Great medical breakthroughs have always been precipitated by breakthroughs in our understanding of human anatomy: increased resolution begets increased understanding. In 1993, a Texas death-row inmate named Joseph Paul Jernigan became a participant in the forward march of medical knowledge. After Jernigan was executed for murder, his body was sliced into 1,871 one millimeter pieces and photographed as part of the Visible Human Project. Jernigan’s corpse became the first comprehensive, nondigital map of the human body.
In D.C. this weekend, a group of British artists from Studio Tobias Klein and Ordinary Ltd. unveiled an installation that reverses the process of Jernigan’s decomposition. In The Invisible Human, visitors are welcome to manipulate the humidity levels inside a group of glass cases, each containing a fabric simulation of an MRI scan. Turning up the humidity stimulates the formation of crystals around the bones, and slowly but surely, the milky crystals grow to fill the voids completely, giving the skeleton its "body" back.
"Crystallisation within the body occurs in two main ways," explain the curators at Industry Gallery. "Through dehydration, when minerals crystallize from a saturated solution, and by freezing, when ice crystals are formed." It is—needless to say—usually fatal. But Klein and Ordinary are reversing that process by growing crops of crystals where the skin and organs used to be. In one vitrine, the white outlines of a human heart await the light and heat necessary to grow the crystals necessary to become "whole" again. In another, small translucent fractals cling to the outlines of the transversal plane, a section cut through the waistline. "The crystallisation processes that echo those occurring in the body as it dies," the designers explain. "As one phase turns into the next, the space continuously changes, oscillating between life and death."
Klein and Ordinary Ltd. are also inviting people to contribute to the project online—you can manipulate heat and light (and thereby manipulate crystal growth) remotely on the Invisible Human website. Is there a political subtext to the work? It’s hard to say. On the one hand, these are British artists "rebuilding" the corpse of a man some would call a victim of capital punishment. On the other hand, Invisible Human is a study in the chemistry of life and death—a poetic science experiment, not a loaded statement piece. The piece will run for 40 days and 40 nights—yes, the number of days and nights it took God to "cleanse the earth" in the Bible.