Lambda prints and HD video in a loop,
© 2010-2012 Paula Muhr

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In “Studies on Hysteria”, published together with Freud in 1895, Joseph Breuer called hysterics "the flowers of mankind, as sterile, no doubt, but as beautiful as double flowers”. In cultivated flowers, doubling comes from the replacement of the stamens by petals. Like the double flower, the hysteric for Breuer is the product of luxury and cultivation, a seductive female abnormality.

The work is a reinterpretation of medical photographs of women from the end of 19th and the beginning of 20th century. The women depicted in the images are predominantly “hysterics”, but to a lesser degree also patients suffering from various skin diseases. The reason for the conflation of these various symptoms within the series is the fact that in the 19th century, madness (as hysteria was often regarded) as well as various skin disease, were not only understood as result of moral corruption, but were also defined within the medical context as having the specific external pathonomic signs in the physiognomy of the respective patient.

Consequently, the specific external, visible signs were the very definition of both hysteria and skin diseases, thus providing basis for medical nosology, classification and treatment of these diseases. The advent of photography played a crucial role in this construction, as the photographic images provided apparently objective illustration of pathonomic signs, thus becoming the new focal point of the medical gaze.

The appropriated medical portraits, which aimed at providing pure visibility and immobilizing the elusive and changing symptoms of madness and related diseases, are destabilised in their original function. The historical photographs were taken from various books, magazines and medical atlanta, where they played the role of unambiguous evidence of illness and abnormality. They were juxtaposed with a number of different objects, plants and animals, which directly refer to Dutch still life paintings and their precisely codified symbolic meaning. These assemblages, constructed in the way to emphasise the idiosyncracies of the individual female portraits, were then rephotographed.

Through this process each appropriated image was deconstructed through the introduction of specific foreign elements, chosen in order to overturn the primary medical mode of the illustrations as portraits of pathology, with which the individual had been turned into nothing more than the bearer of pathonomic symptoms.

Through slight transition in symbolic meaning, this work aims to problematise the apparently stable visual boundary established within the medical context between the “normal” viewer and the “pathognomic” patient.