In February of this year, I gave a paper at UCC’s School of English Research Seminar series on motherhood, monstrosity, and the artistic technique of anamorphosis.  While conducting research for the paper, I stumbled across this photograph of a sculpture by Mark Prent:

Photograph by David Saltmarche, courtesy of markprent.com

Photograph by David Saltmarche, courtesy of Mark Prent

Named “Vanishing Point,” the piece is sculpted from forton and silicone and is remarkably lifelike.  I have been fascinated with Prent’s work ever since stumbling upon his website, because so much of it is a clear visual representation of the human need to make Others monstrous, where, in reality, that monstrosity is actually at the very core of ourselves. I want to offer a brief analysis of this sculpture in relation to the frame narrative in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), but first, I’d like to give an overview of monstrosity in Prent’s work.

Prent seems to be as fascinated as I am with the visceral, bodily aspect of monstrosity and, because of this, it has been very difficult for me to choose which sculptures to talk about today (I think I could write a whole book on Prent’s work alone!).  Much of Prent’s work deals with bodily abjection, through the representation of disease, injury, and bodily functions, where the materials he chooses provide an accurate, yet abject, portrayal of the texture of the human body – inside and outside.

“Vanishing Point” fits the category of the abject because it blurs the lines between the bodily acts of birth and vomiting.  By doing so, the sculpture not only draws comparisons between these two acts, but also obfuscates the “natural” boundaries between the self and the Other, prompting one to ask which is which.  As Julia Kristeva notes in Powers of Horror, determining the distinction can be next to impossible, as the abject thing or body “places one haunted by it literally beside himself” (1).  What is more, “Vanishing Point” asks one to come face to face with what we expel from our bodies, and with the possible consequences of such an expulsion may be.

However, inasmuch as Prent really focuses on the abject, there are also other aspects of monstrosity present in his work.  It is also obvious, for example, when looking at “Vanishing Point,” that mutation is also a recurring theme, and one that is used by Prent to interrogate what we mean by “nature.”  I pointed out in my last post that the term “monster” is used to describe something that is unknown and fundamentally unknowable, something that actively resists categorisation.  What Charles Darwin did when he published On the Origin of Species was to suddenly call into question all we knew about categorisation, because the process of evolution quite clearly demonstrates that hybrids, that is, animals or plants between established categories, exist.  For example, while hybrid creatures such as mermaids remain the subject of folklore and mythology, we know that there were once a whole lot of hybrid versions between dinosaurs and birds.  As Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle point out, the very survival of the species relies on hybridised or mutated forms (259).

Prent’s sculpture, “Unnatural History” (2003) deconstructs the act of categorisation through his creation of such a hybrid monster:

Picture by David Saltmarche, courtesy of Mark Prent

Picture by David Saltmarche, courtesy of Mark Prent

I find this piece quite funny, in a tongue-in-cheek sort of a way, mainly because of its punning title.  “Unnatural History” makes fun of the seriousness of Natural History, particularly for its insatiable drive to categorise everything in the natural world.  On a more serious note, however, by doing so, Prent challenges the authority of scientific discourse to name what it sees, by creating something that has no singularity.  This, in turn, deconstructs a singular reading of any organism because it makes obvious the total inability of words to communicate precisely what it is we see.

The kind of singularity words impose upon objects is made doubly problematic in our drive to categorise people through naming.  The proper name quite obviously has no descriptive function but what it does, amongst other things, is impose a singularity upon the speaking subject’s psyche.  Psychoanalysis has blown the notion of a singular self out of the water, and we now know that each of our decisions are determined by a series of unconscious drives.  Prent’s “I, Within Myself” (1992) demonstrates superbly the plurality of the self through its representation of a series of human heads, each nestled within another, like a macabre set of Matryoshka dolls.

“Vanishing Point” also demonstrates this multiplicity of the self, but even more so, I think, it demonstrates the act of self-birth.  Literary scholars will eagerly note that the most common form of self-birth is autobiography, but it is preceded by a few thousand years by the practice of alchemy.  Much sixteenth-century alchemy busied itself with the creation of Homonculi, or little men produced without the assistance of a woman’s body, that is, a masculine usurpation of birth.  Those who have read Mary Shelley’s most famous novel, Frankenstein (1818), know that this is precisely what Victor Frankenstein achieves in his “workshop of filthy creation” (Frankenstein 32), with thanks to the aid of early alchemical treatises, including those written by Paracelsus (who believed that Homonculi could be made with sperm and without an egg).

Many critics read Frankenstein as a birth narrative, or what happens when a man tries to have a baby (see, for instance Anne K. Mellor’s Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters,1988).  It is also, however, a narrative of the birth of Mary Shelley as author (Barbara Johnson “My Monster/Myself” 249).  What is striking is that although this is a novel written by a woman, it performs the births of its three male protagonists – Walton, Frankenstein, and the Creature – through the use of a frame narrative.  Frankenstein is comprised of three narratives, each framing another.  The novel commences with Walton’s letters to his sister, which relate Frankenstein’s narrative to Walton, at the centre of which is the Creature’s narrative – a three-part Matryoshka doll, if you will.

The Creature imparts his sorrowful story to Frankenstein, extracting from him a promise to create a female mate, but Frankenstein reneges on his promise, thus causing the tragic deaths of his nearest and dearest.  Frankenstein, in turn, relates his tale verbally to Walton, who passes the story on to his sister, whose letters we read.  At each stage of the narrative, the “I” tells his story to an “Other,” effectively birthing himself autobiographically.  Speech, and indeed, writing, is an act of creation, because it performatively constitutes the speaker’s/writer’s “I” each time he utters it.

However, because the narrative is not relayed directly, we can never be sure that what we are told is the truth: does Frankenstein truthfully impart the Creature’s tale to Walton and does Walton truthfully impart his tale to his sister?  Tellingly, the sister has no narrative to tell the reader (we read letters addressed to her), but is a silent, ghostly figure haunting the margins of the novel.  Thus, it might be more accurate to say that Frankenstein births the Creature (biographically as well as physically), and, in turn, Walton births Frankenstein.

“Vanishing Point” makes a compelling visual comparison to Shelley’s novel because what, at first, seems to the subject’s birthing of the self (by mouth, therefore by speech), may in fact be the self’s birthing of the Other, or the Other’s birthing of the self.  This is not, I believe, a dilemma, because both the frame narrative of Frankenstein, and the composition of “Vanishing Point” make something quite clear about performative identity practices: however you may performatively constitute me through your speech and your actions, and however I performatively constitute myself through my own speech and identity practices, neither is the “truth” of who I am.  That truth lies, hybridly, somewhere in between.

Textual References:

Bennett, Andrew and Nicholas Royle. An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory. 4th ed. Harlow, UK: Pearson, 2009. Print.

Johnson, Barbara. “My Monster/My Self.” Shelley. New York: Norton, 1996. 241-51. Rpt. Diacritics 12 (1992): 2-10. Print.

Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia UP, 1982. Rpt. Of Pouvoirs de l’horreur. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1980. Print.

Mellor, Anne K. Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters. New York: Routledge, 1988. Print.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. Ed. Paul J. Hunter. New York: Norton, 1996. 1-156. Print.

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