Stedman Gallery Goes Under the Microscope in Novel New Exhibit
Death Under Glass is a new exhibit that will be taking place at the on-campus Stedman Art Gallery through December 9th. Prior stops for this exhibit have included New York City and London. Interested Rutgers students who choose to stop by will find themselves in a world of microbiology. In place of watercolors or sculptures, what is on display this time around will use human biology itself as the art. Marianne Hamel, MD, Ph.D., a forensic pathologist, and Nikki Johnson, MFA, a forensic photographer, have teamed up to present an artistic look at their work. Arranged throughout Stedman are hypnotic images of pink and white, which at first glance could be mistaken for some sort of surrealist art but are actually slides of human tissue! The samples are sliced thin, dyed to allow different tissues and residues to pop, and then blown up under forensic microscopes. The result is a trippy, heady image that reminds one more of a lava lamp and less of the morgue.
During an Artist’s Talk that was open to all students in the Fine Arts building, interested parties were able to pick the brains behind this morbidly fun exhibit. When asked where they had first gotten the idea, Marriane had this to say:
“Well, I was just there at work, looking at slides, thinking to myself, “Boy, these are beautiful. Kind of like art, almost.”
She went to her friend Nikki Johnson with the idea, who was all for it, and devised the process by which the slides would be put onto aluminum plates so they could withstand being put up in a museum. The newly minted art curators went out for drinks together to come up with a name, and the rest, as they say, was history. In Marianne’s own words, the pair “fell into the art world almost by accident.”
Although the images on display are beautiful, they are, at the end of the day, images of human tissue taken from a mix of living and dead subjects. When asked if this aspect of the art had brought them any controversy or trouble in the art world, both women were grateful to report that virtually no pushback of that sort has come up.
“No, what’s great about this is that our audience filters themselves out. If you think right away that this isn’t for you and that these depictions of death aren’t for you, then you simply won’t show. If people do think it is for them, then they show. “
“We’ve never had someone vomit, although there have been a few paintings.” Dr. Hamel added, with a laugh and a look of faux anger, “And if you do faint, you’re stayin’ on the floor! The staff here is paid to move around dead bodies, not live ones, y’know.”
The fact that their art comes from the medium of cadavers and microscopes instead of watercolor or clay doesn’t stop them from having favorites, either. Marianne stated that gunshot wounds often produced some of the prettiest stain patterns across her portfolio. Crack Lung was another popular “medium,” with the mix of soot, drug particles, blood cells, and lung tissues providing very striking imagery when all mixed together under a microscope.
The duo behind Death Under Glass stated that one of their main goals was, above all, to raise awareness of the role forensic science plays in society and that it is a field as key to public health as any other medical science.
“It’s not just dealing with the dead… But when we’re behind the microscope, we can see patterns. We see fentanyl samples, for example, cropping up more often. We get tipped off that more people are dying from fentanyl more often, and we can take that to the police departments. That is actionable information.” Dr. Hamel said
Also present was Anna Dhody, a curator for Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum, who added:
“In a very real way, through forensic science, you guys save many lives and give closure… to families, and now you’ve made that into art… That’s so much more than just dealing with dead folks.”
The Stedman Gallery, in addition to hosting Death Under Glass, will also be holding a lecture series on many interesting topics, some of which are perfect for the Halloween season. Chemistry of Color with Professor Georgia Arbuckle will be presented on Tuesday, October 24th, and Death and Decomposition: Zombies and Vampires will be presented by Associate Teaching Professor and Graduate Program Director of Forensics on Halloween, Tuesday, October 31st. Fungi: Friend, Foe, and Forensics and Encountering Death: Mourning in Philosophy and Cultural Practice also await in November.