Septum Gynaeceum and the Restoration Chamber
seven rooms, each 8’ x 8’ x 8’
flocked and painted walls
As human beings, a primary survival function is reproduction. For this reason, fertility has historically been surrounded by mystery and intrigue. My work focuses on our fascination with the human reproductive system and changing perceptions of female anatomy, many of which have not been derived from scientific observation. Our understanding of the uterus and its related components has evolved from a Babylonian fertility symbol to an Egyptian goddess’ hairdress to a contemporary knowledge from a wide range of highly technological advances such as ultrasound and in vitro fertilization. The work in this installation examines the changing ideas of female anatomy from the perspective of the history of gynecology. This intersection of evolving scientific theory and contemporary aesthetic perception gives insight into societal attitudes prevalent today surrounding the female body.
In medieval medical teachings, the uterus was thought to have seven cells or chambers; in the three on the right male embryos developed, the left three were for female embryos, and the center one was for hermaphrodites. Numerology was a logical extension of my curiosity in these early tracts, leading me to wonder why seven chambers? Such a mystical interpretation of the construction of the uterus reminded me of the many peculiar groupings of the number seven; virtues, sins, sacraments, wonders of the world, locks from Samson’s hair, bodies of alchemy, days of the week, Snow White’s dwarfs. In a series of seven anatomical waxes that closely follow the structural diagram from the medieval manuscript, I explore the parallel relationship between the uterus and the number seven. The mythological compartmentalization of the uterus further extends into the architectural space of this installation, which is divided into seven rooms.
As medicine advanced, anatomical knowledge steadily evolved. The bicornate (two-horned) uterus was derived from Galen’s autopsies of animals in the 2nd century and prevailed among doctors and scientists until the Renaissance. Theological disapproval meant dissections were infrequent and curious concepts continued, as for example in Scipione Mercurio’s phallic simulation of the vagina and uterus (1595). Misdiagnosis is also evident in the series of etched plates with imagery derived from historical medical texts. The foundations of modern anatomy were established during this period, but the decomposition of corpses was a serious problem. Therefore, medical schools sought ways to continue teaching their students when cadavers were not available. A graphic teaching aid was developed in Bologna and Padua—seemingly accurate anatomical studies made of wax, a material that needed no preservation, yet closely resembled human flesh. Dissections were performed rarely and were thus significant events. To accommodate viewers, an architectural environment was designed specifically for instructional dissection with the goal of allowing the largest number of students the opportunity to observe the procedures. Such spaces were typically round, with the specimen placed in the middle, surrounded by concentric tiers of seats. The heart of this installation is the anatomy theater.
The lavish and sensual quality of the architectural environment is intended to evoke an old fashioned look in this installation. The brightly colored, flocked wallpaper, the red carpet, and the ropes and stanchions elicit the spirit of the 19th century medical history museum, a venue that gives the illusion of science but the conceptions displayed are far from fact. The seductive nature of the interior both contrasts and complements the subject of this “museum,” female reproductive anatomy. It is my intention that this exhibit provokes contemplation on how we perceive our own bodies, societal infringement upon individual rights, and the history that molded the current opinions and controversy of this contemporary volatile issue.