Murray Gilbert was born with an elbow that bent the wrong way. Edith Murrock, the wife of a successful 19th-century surgeon specializing in physical deformities, made Gilbert a jacket with a special sleeve to accommodate the errant arm–or so Jennifer Friedrich would have you believe.
Friedrich, an artist who manages Columbia College’s experimental photography and printmaking lab, has created an installation for the International Museum of Surgical Science that treads the fine line between fact and fiction. Titled “Artifacts From the Cabinet of Dr. Murrock,” the installation features antique objects, handmade clothing, and mock daguerreotypes–images printed on glass with a liquid photo emulsion using a polyurethane and iridescent-paint base–all displayed in glass cases borrowed from the museum. A series of explanatory cards begins, “In the 1950s, an anonymous party donated a large trunk to the museum, the contents of which are displayed in this room.” The cards go on to lay out a sentimental narrative of the Murrocks, a childless Boston couple whose “family” consisted of people suffering from deformities and injuries: people who needed love, attention, and, of course, medical treatment.
When Friedrich came across the museum two years ago, she was charmed and intrigued by the architecture and ambience of the old house, with its grandiose marble interior and antique medical instruments displayed alongside art objects dealing with surgical topics. It struck her as a perfect place for an installation that would blend in with the rest of the exhibits. “There’s all this traditional artwork, and then so many of the instruments displayed there are like bizarre sculptures,” she says. “They had an actual purpose, a very serious purpose, but if you don’t read anything about them they’re also art. It’s an intense demonstration of the juxtaposition of art and life.” When Friedrich learned the museum offered a gallery space to local artists whose work related to surgical science, she stepped right up with a proposal.
“In the beginning I was going to present it as though there was this eccentric who had a strange collection,” says Friedrich. “I was going to construct medical instruments that don’t really exist and create 19th-centuryesque photographs of people using them. Then I watched the movie Dead Ringers again, because I knew that movie played a lot with the idea of crazy instruments made by two doctors, and I felt my idea was too similar to that. The way it worked out, I found these real photos and reprocessed them to make them look like daguerreotypes, and the objects surrounding them are fake.”
Some of the “daguerreotype” images, most appropriated from medical textbooks, depict horrific calamities inflicted on the human body: a jawless woman, a man with a goiter the size of a melon, a Civil War soldier whose leg is rife with gangrene. Others are simple portraits or group photos of men and women in period attire. Friedrich interpreted the images as she saw fit, inventing the names and stories of the victims. “This guy here, I’m saying he had a deformed arm at birth that bent the wrong way, because it kind of looks that way in the photo,” Friedrich says, pointing to the image of “Murray Gilbert.” “But actually he’s holding his forearm up with his other hand, and this upper part [of his arm] has no bone in it. I sewed a coat to fit a backwards arm, so I changed his story.”
Friedrich’s work, long influenced by 19th-century aesthetics, has increasingly dealt with the psychology of the audience. In designing a mock museum exhibit in an actual museum setting, she was thinking largely of how people would react. “When I was looking at [the museum’s] collection, it just seemed like a lot of the things were really outrageous to me, almost unbelievable, even the iron lung and things that you know are real, it just seemed like this bizarre display. I was thinking at one point that somebody could have made this whole thing up and you’d believe it because it’s in this formal setting. So my idea was to create a sort of prank that would play with that notion.”
A notice at the entrance to the exhibit states that Friedrich created it specifically for the museum. Beyond that, viewers are on their own to determine the authenticity of what they’re looking at.
“I’m looking forward to getting feedback, to reading what people write in the comment book,” says Friedrich. “I was happy when I heard that the intern typing the cards was convinced that it was all real. It was believable to her–my first victim.”
“Artifacts From the Cabinet of Dr. Murrock” opens Saturday with a reception from 2 to 4:30 at the International Museum of Surgical Science, 1524 N. Lake Shore Drive. Admission is $5, $3 for seniors and children. Call 312-642-6502 for more information.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Eugene Zakusilo.