespect towards these corpses, but that seeing the documentary on Mann, which runs continuously as part of the retrospective, and witnessing Mann’s attachment to and love for her dead dog’s body, changed her (my friend’s) mind. At the same time, she was put off by footage of Mann at the body farm, where she’s seen tapping cadavers with her fingers and saying things like, “I love mummified skin, it just feels so amazing.”

In the documentary, Mann makes a very clear distinction between selves and the homes they’ve left behind. I don’t know if I’d separate the self from the body so entirely. But to me, the photographs perform a reclaiming of these unclaimed bodies, if not the lives that have left them, and evidence Mann’s respect for and fascination with bodies and their movement through time. Her photographic and processing tactics produce photography that announces its own artifice — the photographs are always photographic, there’s always a scrim that detaches the viewer from the viewed — tears and scratches, “mistakes” that remind you of their manipulation by an artist’s eyes and mind. So even as Mann’s photographs seem to present the “natural” or “authentic,” they disallow such a reading. Where both Mann and Body Worlds present essentially voyeuristic ways of viewing bodies, Mann’s approach to the body in death puts the sterility and unacknowledged artifice of von Hagens’ spectacle in stark relief. Mann is interested in the human; von Hagens in plastic.

This comparison also raises questions about art v. science: Mann as artist of the body; von Hagens as equal parts mortician and radical scientist. What about Damien Hirst, too, and reactions to him: a sculpture like The Virgin Mother —

hirst, the virgin mother

versus von Hagens’ ‘sculpture’ of a pregnant woman: von Hagens has largely escaped the criticisms that have been leveled at Mann and Hirst and other artists of the body whose art has been criticized for its ‘shock value’  — probably because he has the authority of science (its presumptive objectivity) and of science museums behind him. I’m a bit out of my league here, though, not knowing too much about the reception of these artists, or really of Body Worlds — making some assumptions.

In my essay in MP2, I put Body Worlds in conversation with the popularity of shows like CSI and Bones — maybe I’ll return to that in another post, as this one’s exceeding itself.


haven’t i given you everything?
December 7, 2010, 3:47 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

GAYLORD PHOENIX gets collected
December 1, 2010, 1:01 am
Filed under: art | Tags: , ,

Gaylord Phoenix, a wonderfully radically queer world in minicomic form by Chicago artist Edie Fake (Mildred Pierce #4 cover artist!!), is now available collected in this gorgeous book. We’ve got an *xclusive* (well, we could say that) interview with Edie about the project in MP4, so we won’t say more than yeah, it’s awesome. Congratulations, Edie!

Help celebrate in Brooklyn and Chicago this week and next:

NYC release party is at Cinders Gallery (103 Havemeyer St, Brooklyn) on Thursday, 12.2 at 7pm;

Chicago release party‘s at Quimby’s (1854 W North Ave)  on Thursday 12.9 at 7 pm.

The book’s available through Secret Acres.

Dispatch from a THATCamp
November 22, 2010, 5:05 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , ,

Over the weekend I went to a really terrific ‘unconference’ called THATCamp. It’s national with local outposts; THATCamp Chicago was held at Northwestern University.

What’s an unconference? Find out more at THATCamp’s website linked above. What was unusual and radical about this event, based on my previous experiences of academic conferences, was that the sessions were driven by participant interest, and we generated and voted on each one while at the conference. The sessions were all collaborative and designed for infosharing as opposed to top-down knowledge distribution. There were also bootcamps provided on Omeka, WordPress hacking, Git, and 3D modeling.

I’ll admit to having felt kinda out of my league, a writer/lit scholar still clinging to the page amidst all these digital humanists, but I managed myself fine and kept up for the most part except during some nerding out on CSS. I learned a lot, and enthusiastically recommend THATCamp to anyone who wants to learn about and discuss digital approaches to research, scholarship, data presentation, pedagogy; etc; or acquire more technological wizardry.

My purpose in this post is to document a list some of the tools and resources I learned about, for the sake of infosharing and for the sake of – I hope you’ll tell me what else I and others should know about in a comment to this post.

Free or mostly free online tools:

  • Pixlr – free open source online photo editor – comes highly recommended as a free alternative to photoshop.
  • JayCut – free open source online video editor – recommended as free alternative to finalcut
  • Inkscape – free open source vector graphics editor – alternative to illustrator, although no one could really vouch for how easy it is to use
  • Prezi – online presentation tool that’s increasingly used as an alternative to PowerPoint
  • Google SketchUp – free basic 3D modeling tool
  • Protovis – free open source data visualization tool
  • Animoto – can make video from images (free up to 30 seconds)
  • ArtRage – (30-day free trial) digital artmaking that is very convincingly (i.e., it looks like real paint/other media) rendered
  • Zotero – Firefox add-on; AWESOME research and citation management tool
  • VisualCV – free hosting site for online resumes/CVs/portfolios

Free photos/clip art/fonts:

  • morgueFile – free license; no attribution required
  • stock.xchng – not sure about licensing
  • – all public domain/creative commons
  • dafont – possibly the best collection of mostly free (& some licensed) fonts online; and you can input/preview your text before downloading.


  • Lynda – this is a fantastic database, its pockets deep with software/programming tutorials; I have taught myself Flash and Illustrator using Lynda, and can’t recommend it enough. Many institutions have subscriptions (UIC students/faculty can access Lynda free through the library website), but it’s not unaffordable for individuals (for $25, you get access to 900 online courses for a full month).

(The THATCamp Chi blog has notes on some of the other sessions, with additional tools/notes on gaming and geo tools, among other things.)

So what else should I and others know about? What tricks and tools you got up them sleeves? We’re laying out Mildred Pierce 4 this very second…which is why all this stuff is timely and right.

Art Books/Zines/Dog Dick, Live
November 5, 2010, 7:03 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

This weekend, November 5-7,  is the Fifth Annual New York Art Book Fair, and it is being held at MoMA PS1 in Queens. It is FREE!  I have never been, heard a lot about it in the recent past, and I am really curious to check it out!  Hopefully the next time it comes around, Mildred Pierce will be in gear to be there.

The fair really looks like a cool weekend, with tons of talks, events, performances, etcetera. One highlight, and a Fun Mildred Pierce Issue 4 tie-in: DJ Dog Dick, aka Baltimore-based musician/book & zine artist Max Eisenberg, will be performing at PS1, Sunday November 7, at 3pm ias part of the book fair. He and I are gonna meetup this week and finally hammer out details of his spread for the zine– his art is a super great amalgam of creep/drip noise aesthetics, arch comic timing, elliptical storytelling, and just straight up gonzo shit, and I am excited to see him be a part of the zine.  I think any thorough reading of his work and his music will show that Dog Dick is sick with the art and the music, and that he brings a rare brand of realness, fuckdness, and complexity…]]]\\\;’)

If you can’t make Sunday, he also plays Saturday November 6 at the Showpaper Gallery on 42nd St.

Support Queer Comics!!
October 27, 2010, 12:58 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Image by Edie Fake

Here and now is our chance to make things right, people! Remember all those comics presses you ‘respected’ but never supported? Remember all those indie comics blogs you read obsessively back in ’08, for cover sketch thumbnails, long-winded page size and color sep salons,  just to go and NOT buy the damned anthology because the price was greater than (or equal to) a bottle of bum wine? Oh and remember  how queer and minority voices never get repped fully in alt comics anyway?!???!

Well now is the time where we support voices marginalized in even the most robust of indie markets: queer comic auteurs! And then we get a beautiful perfectbound comics anthology from Sparkplug Books! These things can actually happen simultaneously, if you act now, and head on over to the Kickstarter page for “Gay Genius,” a new collection edited by Annie Murphy and featuring a cornucopia of cutting-edge creators (including Mildred Pierce Issue 4 cover artist Edie Fake…ya’ll should see the sketches, its gonna be bananzas!!) This thing is  damn. near. published.–all they need is a few supporters, and for $25, you get your own copy of the 120-page book. Do it!! Do it now!!

Also, check out RANDY, a brand new publication from Capricious Publishing which also features Edie Fake’s awesome work!

Sabrina Chap! a teaser
September 29, 2010, 5:16 pm
Filed under: interview, music | Tags: , , ,

photo by Dave Sanders

In the works for MP4 is an interview with Sabrina Chap, musician, playwright, burlesque performer, writer, editor, all-around dynamo. She edited the anthology Live Through This: On Creativity and Self-Destruction (Seven Stories Press, 2008) — I’ve posted her responses to questions about the collection over on Montevidayo in three parts: one, two, and three.

Here’s a short excerpt of our interview about Oompa!, her debut CD (ERT Records, 2010):

I’ve been songwriting for years. Years. This is the first time I’ve been brave enough to say, “Fuck it. I think these songs are good enough. Let me put them down so I can get on with my life.” I’ve had people ask me for CDs ever since I started songwriting. First ten songs I had- people were like “Where’s your CD?” I was like, “They’re my first ten songs. They’re not very good.” (Though I’m not gonna lie: a few of them were pretty good). Still, I was getting people giving me their CDs for free left and right at every coffeehouse I went to, and I’d go home to listen to them and they’d suck. And then I’d throw them away and feel awful, because it was wasteful. In fact, that was why I wasn’t shy about making chapbooks and selling them when I was a spoken word artist. I though, “Fuck it — if someone doesn’t like it, they can just recycle it and I won’t have to be filling landfills.” You can’t recycle bad CDs. I’m really hard on myself, and I didn’t want to put out a bad one.

When I got into the studio with Oompa!, it really was because I was straight up proud of these songs. “Never Been a Bad Girl,” “Idiom,” and “ Little White House”: That’s good songwriting. I’ll argue it in court.

Saving the rest for the print issue — January 2011. And that one is firm.