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photo of performance artist rubbing his nose up against a glass case filled with exhibits

Aaron Williamson: Labyrinth of Living Exhibits. Photo © Royal College of Surgeons

Simon Raven gives his impressions of 'Labyrinth of Living Exhibits' - a performance event curated by Aaron Williamson at the Hunterian Museum, London, presented by Shape and Arts Catalyst.

What does contemporary art have in common with a room full of specimens, pickled in formaldehyde, illuminated in glass cases? At the Hunterian Museum, on Friday 12th May, we had an opportunity to imagine ourselves back in the 18th Century to find out.

The Hunterian is one of London's secret places, central yet tucked away upstairs at the Royal College of Surgeons on Lincoln's Inn Fields, across the park from Sir John Soane's Museum. The thousands of specimens on display form part of a once vast collection made by 18th Century Surgeon Sir John Hunter, and many still carry his grim classification as being either 'morbid' or 'normal'.

Each has bleached over time into a uniform, lunar bone-yellow, and the collection contains everything from the skeleton of an Irish 'giant' to human foetuses in varying stages of development. Although we would rather speak of these as specimens of 'difference' now, it would seem that the original focus of the collection is heavily biased towards 'the different' - extreme cases of growth, disease and abnormality, suggesting a taste beyond the purely scientific, more in keeping with the 18th century gentleman collector's vogue for 'cabinets of curiosity'.

Aaron Williamson, whose work in performance often foregrounds and lampoons normative attitudes to disability, invited three artists, Brian Catling, Katherine Araniello and Sinead O'Donnell to join him in responding to the collection by presenting an evening of new site-responsive works which took place simultaneously across the two floors of the Museum. The performances were then followed by an accessible panel discussion.

Owing to the nature of the event it would have been impossible to see all of each artist's work, so this is a record of one writer's glimpses and impressions - a map of my own personal curiosity.

'Specimen Mirror' - Aaron Williamson walked casually amongst the large glass cabinets carrying a library step, wearing a smart suit and sporting a freshly razored bald head, giving the impression of an Olympic swimmer, East End gangster or convict. Placing the stool near to a cabinet, he stepped up onto it and carefully pressed his face against the glass. Visible through the museum cases and specimen jars themselves, his face was abstracted, whitened, flattened and smudged - mirroring the faces of the museum's sleepily suspended contents.

Prismatic, echoing reflections were cast among the surrounding glass, in which his own foetal and distorted visage melded with those of specimens and the watching audience. Striking statuesque poses between roaming the museum in this manner, pausing to work the corners of the cabinets with his eyes frequently closed, Williamson movingly inverted the logic of the museum as an arena of containment. By using its glass cases as a sheer, vertical pillow, his performance suggested that their contents might be viewed as figments of an ossified collector's deepest fantasy. The erotic charge to the work was intensified as his breath steamed up the glass, leaving silvery clouds and moon-like prints of faces in slowly evaporating vapour trails. An impression was built up of early forms of photography, perhaps contemporaneous with the exhibits themselves.

The work was also comic in the sense that the distancing desire to classify and look was brought into direct contact with the glass through which to do so - as if a visitor so wished to see the contents of the cases that he was literally compelled to press himself right up against them. Williamson's baldness was reminiscent not only of imprisonment – perhaps that of the hairless specimens themselves - but also of the shock transformation depicted in the last plate of Hogarth's 'Rakes Progress', 'The Rake in Bedlam'. Housed in the Soane Museum so close by, this image describes a scenario in which wealthy and fashionable visitors to Bedlam appear to be entertained by the protagonist who has been incarcerated, stripped and scalped in his delirium and, as with the specimens at the Hunterian, transformed into a public spectacle.

'Out of its Depth' - Brian Catling  Until recently the Museum housed a jarred one-eyed child, with bright red hair and an unforgettable, mirror-like expression of shock and bewilderment. This exhibit has since been removed and is now locked away from public scrutiny. Perhaps in response to this incarceration, alluding in his title to Oscar Wilde's prison poem 'De Profundis', Catling transformed several bronze and plaster sculptural busts of surgeons and their related myths, dotted around the museum, into a gathering of Cyclops, using latex, skin coloured, one-eyed masks. Wearing such a mask himself, and positioned behind a pillar in an alcove in the museum, the transformation of a sculpture into a living specimen was enacted – as if a Cyclops/surgeon had escaped from its jar. At first the performance had to be stumbled upon and the viewer’s experience was intense, in so far as there was no distancing glass to peer through, no reflective gleam off marble or gentle absorption of light into plaster. Initially, the living Cyclops just stared at a wall but with a psychic pitch that was extraordinary and difficult to engage with. Approaching the same scene, a blind woman opposite me was being given a confident audio description of the exhibition by a personal assistant. When the assistant noticed Catling she stopped mid-sentence and was only capable of resuming in a whisper some moments later. Gradually the Cyclops turned outwards towards the central area of the museum, for a long time peering through his fingers and making faces, mirroring the audience's scientific, artistic or photographic curiosity. Towards the end of the evening a tapping sound on glass suddenly alerted the audience that a speech might be about to begin, but it was Cyclops in a brilliant comic turn, gleefully circling the cabinets with a small pyrex frying pan which he was hitting with a spoon, chasing down some unwitting specimen, one of his jarred and cosmic pets, for feeding time. His, not theirs.

Audience reaction throughout the evening was unlike any I have seen at a performance event before, and I think this was largely due to the attempt by both the production team, Shape and Arts Catalyst, and the curator Aaron Williamson that the evening should be fully accessible, and to give priority to guests with a physical impairment. A shared sense of social purpose, and success, was evident in this policy from the start - such that the performances at times seemed to take a back seat to the general excitement of the crowd who were neither hushed nor parsimonious in the face of the 'living exhibits', but seemed rather spurred into conversation. For this same reason I felt compelled to write about the event - the collective, accumulative implication of each action was that I should not remain a passive, indifferent or static observer.

A lively panel discussion followed the performances, flanked by a relay of sign interpreters and a live subtitling projected onto a screen. During the talk, concerns over the threat of privatisation to the quality of service provided by the NHS, and multiple personal experiences of having been objectified by members of the medical profession were shared. Central to the evening was the reiterated observation that the notion of 'disability' is a social construction, which can trace its origin and evolution as a negative form of differentiation through very distinguished artistic and scientific roots, but which now sees itself as a validated category.