Mary Beth Heffernan is a Los Angeles based artist whose work explores the intersection between representation and physicality. She is Professor of Sculpture, Photography and Interdisciplinary Art at Occidental College. Heffernan earned her BFA at Boston University in 1987, graduating Magna Cum Laude and awarded the Kahn Career Entry Award. She earned her MFA in the Photography Program at California Institute of the Arts in 1994, and appointed Fellow in the Studio program at the Whitney Independent Study Program 1994-95.
From the start of her career, historical medical archives fascinated Heffernan. Her Becoming series (1994), was a sculptural response to specimens and 19th century medical photographs from the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia. The Replete series (1995–2001) drew from Enlightenment-era dissection engravings by William Hunter at Harvard’s Countway Library of Medicine. She recently received critical acclaim for a solo exhibition of her Blue series at Sloan Projects in Santa Monica, Calif. Heffernan's social practice PPE Portrait Project to humanize the frightening protective gear worn by Ebola workers in Liberia garnered international recognition on NPR, PRI, the BBC the Los Angeles Review of Books, CSNBC and many other publications. The project was also featured in Tiffany Schlain's 2015 film The Adaptable Mind.
In 2017 Heffernan was selected as the recipient of the first PAC·LA Artist Grant and spent several months at The Huntington Library, Art Collection and Botanical Gardens, engaging with its collections and producing new work inspired by the objects she encountered. The Huntington has acquired a new artwork resulting from her residency that will become part of its permanent collection.
Watts chose Heffernan in part because her work aligned so closely with The Huntington and its collections. “Her art is deeply research-based, she is intrigued by historical photographic processes and techniques, and interested in the intersection between the human body and its representation over time,” said Watts. And then there’s the mesmerizing beauty of her art, which Watts finds “striking for its depth and seriousness of intent.”
Heffernan's art is included in numerous private and public collections. She is represented by Sloan Projects of Santa Monica, CA.
We spoke on February 18, 2018 at Heffernan's studio at Occidental College in Eagle Rock.
Paula: You were basically given carte blanche by the Huntington to spend time with their collection and formulate an idea around it. How did you approach the project?
Mary Beth: It was amazing working with Jenny Watts, Curator of Photography + Visual Culture, and others at the Huntington. Jenny and I had an invigorating daisy chain exchange of conversations, books and ideas. (Naturally including her book on the Civil War.) We spent time looking at photographs and talking about how photographs accrue meaning. And the anatomy books. It was incredibly rich.
I started out looking at vintage photographs and books, and it lead to thoughts about dust. When does matter go from something important with meaning, like a body, photograph or a text, to physically--and semantically-- falling apart, transformed into this other thing called dust? If we take a deep dive into museums, we learn that they care a lot about dust. Their collections turn to dust or they're trying to protect their collections against it. What is dust? When is it part of matter that matters? Is dust a category of matter passing into a state of being devalued or disprized? That is a crucial concern of a museum collection, preserving objects of value that are in states of attrition. Curiously, it seems as if there is a larger "art and dust" moment going on! Coincidently, David Company's a Handful of Dust came out a year earlier (2015), a book about Man Ray's 1920 photograph, Dust Breeding, made in conjunction with Duchamp and his Large Glass. This photograph has always resonated with me, and Company's argument that the dynamics of the work--passive accumulation as active art making, debased matter, disoriented shifts in scale, attrition--are central to certain strains of 20th and 21st art making--also deeply resonated with me. At the time, I was in the midst of working on a series of photograms of my friend and her mother's cremated remains. The physical and semantic alchemy of the body transformed from its recognizable contours to an almost proto-digital dust--and transformed into a photograph-- loomed large in my imaginary.
Early on I got to know the preservation and conservation staff. Their work is fascinating because a large portion of it involves removing dirt, dust and grime and revealing an object in all its glory; but they also prize that dust and dirt as a talisman of the feat of cleaning and conservation. Sometimes, they keep the swabs and the grime that they pull off the art. (Before arriving at The Huntington, I had heard of other instances where conservationists saved the artifacts of conserving a challenging project.) The Huntington's painting conservator recently cleaned Charles Peale Polk's 1790-93 portrait of George Washington, and she generously allowed me to photograph her collection of dirty swabs from that project; the literal burnishing of a presidential image. There’s a whole world of activity in preserving and conserving objects. I'm always interested in that interstitial state of things. Accidents. By-products. Attrition. One thing becoming another. Everything that the "art" is not.
As you know I have an interest in corporeality and its representation; I wanted to look at early anatomy books -- 18th century anatomy books, books on midwifery, of which The Huntington has exceptional holdings. Because of my recent work with cremains, and contemplating the limits of figuration, I asked if there were any human remains in the collection. Jenny recalled that an 18th century anatomy book titled Anatomy, Epitomized and Illustrated that had been bound in human skin had been part of a internal display for Huntington employees a year or two before that. I believe that's initially how this book came to her attention. I was able to carefully page through this book, its binding an example of what is referred to as anthropodermic bibliopegy, bound in human skin.
Paula: That's a big word. Can you say that again?
Mary Beth: It's anthro: man; podermic: skin; biblio: book; pegy: binding. Anthropodermic bibliopegy.
I know, it's hard to roll off the tongue. I've always been interested in anatomical texts. Starting in the late 1980's, I've delved into various medical museums and rare book medical collections, and my work is informed by that material culture and those representations. I kept thinking about the meaning of this anatomy book and why an owner might have rebound it in human skin. There are a number of extant editions of this book. (In fact here in town there's one in UCLA's library.) There's also one in The New York Academy of Medicine. There was even one on eBay at the time, but all of those were bound in animal leather. So why would it make this anatomy text more meaningful were it bound in a person's skin?
Paula: So this was not the original binding.
Mary Beth: No it was not the original binding. There were some names of what appear to be the prior owners in the book; there's an ex libris and book plate identifying Blake H. Watson, MD, who founded the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology for St. John's Medical Center in Santa Monica when it opened in 1942. Aside from the LA County Medical Association, to whom his book was donated, he appeared to have been the last owner. However there is another name penned into the book, a "J.W. Hamilton of 147 Kent Street S. Paul, Minn." I am interested in learning more about the provenance of the book but also to learn more about whose skin was used for the binding. There are very few examples in the US. There are five examples of anthropodermic bibliopegy at the Mütter Museum. Three of the five are the rare instance where both the doctor and the person from whom the skin was flayed are known: Dr. John Stockton Hough, and Mary Lynch, respectively. Hough, Lynch and the texts, it seems to me that they are in themselves bound together.
Paula: They are all medical texts?
Mary Beth: Yes, the three books bound in Mary Lynch's skin each deal with issues around female health, reproduction and conception. Mary Lynch's thigh skin was used to bind Speculations on the Mode and Appearances of Impregnation in the Human Female…published in 1789; Le Nouvelles Decouvertes sur Toutes les Parties Principales de L’Homme et de la Femme… published in 1680; and Recueil des Secrets de Louyse Bourgeois…published in 1650.
There’s an anthropodermic bibliopegy volume in Harvard's Houghton Library that is a philosophical treaty on the human soul, Armond Houssaye's Des destinées de l'âme, nouvelle édition, Paris [c. 1880] and it's known that the skin was removed from the back an indigent woman who died in an asylum in Metz or Nancy. Princeton University's Rare Books and Special Collections Librarian Paul Needham wrote an excellent blog post about the ethics of displaying and preserving this volume, describing the culling of skin as "post-mortem rape."
Other books that are bound in human skin were made with the skin of criminals. It was seen as a form of punishment beyond death. Occasionally, those facing the death penalty requested it and directed that these volumes be given to certain people as messages, a way of speaking beyond the grave.
It appears that doctors took the skin of patients of whom they had access and control. In the case of Mary Lynch, the impoverished Irish immigrant woman whose skin binds three of the Mütter Museum’s anthropodermic bibliopegy volumes, there appears to be a gendered nature aligning her skin and the subject matter of the book; medical books on female sexuality, conception and childbirth.
Some think this practice is not an example of fetishism, but I think that this pretty clearly meets the definition of a fetish. There are multiple kinds of fetishes. There are so-called anthropological fetishes, sexual fetishes, commodity fetishes (and combinations thereof), but in general the idea is that a material or an object concentrates a certain kind of power or presence. It embodies that external presence and one can conjure it through either contemplating the object or beholding the object or owning the object. Fetishes often have an intensified physical presence that obfuscates other, important dynamics. I always think of the line from the Wizard of Oz, "Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!" Fetishes call attention to themselves even as they attempt to hide their sources of power. These volumes were rebound at considerable effort and must enhance the value or meaning of the book for the owner; I'm really curious about what that might be.
I'm proposing that we explore second-generation DNA testing to learn more about the binding, its lineage and where it came from. We'll never learn who it came from, but genomic lineage can be a proxy for race. I think that it is an institution's obligation is to come to a fuller understanding of the objects they own. I think that this object is particularly dense in meaning. I chose to concentrate on Anatomy, Epitomized and Illustrated because, as an anatomy text, it is a representation of the body, but because the book itself is a body. What does it mean semantically, phenomenologically, and ethically to use and own a book that is bound in the remains of another human being?
Paula: It’s fascinating. I've seen a few people view the photograph. Most of the time people are taken aback by it. That's the first reaction. When you say it’s bound in human skin people are creeped out by it.
Mary Beth: Ahh. That's understandable.
Paula: But then I wondered if it was more of a relic or reflecting some desire to keep a piece of a person. I want to know more about why someone would do this. What does it mean to that person. Is this something that didn't seem creepy when it was done? What is the date of the book?
Mary Beth: The book was published in 1737, a compilation of 17th c. engravings.
Paula: You said there are a handful of these out there. Would you say that binding in human skin was a trend, something that was done?
Mary Beth: Anatomy was originally bound in leather. It's not known exactly when this volume was rebound in human skin-- likely in the late 19th or early 20th century. There is a collective named The Anthropodermic Book Project that has confirmed, through peptide mass fingerprinting, that 18 of such books exist, though others are currently being tested. Frankly I think that the effort expended to procure human skin and rebind a book with a highly charged material made it uncommon. However at the time it also wasn't so rare or stigmatized that a doctor, or someone with "legitimate" access to dead bodies, couldn't go to a bookbinder to have a pet project produced. Historically, "keepsakes" made of human remains and anatomical specimens were more common in popular use (one has only to think about the gruesome practice of parsing lynched bodies into collectable parts) and medical school teaching collections, even as we find them deeply problematic today.
There is a moment of reckoning coming for medical schools and their historic use of bodies, many of whom who were socially disenfranchised and used without consent of the patient or patients' families. Historians and ethicists documenting African American encounters with the white medical establishment like Harriet E. Washington and Daina Ramey Berry have documented the widespread abuse of living and dead black bodies starting in the colonial era. It's important for us to understand how many prestigious institutions built their reputations instrumentalizing the bodies of the socially disprized.
Libraries and museums, too, have an obligation to understand the meaning of their holdings. Princeton Scheide Librarian Paul Needham argues that Harvard's Houghton Library should unbind, and provide a respectful burial of, the skin used to bind Des destinées de l'âme. He writes, "although preservation is a central responsibility of libraries and museums, it is not one isolated from wider questions of ethics." Some at The Huntington wish to more deeply understand the meaning and origins of the binding of their volume of Anatomy Epitomized and Illustrated. There is also a more traditional interpretation of the role of the curator -- from the Latin curare, to care for -- which privileges the physical preservation of the object. But this can also lead to what Eve Sedgewick called the "the privilege of unknowing," shoring up dominant modes of power through the luxury of ignoring the unpleasant or problematic histories of the dispossessed.
I'm eager to learn more about what this book meant for the successive owners of the volume. And: what does it mean right now to the Huntington? I'd like to expand the dialogue to include medical ethicists like Dr. Harriet A. Washington, historians like Daina Ramey Berry and rare book librarians like Paul Needham and others who've thought deeply about these issues.
Paula: How do you then take this inquiry and represent it photographically?
Mary Beth: My first impulse was to somehow create an image that conjured a sense of touch, to instantiate that this object was once part of a human being. I photographed all sides of the binding, made digital negatives, and reprinted it as a photogram, a platinum palladium photograph contact print. I made the negative (and print) precisely the size of the book itself so that it appeared like a handprint on the paper.
Paula: You can see a few lines or wrinkles and texture in the photograph.
Mary Beth: Photographs have an indexical trace to their objects, and I hoped to mine this inherent quality for its immediacy and seeming lack of mediation. However, I wanted to distance the viewer as well. As much as I wanted us to feel the tactility of the skin and relate to it on an imaginary haptic level, I also wanted to somehow put the viewer at a visual distance. That's why I printed it as a black and white negative image. It kind of glows, it's silvery, it's ethereal. You can't just look at it and immediately recognize it as the blotchy reddish-brown tanned skin book that it is. You have to flip it in your own mind; the viewer has to become aware of interpreting it. This turns a viewer into an active participant in the position to provisionally behold, but does not induce a kind of visual mastery of the object. These photograms were my effort to both give the viewer a sense of intimacy and humanity, but also hold us at a cool distance.
Paula: What has been the response from Jenny or from the institution about this. Are they interested in the scientific inquiry?
Mary Beth: Jenny has been incredibly supportive of the project, and together we crafted the request to submit the binding for second generation DNA testing. She believes in expanding our knowledge about the objects that The Huntington has in their collection; I believe she sees it as her professional and ethical duty. I understand the discomfort in coming to terms with the meaning of owning instrumentalized human remains, and the difficult decisions that could arise from the duty to act on the information we learn. These are the inherent tensions in every museum or library collection; the dualism of conservation and preservation vs. inquiry and interpretation of the meaning of the objects. I feel like Jenny and I are trying to advance all of these areas with care and integrity.
This particular volume of Anatomy densely combines many important concerns around power and consent, human remains in archives as specimens, and instrumentalized human remains that serve other purposes. Ongoing cases spurred by NAGPRA, (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) the return of Sarah Baartman's remains to South Africa, attempts by African Americans to re-possess the skeletons of family members hanging in medical schools; these are the related cases that come to mind. I hope my consideration of The Huntington's copy of Anatomy will yield insights about this book that is a representation of bodies, and also a body itself. I also hope my inquiry will be helpful to consideration of other human objects in other collections as well.
Paula: You obviously have an interest in science and scientific processes, but you're an artist. Have you thought about how your approach is different from the way a scientist would study this? A geneticist? Someone else who's approached the same object?
Mary Beth: Mine is part of a tradition of what we call a research-based practice, a type of conceptual art that considers interdisciplinary research part of the art making process. It may lead to making what we traditionally consider art objects or installations. At other times, for me, it leads to social practice art interventions, like the one I performed in the 2015 Ebola epidemic in Liberia. I consider what I learn from archives to be my art material.
For the Huntington project, one of the world's leading paleo-genomics lab, located at UC Santa Cruz, has agreed to partner with us on this if we get the go ahead to test the binding. Incidentally, researchers in the humanities and sciences are finding DNA testing of skin books useful for a number of reasons. Books bound in animal skin, or books made of velum, provide insights to both humanists and people studying animal migration. It puts animal DNA in direct reference to a specific date, the publication date of the book that it covers. Now scientists are plumbing libraries with books made of skin to map animal migration and animal developmental changes to specific times and places. In this desire to learn about animals, they're accidentally finding human skin in the archives as well. This is the thing that they don't quite know what to do with.
Paula: A dusty book in a library that's been there for years suddenly has a new purpose beyond the words inside of it. That's fascinating.
Mary Beth: There is a wellspring of work unpacking the meaning of objects, texts, and museum practices and the way they shore(d) up dominant modes of power. It's time for institutions to open up their collections for re-interpretation using new technologies and interdisciplinary approaches, fostering debate, and dialogue. Vital institutions will demonstrate their capacity for self-examination, self-criticism, and reform. Institutions that double down with their head in the sand will be mausoleums.
Regarding the convergence of art and STEMM fields, our culture has often overvalued STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math and Medicine) while it has devalued the arts and humanities. (How many times have you heard the call for kids to be scientists and coders?) However, there is momentum toward including the arts in the mix because of the multiple points of perspective, because of the critical thinking, because of arts' capacity for innovation and independent thinking. The arts also help foster close observation and empathy.
Mary Beth: I think the early integrations of arts into the STEMM fields employed a conservative notion of what art was; art was a decoration or it was "humanizing..." Nothing against "humanizing;" But the term is often used in a soft way that implies "feminizing." There's a lot to unpack in that term, and its qualities are intrinsic to more "evidence-based" understandings of the body. Now we are developing more sophisticated definitions of STEMM. For example, in medicine, there’s a lot of evidence to show that culture and the social register have physiological implications. For example, psychosocial conditions directly affect health outcomes.
If the register of culture is in play, that means art is in play as an agent of change in other fields; This is incredibly interesting territory to me. It means that artists can work to actively alter protocols to, say, improve medical outcomes but also to expand the definition and the theater and the actors of art. This is something I'm hoping to do in my ongoing work on using photographic portraits of caregivers to improve the health of those in medical isolation.
Where is art? Where does art take place? Who gets to do it? We've known for a long time that art doesn't always involve an object. It could be what's happening between us right now. And that's the thing that has incredible potential. That’s why it's so compelling right now. Finally we have new generations of scientists, doctors and engineers that acknowledge that the purely rational "God's eye view" perspective is, in itself, a human construction. The implications of this are that science, technology and medicine can either continue to reproduce structural violence, or foster social justice.
In a global, digitally connected world, labor that we thought was white-collar or intellectual work is now being outsourced. The rapid pace of technological development means that if one's education is entirely skill based, those skills might be obsolete by the time you're finished your training. Education in the arts and humanities provides critical thinking that will last a lifetime. Combining skill based fields, the STEMM fields, with the critical thinking, creative suppleness and mental agility that comes from being an artist or thinking like an artist, that is what is going to serve someone in the long term. That's why the arts and humanities are so important. Of course, art has value in and of itself, too, but it's never in a vacuum!
Through my social practice art, I have met a group of people invested in the ethics of science and medicine and the social determinants of health, known as "social medicine." In fact I just learned that the Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine are listing my PPE portrait project as an example of a productive collaboration between arts and medicine in a forthcoming report (May 2018), a combination that they're recommending for the future of higher education in STEMM.
Mary Beth: Personal Protective Equipment, like HAZMAT suits.
Paula: That's your Ebola project?
Mary Beth: That's the Ebola project, but of course PPE is used in all kinds of contexts everyday. Through that work I was a keynote speaker at a Science and Social Justice conference at the Arcus Center, and also part of Global Health and Social Medicine, a collective that met at Radcliffe to create teaching materials for the nascent field of social medicine. All these efforts are bringing together the social cultural registers with STEMM. Fields like math, science, and medicine are now acknowledging that the cultural register has real and measurable impact on the things that they care about and study. It makes common sense to me that culture affects the way one's body works. For evidence-based people it's a revelation. And now we have proof of the interplay of these things.
Paula: One last thing. You're a teacher and you're a working artist. How do you apply your philosophy to teaching? What does teaching give to you?
Mary Beth: I am deeply fortunate to have had teachers and mentors who are amazing artists and writers like Allan Sekula and Mary Kelly whose incredibly rich art practices involve(d) research. I have had amazing models to help inform how I approach teaching in relation to my own art practice, and I also see teaching as part of my own practice. I feel incredibly fortunate every day to be challenged to think about how I structure creative exploration for students, or query how physical materials are entwined with cultural connotations and ideas.
I do it for myself as much as I do for the students. I suspect the reason why I'm still in a learning institution is because I still want to be learning. I get to explore new ideas and techniques and to challenge my own assumptions about art. Early on the way I structured things was similar to the way I studied in grad school. The farther out I get the more I change. I allow other things to influence how I structure learning, my classes, what kind of prompts I give; what sorts of references I bring when I see a student's project. I don't just make contemporary art references. We'll talk about philosophy or novels or poetry or music. The idea is to think about how we talk about our work in a larger context? How does it take on meaning? Over time, I've challenged my own assumptions about what's important in teaching art. What are the vital skills and ideas? I hope to also give students a sense of joy and discovery of their own, for them to own their artwork and their art practice as a way of knowing the world. I think that that's how I forged my own model of an art practice. I want them to discover how they'll do it in their own way. Now that I reflect on it, perhaps when I urge them on, I'm deep down urging myself on too.
For more information about Mary Beth’s work visit http://www.marybethheffernan.com.
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