1/31/09

Look Around You



This pitch-perfect parody of British science films (like these ones referenced a few weeks ago) is one of the eight episodes of a BBC series from 2002. They're only available on region 2 dvd, but easily found on youtube.

A second season was done in 2005 (with a very different format, like 3-2-1 contact, but no less absurd), and they're considering making more in the future. It's just started airing in the states last week, somewhere in the "adult swim" lineup. Discovered yesterday, via boingboing.net.

1/28/09

Jokamel



Looks like futurechimp.com has finally jumped the shark. Remember when this used to be an academic natural history blog?

From Robert Smigel's criminally underrated TV Funhouse series, which only aired from December 2000 to January 2001 on comedy central. The DVDs came out last year.

1/27/09

Perversion for Profit



A short film brought to attention by the Prelinger Archives, an enormous online depository of ephemeral films which existed for years before the advent of youtube. Besides viewing the films on the site, you can download them in a variety of formats. Be warned, the archive also is in possession of the dreaded, horrible Experiments in the Revival of Organisms, if you dare to take the plunge. Remember, you can never un-watch it.

If you live in LA, see Mr. Prelinger give a presentation of films from his collection this weekend. From the writeup:

Beginning in the 1980s, archivist Rick Prelinger traveled around the U.S. in a van, visiting local schools, public libraries and private collectors, and accumulated perhaps the country’s largest collection of “ephemeral” works – industrial and sponsored films, home movies, educational films and commercials, and more. Over the years his Prelinger Archives has amassed a cult following, part of which is due to the magnetic personality of Prelinger himself, who finds ways to contextualize the films in his collection that are evocative and inspiring.

Details here.

1/26/09

Gargantua

Gargantua was captured in the Belgian Congo as a baby in 1929. En route to the states aboard a freighter, an intoxicated sailor threw nitric acid into the ape's face. He was nearly blinded and terribly disfigured.

Upon arrival in New York he was sold to an eccentric but sympathetic woman of means. She had plastic surgery performed on his facial injuries, which resulted in a permanent expression of seeming malevolence. After several years, he weighed 460 pounds and proved too much for her to handle. She sold him to The Ringling Brothers. He first appeared before the paying public in 1938.

Gargantua has been credited with saving the Ringling Brothers from bankruptcy. They exhibited him in a sealed glass case (which was air-conditioned and kept germs out), pulled around the circus ring on a carriage drawn by six white horses.

He was paired with a female a couple years later. She had something in common with him: she was raised by an affluent woman, but during afternoon tea she broke her owner's wrists. From Time Magazine, 1941:

M’Toto (a she-gorilla) met Gargantua (a he-gorilla) last week. Their cautious introduction took place out behind the machine shop at the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey’s winter quarters in Sarasota, Fla. The two giant gorillas whom John Ringling North hopes to mate were wheeled up face to face in their separate cages. Attendants and newsmen watched. Scarfaced, 550-lb. Gargantua turned a curious look upon the first gorilla he had seen since he left Africa. Apparently he liked what he saw. He threw her a bouquet of celery tops. Uppishly, 438-lb. M’Toto tossed it back. He tried a head of lettuce. M’Toto shuffled coyly across her cage and played with her black & white kitten Principe. Gargantua sulked. To Circusman North so far was so good. Said he: “Gargantua is infatuated. Naturally M’Toto was modest and bashful.” When he is reasonably sure that they will not tear each other apart, he will let the couple share the same cage.

As is sadly the case with captive gorillas, he didn't actually develop any interest in her. Still, the circus capitalized on the relationship, promoting her as "Mrs. Gargantua" after a marriage ceremony.

Poor Gargantua passed away at the age of 20 in 1949 from multiple health problems due to poor care, leaving no heirs to his empire. His remains were donated to the Peabody Museum of Natural History in Connecticut, which displays his skull from time to time.

Just so you don't confuse him with another gorilla of the same name, we include this clip from Wonder Woman episode 6, creatively titled "Wonder Woman versus Gargantua":

1/22/09

1/17/09

The Viking Ride

video

The city of York, England is a who's who of empires: Constantine made it his HQ in the 300's, The Saxons moved in after the fall, followed by the Anglos, and from the 14 to 17th centuries, all of England was ruled from here.

For a short time, 866 to 944 AD, even some asshole Vikings raided the place, killed everybody, and made their nest in York. Thank heavens, because a Viking village was excavated in 1979. What to do with it? Build a ride!

The Jorvik Viking Centre opened soon after, in 1984. Its centerpiece is this extremely lame ride, which cost five million pounds to build. It's so bad, it's almost transcendent. The cars are suspended from above, like Disney's "Peter Pan" ride, enabling you to soar over the village without any tracks on the ground to break up the illusion. There are practically no animatronics; it's almost all static figures. Speakers, built into the cars, provide content-free narration: "oh dear - it appears this latrine is occupied!" as you slowly move past a figure squinting and straining while crouched over a hole in the ground. Lovely.

Which reminds me: the smell. A selling point in the ads is the claim that the ride is 'scented'. Their slogan should be: "Jorvik Viking Centre! Smell It!" Sure enough, it really smells. Ever drive past a pig farm in summer, with the windows down? It's that kind of smell. You might contract diptheria merely from inhaling.

At the end of the ride just before you dismount, the narration concludes, "and now we're back in the eighties..." they didn't even bother to update the soundtrack at any point in the last 25 years! And there's a line to get into this place!

The rest of the 'museum' is a joke: a few hundred square feet of artifacts, some pepper's-ghost exhibit tricks, a couple of sorry souls dressed like vikings telling you how miserable their lives are in the 900's. Is it worth eight pounds admission? That depends on the type of person you are. I would say definitely yes, but it gets mostly poor reviews on tripadvisor.com. At the very least, the experience is authentic in that you get robbed of your money. What else do you expect from vikings?

There may or may not have been a "no cameras" sign at the ride's entrance (there's a reason I didn't upload this video to youtube). The footage I shot is truly horrendous. It was dark in there, and I was bein' real sneaky. But that will not deter me from making a movie of it! By Odin's Beard, I shall get my eight pounds' worth and share this attraction with my fellow chimps! So I load it into imovie, slow it down, mess with the contrast... good enough. You're hearing the real soundtrack, pitch-shifted with added reverb. That horrible squealing sound is the mechanics of the ride itself.

For the final coup de grace, the gift shop had scratch n' sniff postcards of the latrine scene. Wow.

1/15/09

The London Science Museum

Requiring a considerable investment of your time just to run through at top speed, most of this vast museum is dedicated to industry and engineering. There's a gallery of locomotive engines, another of the space program (the original Apollo 11 capsule is here, for some reason). But then there's the Wellcome Wing, composed of three floors way up in the roof of the building that get little traffic due to tricky accessibility. As in yesterday's post, its contents are from Sir Wellcome. But unlike the Wellcome Museum, there's an enormous amount of stuff to be seen in here. A few selections:



various anatomical waxes from 18th century Italy.

Anatomical Venus with removable breastplate and organs, half-scale.


Carved wax bas-reliefs intended to instruct medical students.


A box of 60 heads from 1851, the era of phrenology (the belief that human characteristics could be determined by measuring the skull). #54 is the head of a scientist.

One of the three floors is a timeline on the history of surgery, told in several dozen dioramas. But I shot those in 3D, and will need to feed the photos through the stereo-optitron when I'm back in the states. Stay tuned.

Museum Website

1/14/09

The Wellcome Collection

Sir Henry Wellcome (1835-1936) was a successful pharmaceutical entrepreneur. His trust is currently worth about 15 billion pounds, and has funded loads of biomedical research. He also personally collected hundreds of thousands of objects related to medical history. A small portion of it is on display at the Wellcome Collection in London. A few selections:

A real transparent woman. About 120 of these came out of Dresden, Germany starting in the 1920's and were sold around the world. From Time Magazine, 1936:

The skeleton of a young Dresden woman, killed in an accident, was treated with preservative, covered with paraffin. Brain, heart, stomach, lungs, thyroid, liver, spleen, pancreas, bladder and other organs were taken from corpses, made transparent by a secret process, dyed, photographed in color, enlarged, projected on a screen in three dimensions. From these projections artists made tracings which were used by sculptors to model the organs which actually went into the figure. The viscera as well as the glassy frame of the transparent woman are made of a material called cellhorn, which is tough, resilient, impervious to temperature and humidity.

Barely visible at the bottom of the photo are the interactive buttons which light up the organs. One used to reside in Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry, where I practically grew up. It's been an inspiration for more than one of my own sculptures.

Is there a transparent woman in your town? Find out here.

Wax insect models, built in 1914 for the museum's opening exhibition on disease.

A pair of sterling silver Memento Mori

A stunning and disturbing Vanitas waxwork.

Visit the Museum's Website.

1/13/09

The Hunterian


Part two of our London medical tour is the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons, centrally located near Trafalgar Square and my personal favorite of all the collections I've seen in this trip.

There are over 3,000 specimens, human and zoological, laid out in identical acrylic containers, arranged in neat rows on glass shelves in glass cabinets, two stories high. It's a breathtaking display.

They don't allow photography of any kind, which is understandable, considering the nature of the collection. I'd go into detail about the exhibits, but it would seem redundant; there's already an extensive description of this place here on bioephemera, a blog you should be checking regularly if you're into this sort of thing. There's little I have to add, other than that I hope anyone in London allows at least a couple of hours to visit it, and to give it a chance; human biological specimens might seem off-putting, but it's a fantastic educational opportunity and can also be an introspective, and even transformative, experience.

Virtual Tour of the Museum Here

1/12/09

House of Hax

Excerpted from Wikipedia:

Marie Tussaud was born in 1761. Her father was killed in the Seven Years' War just two months before Marie was born. Her mother, Anne Made, took her to Berne where she moved to work as a housekeeper. There she took the Swiss nationality. (the homeowner) was a physician, and was skilled in wax modelling... In 1767, Tussaud and her mother joined him in his move to Paris. He taught Tussaud the art of wax sculpting. She started to work for him and showed a lot of talent. She created her first wax figure, of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in 1778. Other famous persons she modelled at that time include Voltaire and Benjamin Franklin.

In Paris, Tussaud became involved in the French Revolution. She met many of its important figures, including Napoleon and Robespierre. On the other hand, she was also on very good terms with the royalty. They were so pleased with her that, on their invitation, she lived at Versailles.


However, Tussaud was arrested by the revolution on suspicion of royalist sympathies. In prison, she awaited execution by guillotine together with Jos├ęphine de Beauharnais. Even though Tussaud's head was already shaven for her execution, she was saved for her talent in wax work and employed to make death masks of the victims of the guillotine, some of whom had been her friends. Among others, she made death masks of Marie Antoinette, Marat, and Robespierre.

In 1802, Marie Tussaud went to London. She established her first permanent exhibition in Baker Street in 1835. Some of the sculptures done by Tussaud herself still exist.


So the night before my last full day in London I'm reading a book which I highly recommend, Edison's Eve: A Magical History of The Quest for Mechanical Life by Gaby Wood. It's a short history of Automatons, with some references to Tussaud. It describes the museum's first mechanized waxwork, a figure of Sleeping Beauty whose chest slowly expands and contracts in her slumber. How could I pass up the chance to see that? At the last minute, I decide to add the wax museum to my schedule, and get down there first thing next morning to beat the crowds.

"25 pounds? Wait, is that part of a package? Does it include dinner, drinks and a handjob? That's not what I'm looking for, I just want admission to the museum itself. How much for just the museum? What? 25 pounds?" (writer's embellishment)

But I pay it, for two reasons: (a) my curiosity about the history of the institution, and (b) I'm an idiot.

There are no dioramas. The figures are scattered through empty rooms, free of any props or scenic context. This is to better allow you to get right up next to them for photo-ops. Sculpture, it seems, only has value if you can stand beside it and have your picture taken. The photograph, and your inclusion in it, is the only thing of worth, not the artwork itself. It's an odd combination of egocentrism, self-delusion, and idoltry: "Look, here's a picture of me! And that's Jim Carrey!"

If you didn't bring your own camera, don't worry: Tussaud's staff are in nearly every room, with a tripod parked in front of the most appealing figures (Queen Victoria, Andy Warhol, the cast of High School Musical) and they'll take your picture next to a faux-celebrity for an exorbitant fee.

Then there's the problem of the subjects themselves: people like Britney Spears and Beyonce are already post-human, with enough plastic surgery and makeup to be no different in appearance from the average department store mannequin. So in the end, you have a wax figure which is an accurate replica of an artificial person.

Curiously missing from the "World Leaders" room is George W. Bush. The Obama figure won't be unveiled until inauguration day, but you'd think, until then, they'd continue displaying the most powerful person in the world of the last eight years. Sure he's a mass murderer, but then, so's this guy:

(this isn't the figure that was recently and famously decapitated by a visitor - that was the Berlin location). For some reason, I don't see too many people cuddling up next to him. He looks lonely. The first thought that enters my mind is, "how cool would it be to lift him up and carry him over to the previous room, in the "Superstars of Music" section? He could take the mic at center stage, backed up by Jimi Hendrix and Marc Bolan!"

The Chamber of Horrors is a big letdown, with just a handful of figures and showy special effects. There's a dark maze haunted house (which contains no waxworks or scenery), and a disney-esque theme ride on the history of London which cost 10 million pounds to build. These things have nothing to do with wax museums, and seem to be there specifically to justify the entry fee. In all this, I don't see a single figure which was sculpted by Tussaud herself. I could be wrong, but at the very least, they aren't clearly identified if there are any. Where are they? Where's the history?

I walk out feeling like a grifted, gullible, juvenile fool. But just before the predictable gift-shop-blockade-exit, I pass the last figure in the museum, which lifts my spirits substantially:


Visit a huge wax museum blog HERE.

1/11/09

Ye Olde House of Pain

No, this isn't the attic from Black Christmas, it's the St. Thomas Chapel and Hospital in London, part one of our medical history tour. The hospital was built here in the early 1100's, although the attic was used for medical purposes beginning in the early 19th century.

Accessed via a claustrophobic and creaky spiral staircase (the chapel's belltower) and admitted by means of a small admission fee, A collection of musty, rusty operating tools and anatomical preparations await, scattered and stuffed into glass cases with little regard for design or didactics. But the real atmosphere is in the Old Operating Theater, just next door:

There were some benefits to having an operating theater in an attic: the doctor who built it had a large stock of medicinal herbs, and the environment accelerated their drying and kept them away from the rats. Also, the thick beams of the ceiling helped to muffle screams from the patient, as these operations were done before the advent of anaesthetics. Keep in mind, this was built as a theater; a show for an audience. It was more education than entertainment, but theater nonetheless:

Patients put up with the audience to their distress because they received medical treatment from some of the best surgeons in the land, which otherwise they could not afford. Wealthy patients of the surgeons would have been operated on, by choice, at home probably on the kitchen table. The risk of death at the hands of a surgeon was greatly increased by the lack of understanding of the causes of infection. Although cleanliness was a moral virtue, descriptions suggest that a surgeon was as likely to wash his hands after an operation as before. The old frock coats surgeons wore during operations were, according to a contemporary, 'stiff and stinking with pus and blood'.

The table was covered with a blanket, over this was a large sheet of brown oil cloth coming well down over the blanket. Beneath the table may be seen a wooden box filled with sawdust. This box can be kicked by the surgeon's foot to any place where most blood is running in little gutters off the oil cloth. As the sawdust becomes unable to absorb anymore and is converted into a porridge, one hears the surgeon call "More sawdust, Holder", and a fresh boxful is placed under the table.

Continue The Tour

1/6/09

Bus To Hell

referred from boingboing.net:

A UK campaign to raise money to buy London bus-ads to promote atheism was a massive success --800 buses – instead of the 30 we were initially aiming for – are now rolling out across the UK with the slogan, "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life", in locations all over England, Scotland and Wales, including Manchester, Edinburgh, Glasgow, York, Cardiff, Devon, Leeds, Bristol and Aberdeen.

We shouldn't expect such a thing to happen in the crazy fundamentalist U.S.A. at any point in our lives, but we can still dream. I plan on appreciating the expression of free speech, reason, and humanity while here in England.

1/3/09

The British Museum

Reporting from London:

First stop is the Museum to end all Museums, the most comprehensive history of civilization you'll ever find under one roof. More specifically, it's a history told in sculpture.

Amazingly, they allow photographs. So I took some pictures, being sure to not use a flash out of consideration for the well-being of the artifacts. So, sorry about some blurriness. I also didn't take photos of human remains (based on a general policy of respect for the dead) as much as I wanted to in the Egyptian galleries. I also avoided obvious things like the Parthenon sculptures, or the Rosetta Stone (which was too crowded with tourists, and their accompanying miasma of perfume and halitosis, to allow a clear picture), but here are a few shots I took of other stuff:

The oldest thing in the museum is this chopping tool, fabricated by a proto-chimp 1.8 million years ago. Being a sculptor, I would love to travel back in time to meet the hominid that created it. I would shake his furry hand for making the first small step in art. But then, he'd probably kick my ass in return. It's about the size of a baseball, but with greater mass, making it the perfect object to hurl at a new-earth creationist like Sarah Palin. "You think the earth is 4000 years old? Well, here you go, lady! just remember, this object doesn't actually exist!"

Glazed brick panels from Babylon, circa 600 BC. Many artifacts such as this have been destroyed or looted since the decimation of Iraq in 2003. American military bases have even been built directly on top of Babylonian ruins, which goes beyond the realm of war crime and into the territory of crimes against all of humanity. The British Museum's conservators are working to salvage what they can.

From the Mayan Empire, 770 AD. In a bloodletting ritual, the woman kneeling to the left is pulling a thorned rope through her tongue. Next to her is her husband Bird Jaguar, the king, whose ceremonial garb of skull headdress indicates that he is about to perform a similar process by piercing his penis with the perforator he holds in front of his groin. This was called "Mayan foreplay".




I've always had a fascination with The Seven Wonders of The Ancient World since grade school, so seeing actual fragments from three of them nearly gave me a case of Stendhal Syndrome. From the top, here's a piece of beard from the Sphinx of Giza (either 2550 or 1420 BC), a bit of column from the Temple of Artemis (800 BC), and sculptures from the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus (350 BC).

Built around 1585, This automaton was used to announce banquets at court. Music played from a miniature organ inside the hull, along with percussion instruments. The ship would then travel across the table. Then the front cannon would fire, lighting a fuse to ignite all the other guns on the sides. Vom Deutschland, naturilich.

A temporary exhibit involved contemporary British sculptors showing their works alongside objects in the permanent collection. This included the usual, predictable shenanigans from Damien Hirst, of course. But most impressive was Ron Mueck's massive and beautifully made Head II, juxtaposed with an Easter Island figure.

More to come from across the pond in the next two weeks.