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In the first chapter of his book Des monstres et prodiges, the 16th century surgeon Ambroise Pare lists the causes of monsters:
There are several things that cause monsters.
The first is the glory of God.
The second, his wrath.
The third, too great a quantity of seed.
The fourth, too little a quantity.
The fifth, the imagination.
The sixth, the narrowness or smallness of the womb.
The seventh, the indecent posture of the mother, as when, being pregnant, she has sat too long with her legs crossed, or pressed against her womb.
The eighth, through a fall, or blows struck against the womb of the mother, being with child.
The ninth, through hereditary or accidental illness.
The tenth, through rotten or corrupt seed.
The eleventh through mixture or mingling of seed.
The twelfth, through the artifice of wicked spiteful beggars
The thirteenth, through Demons and Devils.1
Pare, who lived at the time when the Middle Ages was giving away to the Renaissance, combines fantasy with scientific realism in his catalogue of monsters. What makes his work different from earlier teratologies is his attempt to attribute causes to these anomalies. It is notable that Pare did not attribute solely negative reasons: by cataloguing these 'monsters' he also wanted to demonstrate the infinite variety of God's creations.
In 1546 Pare recorded a case of a monster having two heads, two arms and four legs. When he found on dissection that the monster had only one heart he concluded it was only a single infant. This conflicts with the standard view that the number of heads determines the number of souls: since the rite of baptism is performed on each head they are considered to be separate individuals. Patricia Piccinini in her recent exhibition Indivisibles, has placed her work at the scene of this conflict, the intersection of medicine and theology.
Indivisible is a set of six drawings of Siamese twins, and in front of each drawing Piccinini has hung a sheet of transparent plastic. These plastic sheets function like the plastic pages in medical textbooks which the reader turns to peel away the layers of the depicted body. On each sheet is a dotted line that ends with a symbol of a pair of scissors. The line marks the path of the surgeon's knife that will be used to separate the bodies of the twins. The viewer is made to imagine the result of this surgery, and the gross physical violence it involves. The configuration of the bodies disallows any easy solutions: the separation in each case would leave one twin dead and the other horribly crippled.
The reality of the situation is that all Siamese twins are separated (unless they are detected in vitro, in which case they are aborted). This practice serves the interests of the medical community: there are no uneasy ethical questions since the surgery, if possible, is always carried out. Piccinini focuses on this by incorporating anachronistic elements. Her models were posed in the positions adopted by real 'monsters' in nineteenth century photographs, reproducing their configurations but dressing them in modern clothing. One set of male twins has shoulder length hair and wears a shirt with a zippered collar: another man, who has a parasitic torso emerging from his stomach, wears jeans and has a crewcut and goatee. Two women joined at the top of the head have nose rings. The drawings use the conventions of pre-modernist medical illustration, but the transparent sheets are a concession to conceptual art styles.
Piccinini's depictions, like Pare's, combine fantasy and scientific realism, and a sly humour operates behind the objective facade. Her use of anachronism and visual puns betrays a sympathy for the subject matter and does not rely on shock value. The work is focused on institutionalised violence, where individuality is enforced through an apparatus that is more concerned with normalising than curing people. The indivisible pair are not only against nature but against the bureaucratic definition of what a person is meant to be.
Are Siamese twins entitled to two passports? Is the twin that is excised by surgery like a malignant tumour entitled to a death certificate, and if so, what is recorded as the cause of death? If one twin commits a crime, is the other to be punished as well? and if not, is a Siamese twin, then above the law?
In the 1971 critical edition of Des monstres, Jean Ceard calls Pare's book the "most sustained attempt (during the sixteenth century) to 'naturalise' monsters". Indivisibles is a modern attempt, providing illustrations for a book that has become impossible to write in a world where the only cause of monsters is the imagination.
1. Ambroise Pare, Des monstres et prodiges, translated with an introduction and notes by Janis L. Pallister, Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1982.