TODT: Still Life and Michelle Handelman: Beware the Lily Law

Installation View

The Mütter Museum &
Eastern State Penitentiary


By Tiernan Alexander

showing through 2011

How does the mood of a particular venue affect the perception of the art on display?  A prestigious gallery lends an air of significance to an exhibition, and it’s easy to dismiss paintings in a coffee shop or hotel.  But what about a non-traditional venue better known for its own history than for showing art?  Several distinctive locations in Philadelphia have developed art spaces in conjunction with their own programming that allow the art shown there to absorb a particular gravitas.  The Mütter Museum and Eastern State Penitentiary are two such Philly institutions imbued with intense emotional histories and environments.

The Mütter Museum, The College of Physicians of Philadelphia’s eerie collection of myriad medical curiosities, body parts, and antique scientific ephemera, is a great spot for thoughtful thrills.  Educational exhibits abound, and the medical history gives the museum a thick patina of intellectual depth.  But while I love getting creeped out, there’s a deeper level on which the place affects me.  When I stand in front of the wall of skulls, each with a description of his or her death, I feel a human connection to them as people.  What were their lives like? What did they regret? How far had they travelled? Who had they loved? I am confronted with what will be left of me someday—an empty shell.  It is chilling and quiet and takes me out of myself.

The museum stillness and sideshow sleaze make a great atmosphere for an art show—especially one as gruesome as TODT’s—an artist collective active in Philadelphia and New York since the seventies.  On entering the Mütter’s collection many visitors wince and giggle their way past the fetal skeletons and preserved tumors, scanning for the next jolt or fun fact.  After hundreds of specimens and stories it seems that any malady, deformity or gruesomeness is possible.  Still the human element pervades.  There are the obvious reminders of mortality as well as revelations about the ease with which people are taken by illness and death.

After viewing all the permanent displays, visitors are funneled into an adjoining art gallery where TODT’s Still Life is on view.  The transition is so seamless that you can miss the shift from historical collection to contemporary art.  Still Life contains stuffed animals dissected to show lifelike circulatory systems and animal organs inside.  There is an antique camera, half open to reveal a fetus crammed inside.  Inside the camera a large nipple points at the fetus, threatening to crush it if the camera shuts.  The objects are clearly not antique medical tools, but at first glance they almost could be.  After all the disturbing equipment that you have seen so far, these have just enough realism for momentary plausibility.

A molded plastic car seat has been converted into an infant surgical studio that could easily come from a Star Trek film set.  There are faceless mannequin heads that share elongated tongues with pseudo-military robot figures, a speculum-topped light fixture in glam sixties plastic, a gun-microscope hybrid, and a cereal bowl full of baby teeth with a spoon—all combining the familiar with the macabre.  While taking in these artistic interpretations of an alternate medical world, my feelings of horror and wonder at the long history of medical development were still on the surface.  My normal detachment had been stripped away by the reality of the museum objects, perfectly preparing me for TODT’s exhibition.

This is a case of almost perfect symbiosis between an untraditional venue and art.  While I was there I overheard many visitors openly question the reality of TODT’s work, wondering at the line between artificially crafted gore and real human mortification.  The aura of death envelops the museum almost casually and that essence informs each work in the TODT show.  After viewing and imagining historic traumas of twins sharing one tongue, twenty pound tumors, and choking on thousands of small objects, the impossible physical distortions of Still Life are more moving and disturbing than they could have been elsewhere.

Another frightening locale is Eastern State Penitentiary, the world’s first modern prison.  Now defunct and dilapidated, it was opened in 1829 and became a model for jails around the world.  Closed in 1970, the buildings collapsed into themselves and much of the grounds were reclaimed by urban forest.  Now many sections have been stabilized for visitors with some areas restored to the original plan while others are filled with debris and peeling paint.  It reopened to the public as a historical building and now showcases a variety of art projects each year.  Its many cells offer artists contained spaces infused with their history of personal suffering.  At any given time a dozen exhibits address various aspects of prison life: pets, history, decay, longing, and loss.

Michelle Handelman’s Beware the Lily Law makes great use of its location in a decrepit cell.  Her video installation addresses the current prison system’s treatment and classification of transgendered people: transgendered women (those who transition from male to female) are incarcerated in male prisons, and transgendered men (female to male) are placed in female prisons.  On the rear wall inside the cell a life-sized projection of a prisoner is talking about his or her experience.  Each prisoner faces the viewer like a friend or visitor and tells a harrowing story of violence and abuse at the hands of fellow prisoners and guards.  Sitting in the cell with each of these stories is overwhelming.  There is no comfort, no recourse, no daylight.  To hear these stories inside a cell—feeling the confines of the space and the lack of any comfort or normalcy—is stunning.  Of the exhibits I have seen at Eastern State, this is the most affecting.

The low light in the cell, angle of projection and size of the image all assist in the illusion that the person projected is really speaking with the viewer.  And more subtle cues like the dampness and low moldy smells contribute to the sense of fear and imprisonment.  It is the perfect theater for this film.  Many transgendered prisoners are kept in solitary confinement for their own protection—in effect subjecting them to the worst of prison punishments for their gender identity.  Solitude and separation recur in the stories told in Handelman’s videos and in the architecture and design of the prison itself.

Other exhibits focus on different elements of life in Eastern State—the current work by Greg Cowper is about the insect life there and is based on an inmate who collected eighteen species of butterflies and moths while there in solitary confinement.  This exhibit also intends to reflect on the solitary nature of life in prison, but lacks the immediacy and intensity of Handelman’s work.  While I enjoyed the display, I was not strongly moved by the work.  I could say the same of several other pieces on display—they were interesting pieces, but they did not make me feel strongly about the daily horrors of prison life.

The synergy between Handelman’s and TODT’s works and their venues transforms each into more than it would have been on its own.  Having visited both locations repeatedly, I felt more emotional impact from the conjunction of these art installations and the environment around them than on any previous visit.  There have been many other worthy and interesting works on display in both locations but none that so acutely magnify and echo what each venue inherently sets out to communicate.

Tiernan Alexander was raised by culturally-minded wolves in North Texas. Since 2009 she has lived in Philadelphia studying, making, teaching and thinking about art.